Surviving Graduate School, Writing, & ADHD

I was trawling through Twitter and noticed a very familiar scenario.

I’m not only very familiar with ADHD life, but I’ve survived the PhD process with a mixture of social support, no small measure of luck, and a constantly evolving personal infrastructure. I thought I’d pass on the lessons I’ve learned.

ADHD students excel in intuitive, creative exploration of complex problems, particularly in areas of their choosing. However, we usually depend on close monitoring; minimum distraction; structure; and creative, novel tasks.

What do we struggle most with? Long-term solo projects with little supervision, which is exactly what a dissertation is. I love my field, but a PhD can feel custom tailored to our weaknesses.

This isn’t necessarily true, though. Dissertation success is also driven by creative synthesis. You need to pursue great ideas, and having to think of something novel can be paralyzing for other students. For us, its more of a matter of picking just one, and actually nailing it down into a project. We excel at digging into the topic, but risk getting beat down by the repeated business of the task, itself.

You’ve got to play to your strengths while avoiding your weaknesses. Acting and thinking against your nature is a surefire recipe for misery. Here are three project management and two writing tips that have served me well.

Planning

1.) ‘Any system you have to maintain more than once will not get used.’

It’s better to get a simple system you can rely upon and then expand as needed. My wife collects colored pens and day planners. She revels in color–coding and organizing every last detail. Me? It’s an exercise akin to water torture. Semesters would start with hope and a new organizer, but as stress piled on, notes got misplaced, and before long I was back under a Post-It snowdrift.

See, organization is a balance between the amount of energy to maintain it and the amount of energy you save by using it. Everything you put into your method needs to result in benefit. The best system is the one you’ll actually use, and the biggest threat isn’t an imperfect system, but a demanding approach that you’ll discard.

For me, this means that I make use of a smart watch to put in all of my deadlines and appointments with scheduled reminders. If I need to remember something, I put it in once and forget about it until I’m prompted by my alerts. I focus on due dates and appointments: aka, time other people have claim to.

I not only lose less information, but I get to preserve the mental energy of trying to juggle things in my head. Working with what energy I have is extremely important. By keeping it simple, I’ve managed to follow the same structure for over 120 consecutive weeks, through double-TA assignments, job hunting, caring for a new baby, and defending.

2. ‘Don’t pre-commit your time’

Traditional scheduling involves setting a routine and sticking to it: set study blocks, writing blocks, gym time, etc. One week looks exactly like another. However, routine becomes dull and quickly becomes procrastination.

In my case, I loathed the structured blocks. Instead of breaking classes into their own set times and studying them in series, I struggled with motivation and wasted more time berating myself for not adhering to a schedule than actually getting anything done.

Instead, I keep my open blocks… open. They’re my time, and while I respect others’ expectations, I choose to direct my open work blocks as fits the situation. My priorities and preferences change in any given week, but the most important thing is to sit down and get started, which always is the hardest part.

3. ‘Major deadlines first, then anything that moves the needle.’

What if you don’t want to work on Important Project X right now? Then don’t. I don’t always have the energy or focus, and banging my head against a wall just isn’t rewarding. My capability ebbs and flows. Willing it to be different won’t change it.

Instead, get momentum going by handling another priority you can do, (especially if it’s a smaller element of the task). This accomplishes two things. After you finish the lesser task, you may find that you’re able to focus on the larger one. If all else fails, you accomplish something useful that won’t distract you later when you’re actually feeling it. Small things still need to get done and they’ll pile up if ignored. What matters is efficiently directing the time and energy you do have.

Also, it’s just remarkably enjoyable to spend a low energy block handling the manageable, relaxing tasks that you really would prefer.

4. ‘Reward your accomplishments instead of punishing failure.’

It’s frighteningly easy to over-commit. Everything takes much more time and effort than you ever plan for. This is partly due to optimism about your own resources and capabilities.

Planning ahead, you don’t usually anticipate a bout of insomnia or fighting off a head cold. Even on a normal day, there’s a lot of variation on your tolerance for toil until your work quality takes a nose-dive.

This is why I track my progress by the chunks of project time I accomplish. Only time worked counts, but it’s much easier to try and stack tallies on top of each other than it is to watch the clock until I’m free.

Also, when viewed retrospectively, you can get a good picture of what you’re actually capable of. I’ve realized what my realistic capability is, week-to-week, and that if I really push myself hard, I can really stretch myself on a given day, but there’s usually a backlash effect.

All of this results in the really rewarding part of the system: when I hit my goal for the day and find a resting point, I can give myself permission to rest. I recharge and enjoy the benefits of hitting my marks. Instead of trying to pack everything into one day, I can focus on stringing together a winning streak.

Writing

5. Outline, Outline, Outline.

Always outline your writing, first. Get the whole structure down before you word-smith. Good argumentation is in the structure, which should follow naturally from your citations.

In fact, you might be pleasantly surprised how receptive professors are to discussing outline notes for research, instead of extensive drafts. With limited time, professors want to get to the point and understand your proposed structure. The more words they wade through, the less likely they are to understand you, and the less help they can provide.

When you inevitably must progress to long form, keep in mind the words of Blaise Pascal: ‘If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.’ Don’t ‘write up’. You can embellish later, but, honestly, it’s usually a crutch. Instead of making you seem smarter, it confuses your audience and gives the impression of insecurity.

6. ‘Simplify and Reorganize’

Synthesizing a good structure is a matter of understanding your source material. Get yourself a good citation manager (EndNote, Zotero, Mendeley, etc.) and use it religiously. Sure, it saves time writing references, but will really shine when you enter every class paper into it. Don’t write exhaustive notes on the entries; focus on detailing major questions and useful lessons for your future self. This offloads the effort of having to remember every detail of your classes, gives you an easy search function for finding relevant material, and simplifies the framework for remembering relevant material. Further, you can cross-reference classes instead of siloing them. Common observations in one discipline are often news to others.

Later, when you’re writing a paper, list of all relevant citations with simple summaries about their use. For instance, some are small snippets that are useful to build up other points, while others provide major methods. By categorizing and re-categorizing your citations in different ways, you can explore the underlying concepts and how you want to present them.


All-in-all, graduate school is a hectic, wonderful amalgamation of exploration and panic. By creating a repeatable, improvable system, you free yourself to focus on what matters to you: studying topics that you love!