so you’re abd and also you’re beginning to suspect you have undiagnosed adhd

Stop trying to do things the “normal” way.

The “normal” way to do things (writing papers, but also everything else) hasn’t worked for you so far and it’s not going to suddenly start working now.

Tell your advisor what’s up.

You don’t have to get a formal diagnosis, and you certainly don’t have to share your diagnosis with your advisor. You do have to tell your advisor that you’ve been struggling. You do have to tell your advisor that you’re going to try some new workflows. You really have to tell your advisor what specific things you need from them in order to survive. (More on what that might be later.)

Take some of the cognitive load off.

For me, one of the absolute most exhausting parts of grad school has been the unending treadmill of SHIT TO DO. Tasks! There are bajillions of TASKS that people WANT YOU TO DO BY A CERTAIN TIME. It’s unreasonable. You might be a TA, which involves tasks like answering student emails, or actually literally going to the class you are a TA of probably, or grading one million homeworks; you might be an RA, which involves tasks like answering PI emails, or actually literally going to a physical lab and being there in IRL, or entering/transcribing one million data. This is on top of things like paying bills, getting groceries, going to advisor meetings, going to your OWN damn classes, doing your OWN homework or treating your OWN data — it’s a lot! You’re not stupid or lazy or careless for having a hard time holding all this in your brain! Your brain is already trying to do a really difficult, delicate thing (thesis), and piling a bunch of still-necessary-but-less-personally-important tasks on top of the brainmeat makes the meat all flat and nasty.

  1. Future you does not know what this is about. Be explicit and precise in your notes. Write the classroom location down with the time and class name. Include addresses or phone numbers in the calendar whenever it might be helpful.
  2. Your eyes need a certain amount of whitespace to be able to read and process. Space things out accordingly.
  3. Your brain will get used to seeing certain stuff and shuffle it off into the background, so you may need to play whack-a-mole a little bit with making reminders prominent. I find that a sort of crop rotation works: sticky notes for a few months until I develop sticky-note-specific blindness, then push notifications, then notebook pages, or whatever. In order to get your attention it has to look sufficiently novel/interesting, is the important thing.
  4. Do this with non-grad-school stuff too. Bills, chores, plans with friends. Keep it in a single unified system as much as possible (mostly to stop from double-booking yourself).

Don’t stare at the empty document.

This is more specifically about writing, or any long extended task. Again, you may remember hours of your childhood spent just miserably staring at a blank piece of paper, waiting for the homework to manifest in front of you. This probably didn’t work for your times tables and it especially will not work for your PhD thesis. If you find yourself staring at an empty document for more than a pre-set amount of time (about 1 minute for me — probably don’t let yourself go over 5 minutes), here are some alternative things to try besides just doing psychic damage to yourself:

  1. Outline the everloving crap out of it, like, down to “basically the topic sentence of every paragraph.” Do this from the top down, starting with the vaguest chapter/section headings and getting more narrow until you have basically made yourself a cool game of Madlibs for later.
  2. Explain what you’re trying to say but in a text message, either literally texting it to a friend or just opening a fresh document and spewing your ideas in L33TSP34K or whatever. Let the ghost of your thesis possess your body and say a bunch of bullshit without worrying if it sounds professional. Later you can translate this into a normal human language.
  3. Go do something ELSE. If you tried #1 and 2 there and it’s just really feeling stuck, you can either find a less intensive work task to work on (grading? answering emails? getting in fights with the leading scholars in your field on twitter?) or, if that is also absolutely not working, walk away from the computer/office for a while. Take a nap, go for a walk, go get yourself a snack, attend to your body’s needs.

Allocate your hours and honor your own boundaries around them. If it’s late it’s late.

Do not try to write your thesis after teaching four back to back class sections. Do not try to write your thesis in between the five meetings that are distributed between nine and four on Friday. Do not try to write your thesis after coming home from your side gig as a barista. Your tired brain can probably make words come out, MAYBE, but most of what you will accomplish here is upsetting yourself and ruining tomorrow and possibly the day after. Even if you do manage to come home from your Starbucks job and successfully write 500 words, you will almost certainly have to rewrite or possibly completely delete them later.

