Balancing the demands of a PhD program is challenging and when you throw ADHD into the mix, it can feel like juggling flaming swords while riding a unicycle. But with the right strategies and tools, you can stay organized, focused and productive.

Embrace Your Unique Brain

Your brain works differently…and that’s okay. It can be a superpower if you know how to harness it.

ADHD can give you powerful bursts of creativity and hyper-focus, which can be incredibly useful during intense work sessions. The trick is to manage the times when your brain feels like a runaway train.

Break Down Dissertation Tasks

One of the biggest challenges for students with ADHD is tackling overwhelming tasks like…writing a dissertation. The key is to break the dissertation project down into smaller, manageable chunks (which I’ve suggested for years, regardless of ADHD).

Instead of thinking, “I need to write a dissertation,” think, “I want to write one section of my literature review today” or “I want to flesh out the intro of this chapter today.” Consider how each larger part of the process can be divided into subtasks and even smaller chunks from there. Then assign each one a specific amount of time – realizing that this timeframe is an ideal, rather than an absolute. Scheduling each small goal gives you something to shoot for.

Use a Task Management System

There are fantastic apps available that can help you stay on top of the tasks you set for yourself. As a dissertation coach, some of my favourites include:

Todoist: A simple yet powerful task manager that lets you create projects and sub-tasks. You can even set due dates and reminders.

Trello: A visual tool that uses boards, lists and cards to organize tasks. Perfect for those who love a visual representation of their to-do list.

Asana: Smart choice for tracking projects and tasks, especially if you’re working with a team, like an advisor or a dissertation coach.

Create a ADHD-Friendly Routine

Routines can be a lifesaver for those with ADHD. Create a daily schedule that includes specific times for writing, research and breaks (important as it’s during those breaks that our brain metabolizes new info). It’s this level of consistency can help train your brain to get into work mode when needed.

Optimize Your Study Environment

Your environment plays a huge role in your ability to focus. Here are some ideas to get your space work-ready for the ADHD brain:

Minimize Distractions: Find a quiet place to focus on your dissertation, and use noise-cancelling headphones if necessary.

Organize Your Space: Keep your workspace clean and clutter-free. It´s an outside-in approach: an organized space fosters an organized mind.

Use Focus Tools: Apps like Forest (which helps you stay off your phone by growing a virtual tree) or Focus@Will (which offers background music scientifically designed to improve focus) can be helpful and fun, which is good for the ADHD mind as well.

Take Regular Breaks

Burnout is a real risk when it comes to pursuing your PhD, especially when you have ADHD. It’s crucial to take regular breaks to rest and recharge.

The Pomodoro Technique is a proven method: work for 25 minutes, then take a 5-minute break. After four cycles, take a longer break. This keeps your brain fresh and prevents fatigue.

Leverage Technology for Research and Notes

Keeping track of articles can be a real-world nightmare with ADHD, but some apps can help:

Evernote: This app allows you to organize notes, clip web articles and store everything in one place.

OneNote: Another great tool for organizing ideas, especially if you prefer a more visual layout.

Find an ADHD-Friendly Accountability Partner

Having someone to hold you accountable can make a big difference. This could be a fellow student, a friend or (ahem) a dissertation coach.

Share your goals with them and check in regularly to report your progress. Sometimes just knowing someone else is keeping tabs on you can be a powerful motivator. Several clients of mine meet a regular writing partner on zoom once or twice a week; this has been a game-changer!

Use Positive Reinforcement

ADHD brains respond well to positive reinforcement. Celebrate your successes, no matter how small. Finished a chapter? Treat yourself to something you enjoy. Completed a written subsection? Head outside for a walk with the pooch or to a local cafe for a treat. Positive reinforcement can help build momentum and keep you motivated.

Practice Self-Care

The impact of this tip cannot be overstated. Don’t forget to take care of yourself. Regular exercise, a healthy diet and adequate sleep are critical for maintaining focus and productivity.

Mindfulness and meditation can also help calm a restless mind. Apps like Headspace or Calm offer guided meditations specifically designed to help with focus and relaxation.

Stay Connected

Social isolation can be a big issue during a PhD program, especially for those with ADHD. Make sure to stay connected with your peers and support network. Join study groups, attend departmental events and seek support from your university’s counseling services if needed (that’s what they’re there for, after all).

I won’t lie: managing ADHD during a PhD program is challenging but with the right strategies and tools, you can thrive.

Embrace that beautiful unique brain of yours, break tasks into manageable chunks, use task management apps and create a routine that works for you. Completing your dissertation is more than possible; it´s manageable. You’ve got this!