It’s Week 3. You’re in lecture, but you aren’t completely listening while the prof is laying down that totally vital information that is absolutely going to be on the final, and when you realize you missed part of it halfway through, you jot down some half-formed notes — you’ll totally ask someone else later, right? Next thing you know, it’s the night before the exam, and you’re desperately flipping through the entire term’s reading in a last-ditch attempt at deciphering your cryptic and incomplete notes and not spectacularly flunking your exam.

Sound familiar? College is hard, but it can be even harder if you’re disorganized or forgetful, two states that come with the territory for those of us with ADHD. When you have ADHD, it’s really easy to forget things. Like, really easy. If you don’t write it down, it is never even getting into short-term memory, and it is lost to you.

Poof.

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Plain old notes list… Yawn. Photo from author’s archives

But! There are ways to work around this. Most obviously, making to-do lists.

Just about every smartphone comes with an on-board note-taking function. It’s a little boring, but it’ll get the job done. There’s also Evernote, which has apps and a cloud. One drawback is you can’t actually check off or cross off items.

For that, you need an actual check-list. iPhones come with the built in Reminders, an app that allows you to generate lists of things to do, set alarms, have the reminders pop up based on your physical location, and repeat. It syncs across platforms, using Apple ID, so you can set a reminder on your Mac and have it show up on your list in iPhone and iPad.

You can get Todoist for either Android or Apple. It syncs across devices and in the cloud, and you can use it offline as well. You can color-code and make sub-lists, for tasks that have multiple steps involved. This also helps with another feature of ADHD: getting bogged down by looking at a whole project. We tend to procrastinate on projects because they’re too big, but breaking them down into smaller steps and tackling those steps one-by-one can help us get it done.

ADHD also makes prioritizing hard, and there are apps for that. I use Quadranto, which (sadly) isn’t available for download anymore, but there are similar apps; Eisen-Tasks and Smart Reminder, To-Do List for Android, and 4Todo for Apple do the same thing: you create a to-do list, and then look at how important each item is, and how soon it must be done, and then you work on the most important, most time-sensitive stuff first. Of course, you still have to decide what to list and prioritize, but using set criteria to rank your tasks makes it easier to focus on the vital stuff.

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Quadranto, which saves my life. Photo from author’s archives

Ever started a project, only to find that you haven’t budgeted enough time and it’s actually going to take 2-3 times longer than you originally thought? Or how about getting utterly engrossed in a project, and looking up 5 hours later to find you’re starving, and you’ve missed your bus?

For that, pomodoro timers are a life-saver. You set two timers: one for work time, and another for break time. (Suggested are 25 minutes and 5 minutes.) Then, you work until the first timer goes off, and then you get a short break to walk , stretch, get water, grab a snack, whatever. After a certain number of completed pomodoros (one work and one break time), you get a longer break. The format gives you time to rest, and it makes it easier to track the time you spend on tasks. TimeWise and It’s Pomodoro Time! are great for Android; for Apple, check out Pomodoro Timer and Easy Pomodoro Timer.

I also recommend an alarm clock app on your desktop. When you’re not using your computer, open it up and make it full screen. You can check the time regularly, and you’ll have to exit full screen to use the internet. (I don’t know about you, but I feel a little guilty and very aware of what I’m doing when I switch from my clock to the internet. I use Alarm Clock for Apple. For Android, try Digital Clock Live.

One absolute must: a calendar. Some folks prefer paper calendars (I use this one), and some prefer digital ones, but no matter which way you go, absolutely everything has to go into it. EVERYTHING. Not kidding. Don’t agree to appointments without checking the calendar, and write any due dates, events, or tasks in the calendar as soon as you know about them.

Seriously. Calendars are non-negotiably necessary. Photo from author's archives

Seriously. Calendars are non-negotiably necessary. Photo from author’s archives

I actually do a duplicate system, where everything gets added to my digital calendar AND my physical planner, because the more places it is, the more likely I’ll see it and not spend my time arguing about map projections on Facebook instead of doing homework. (This has actually happened to me. I do have a favorite map projection, but that topic is a little too controversial to talk about here.)

Google Calendar is pretty good, because it comes with any gmail account. It can be added to a smartphone, and synced through the cloud, and it’s pretty intuitive. iCal isn’t quite as nice, but it works.

I ended up investing in an app for tracking school assignments at the start of the year. It cost a bit of money, but it’s actually pretty great: iStudiez Pro syncs your calendars; allows you to schedule class times, labs, lectures, and exams; tracks your assignments in a check-list format; calculates your GPA; and stores instructor contacts and office hours. There’s also StudyCal for Apple. For Android, check out My Study Life and Assignment Planner for many similar features.

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iStudiez Pro rocks; just saying… Photo from author’s archives

Stronger people than me limit their internet time. There are a bunch of ways to do this: WasteNoTime for Safari and Chrome, Crackbook for Chrome, StayFocusd for Chrome, SelfControl for Apple, and Cold Turkey for Windows. Good luck.

One more: Sleep Cycle, available on both iPhone and Android. This app is my jam. It tracks your movement in your sleep, and then wakes you up when you’re in your lightest sleep, so that you don’t feel so groggy. It has white noise and nature sounds to put you to sleep, and music to wake you up (you can also use an alarm sound or song). You can log your mood, check your heart rate, and make activity notes. It tracks info and helps you figure out when you’re getting your best rest.

Sleep is good for you, okay?

Obviously, there are approximately a bajillion more apps than this, but these ones have worked pretty well for me, and I totally recommend them. ADHD can seriously derail your academic success, and apps can be a great tool for symptom management. But the most important thing is finding a system that works for YOU — and then sticking with it. Especially the calendar thing: it only works as much as you use it. You might have to trial and error through some stuff, but the apps here are a good starting place.

(However, if you really like paper, I can’t recommend enough Dave Seah’s Productivity Tools — they can help you plan and manage projects, track your time, and meet your goals. Check them out!)



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  1. Isbel on December 10, 2014

    Sleep Cycle is a really cool idea, but I didn’t like the nature sounds very much. I’ve been using an app called asoftmurmur.com to listen to nature sounds during studying and find it really helps me concentrate. You can kind of mix them together too which is cool

    • Tessara Dudley Author on December 10, 2014

      That’s a good one — I haven’t seen that before. I’ve been using rainycafe.com, and I like coffitivity.com lets you use different kinds of cafe atmospheres, but it looks like A Soft Murmur has a bunch of different sounds, and a nice degree of flexibility and control — thanks for sharing!

  2. Jay on December 15, 2014

    Hi! Evernote actually does have a checklist function, believe it or not. I use it all the time 😀 And iStudiez is probably the only reason I haven’t failed out of college… ahahaha.

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