How to make a budget if you’ve never done it before

  1. Figure out how many brain-hours you get per week. It’s probably not actually 60 hours. If you just spent this week keeping track of your organic “zoning out” time vs your actual “typing good words in a good order” time, you probably don’t even have 40 good brain hours. Most ADHD adults that I know actually have 20–30 brain hours a week. Capitalism is designed to give you bad self-esteem about this — don’t let it! Be realistic about your actual brain-hour allotment, and pay attention to when the best hours are for you. (More on this later.) [Sample hours: 30]
  2. Allocate by percentage. If your PhD funding comes through being a TA or RA, probably you have an official appointment for 20 hours a week. Scale that relative to your actual brain-hour budget: if you’re one of those hyper-productive ADHD-havers who really does get 30 hours of good work a week, then a 50%-of-full-time appointment is actually 15 brain hours. Do whatever weighted-percentage math to actually scale your work tasks into the brain-hours. Make sure you include meetings, email-answering and other chores! [Sample: 40% thesis, 50% teaching, 10% miscellaneous = 12 hours thesis, 15 hrs teaching, 3 hrs misc.]
  3. Get a reality check. If you followed the “talk to your advisor” advice above, then this might be a good point to actually take the formula to your advisor and ask if it’s appropriate. Most PhD advisors want you to graduate, so most of them will ask you “please spend less time on teaching and focus on your thesis,” and you need to balance this very good advice with whatever sort of baseline you need to maintain to make sure that you’re not going to get fired as a TA. [Sample: advisor says please do less elaborate lesson plans when lots of them exist already. Adjusted: 50% thesis, 40% teaching, 10% miscellaneous = 15 hours thesis, 12 hrs teaching, 3 hrs misc.]
  4. Plot that shit into your planner. You obviously need to schedule the brain-hours around fixed appointments like “classes you literally have to teach in person” and such. (By the way: classtime counts towards teaching in the budget.) You don’t need to set the schedule in stone, but it will be a lot easier to actually keep track of these things if you have a rough idea of when you’ll do what. Below I’ve plotted the sample onto a weekly bujo spread template in the ugliest MS Paint piece of shit you’ve ever seen:

A couple more points about the budget:

  1. If you go over budget early in the week, plan to make up for it later by moving less-important work tasks around, NOT by eating into your downtime. Your downtime is necessary for you to be alive and functional. This includes time to do enough sleeping and eating, but you also need to hang out with friends or do hobbies or you WILL get mentalillness.
  2. If you run a deficit more than a couple weeks in a row, you over-estimated your brain-hour allotment. If you find that your hour allotment varies, you will sort of need to average it out and just be flexible about getting stuff done when you can.
  3. Everyone has a certain time of day where their brain works best. Yours might be from 6am-9am, or it might be at like midnight. You probably have some awareness of when your prime hours are. Save your best hours for writing, and schedule everything else around them.

How to do to-do lists when you have adhd

Part of the problem of being ABD is that the enormity of “please write a thesis. Please don’t not write a thesis” is totally unfathomable to our weird brains. “That’s like a paper, right? Like a really big paper. I sort of know how to do that” — maybe you do, but the scale is really different. You’re going to have to keep two channels of massive running to-do lists, and you’re going to have to spend time wrangling them in order to figure out what the hell you’re supposed to be DOING during your carefully-scheduled writing hours.

For the thesis itself

I sure hope that your advisor made you do a thesis proposal or prospectus or something. It will be helpful if you have some idea of what chapters are going to be in the thing, and maybe in what order.

  1. Put all the data in a single database. Lot of debugging and weird shit because I did not know how to do this, so there’s a Step 0 that’s sort of “learn how to put the data in a thing.”
  2. Figure out what the research question was supposed to be. Write it down in a word document. Maybe figure out a hypothesis before you go do tests to the data so you know what you’re trying to test. This involved a bunch of lit review to explain why my research question was good and novel and reasonable to ask.
  3. Do math to the data. Lot of debugging and weird shit because I did not know all of the math or how to do it. There was a Step 2.5 that was sort of “learn R and then learn statistics”
  4. Get feedback on the math. Go back and redo all the math because I did the wrong statistics. Get feedback on the second round of math, this time just literally doing R commands in my advisor’s office, literally in front of her. Sorry Alicia, thank you Alicia
  5. Once the math sort of makes sense, sort of make a bulleted list of what it tells you. Arrange those in the order that you’ll discuss them in the chapter.
  6. Make a bunch of graphs in R. (Learn how to make graphs in R and re-make them a bunch of times because they’re weird.) Put the graphs into the document where your bulleted list is.
  7. Go talk to your advisor and see if she agrees that the results are meaningful, and say what you think they’re saying.

For everything else

For teaching, RA’ing, admin work, household chores, and every single other thing that wasn’t the thesis, I did a single sticky note at the start of the day. If stuff didn’t happen I had to write it again on the next day’s stickynote. That’s just how it is sometime. Luckily, because I successfully trained myself to get a dopamine response from checking off boxes, it’s pretty motivating and I’m much better at doing tasks than I was before grad school.

Some other fun little adhd hacks

  • Do you have the adhd thing where you just can’t freaking read? Me too! Try making the PDF huge. Try reading the conclusion and all the section headings first. Try manually going into the article and adding a bunch of whitespace and paragraph breaks. Try live-tweeting the article. Try getting your hapless roommate to read it aloud to you while you can fidget freely. If you figure out something that works, drop me a line and I’ll add it here.
  • Do you have the adhd thing where your brain just stops being able to hear words for no reason? Damn, same! Try doing something with your hands: doodle, write down random keywords that you can hear, knit, get a fidget spinner, twirl your pencil. It does weirdly help a lot. If you’re like me you also hate looking at peoples’ faces, but if you can force yourself to look NEAR the speaker’s face it will help your auditory processing. Also I have to point my right ear at the speaker because my left ear doesn’t process as well. I don’t know, dude, brains are weird. DON’T close your eyes to try to focus, you’re just going to fall asleep.
  • Do you have the adhd thing where the smallest piece of criticism from literally anyone feels like being stabbed? Big mood. Hoard positive comments from people you respect in a little folder, like I’ve done here:
  • Do you have the adhd thing where every six months you feel like your whole life direction and thesis is garbage? You may want to specifically invest slightly more time/effort in rotating your crops. After turning in a draft of a chapter, take a full two weeks to work on your secret side-project that has nothing to do with the thesis. It puts nutrients back in the soil (nutrients = passion and creativity, soil = your brain). You can also spend some time trying your hand at #scicomm — do a guest spot on your friend’s podcast to talk about why your research is cool!
  • Do you have the adhd thing where you literally only ever do things the night they’re due? You have to invent a bunch of incremental deadlines, and you have to convince yourself they’re real. For a while what I’d do is at the end of each advising meeting I told my advisor exactly what chunk of output (a chapter, or some data, etc) I wanted to give to them before the next meeting, and then I’d have to get it to them early enough for them to have time to actually read and discuss it. If you don’t meet with your advisor often enough for this to work, or if it’s giving you too much anxiety, try a buddy system where you trade drafts with a colleague or have periodic check-ins about the work. The deadline for “write a PhD thesis” is actually made of a whole lot of little deadlines like “write an introduction” and “figure out your bibliography management situation” and “make your graphs not look like garbage” and there are so many little tasks that you HAVE to break them down and spread them out. Go back up to the section on to-do lists and just, like, give your advisor access to the lists.
  • Do you have the adhd thing where you can’t work when you’re depressed? Oops, that’s a normal person thing! The difference is that people without adhd are better at pretending to look busy, or doing weird mindless fluff-tasks, or literally just lying. You’re not doing less than your peers, you’re just more transparent. If you are having a significant enough mental health thing (for example, sad, lonely, anxious, having a weird relationship break with your parents lately, your cat is sick, a professor was mean to you) that it stops you from getting work done, you will probably find “pretending to work” as exhausting as actually working, if not moreso. It’s honestly better for your health AND productivity to just take it as a sick day.
  • the thing where you can explain it out loud but you can’t think when you’re writing or typing: voice-record yourself explaining the thing, then transcribe and edit from there [h/t Mindy Snitnow]
  • the thing where if no one is watching you do it, it just will not happen: buddy system, “body doubling,” study dates. Lots of ways and formats for doing this, but basically you probably have “that annoying adhd feel when” you are a social creature and need social interaction as part of your human existence. Writing with friends can be either validating and supportive or sometimes distracting — you can also find specific study-buddy acquaintances where that’s the basis of your whole relationship. You can also form a writing group with people in other disciplines (which helps practice communicating ideas clearly!). [h/t Mindy Snitnow, Hunter]
  • the thing where you get into a zen state of thesis and forget to eat or move for six hours: this is absolutely an ahdh thing, by the way — “hyperfocus” is also a result of not being able to really control your focus at all. Several people have suggested pomodoro method, which you can google, but it involves setting a timer to make you take a break at regular intervals. You can also add sticker incentives to this one! [h/t Betsy Sneller, Jessica Nicholas](*Pomodoro/timer setting works for some people but it does not work for me, mainly because I either spend the whole time anticipating the timer and therefore not really working, or I do get into a good flow state and then FREAK OUT when the timer interrupts me. You should try it once or twice and see if it works for you. You’ll kind of know right away if you’re paying attention to your reactions/feelings.)
  • Do you have a grad-student-adhd thing I didn’t talk about here? @ me on twitter (kirbyconrod) or email (gmail: kabconrod) me and I’ll edit this to add questions and advice that people share with me.

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Kirby Conrod

Kirby Conrod

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Dr. Conrod is a linguist and scholar sort of at large. They write about transgender stuff, the linguistics of pronouns, and ways to work with your brain.