We aren’t born knowing how to navigate this world, earn money or even get food. We need to learn how to do all of this. Learning takes a careful balance of neurotransmitters and thought strategies. Here we look at 12 ADHD Learning Hacks to help you optimise your learning. Not all ADHDers are the same, so while these are generically good for most ADHDers, you might find a step or two that isn’t ideal for you.
To optimise learning, we need balanced neurotransmitters, a positive mood, knowing what ‘good’ or ‘correct’ look like, a framework to grow our knowledge with and connecting our growing understanding to existing knowledge and understanding.
We humans use a range of neurotransmitters to make our brain work well, learn a skill and then store that memory. When we say “balanced neurotransmitters”, we mean “not too much” and “not too little”, we are looking for a range of “good” in between them. Here we will go through some of the most important neurotransmitters. [Link to more about Neurotransmitters]
Dopamine is a key neurotransmitter that ADHDers struggle with. Dopamine helps us to be creative, connect ideas to other ideas and understand the deeper layers of nuance. Too much and our creativity drops, too little and our understanding of nuance and depth drops. We manufacture only so much Dopamine a day and our brains can use it poorly. Medication can often help with Dopamine delivery and retention in our important learning centres. You will often find that there is a time of day that you learn better, are more creative and more expressive. If you can, aim your study and learning for these times. Learning what it feels like when you run out of Dopamine is a key skill for knowing when to take a break – for most it feels like sudden fatigue, confusion and struggling to find the next thought.
Noradrenaline / Norepinephrine
Norepinephrine (Noradrenaline) helps us get things done, allows our mood to reflect the world in front of us, and identifies priorities. If your Norepinephrine is too high, it can cause paranoid thinking, aggression, mis-prioritisation (the wrong things seems important) and mis-hyperfocus (where you do one thing to the exclusion of all other things – but it is the wrong thing). If your Norepinephrine is too low, it can cause negative self talk, anxiety, angry thinking and interferes with task initiation and completion. Your body responds to low Norepinephrine by giving you social anxiety, fast anger response and tries to push you into Critical Mode.
Adrenaline / Epinephrine
Epinephrine (Adrenaline) plus moderate blood sugar is needed to store long term memories. If your Epinephrine is high, you’ll be triggered into Crisis Mode, and if it is low you’ll be pushed into Depression. Both of these take away from your ability to think clearly and make wise decisions.
When our Endorphins are medium to medium high we feel happy and our brain is receptive to new ideas, new connections and growth. If the Endorphins get too high, we can be too receptive and take in false ideas. If our Endorphins are low, we are likely to feel sad or bad and might find pain distracting. If our Endorphins get too low we can feel an absence of happiness, aka anhedonia.
Our Endorphin level is closely linked to having sufficient Dopamine, Norepinephrine and Epinephrine. If these go low, we often become (literally) un-happy. Even if these are at good levels, we need to be doing things we enjoy or thinking about good times to trigger this feeling.
Caffeine and Dopamine Foods (fat, sugar, carbohydrate, protein and salt) can help prompt your brain to make and release a bit more, but this does have limits – it is important to learn what it feels like when you have reached the limit of this helping. We also want to avoid too much sugar as that can interfere with long term memory storage. Also be aware that over use of caffeine and food can lead to other problems, so careful moderate use is key. Add in some nutritional other foods as thinking hard uses lots of nutritional resources.
Exercise that elevates both the heart rate and breathing rate for a sustained period of time, that is 10 minutes or more, can elevate Noradrenaline without necesarrily triggering just Adrenaline. This can help bring the energy back in to “doing” the task. This can be a brisk walk or light jog.
A warm shower or some stimming activities can bring in some extra endorphins to bring the happy back. Keep an eye on how much you are pushing through hate & anger – this is counter to positive feelings for learning. Time to refocus and reframe what you are doing. Stop pushing and find something that brings that fun feeling (but keeps your thinking clear) – such as a meditation on a fun memory or environment, feeling nice textures, playing that awesome 80’s mix tape or having a lovely conversation with someone. When the fun comes back, reframe what you are trying to learn / do so that it is empowering rather than awful, and go back and try again, but this time by adding fun features.
Brain Modes is a short hand way of looking at what state we find ourselves in. We will briefly look at three of them.
In this state of mind, we feel comfortable, happy and want invest in doing things for a later time. We have the Dopamine to see connections and creative solutions, and sufficient Norepinephrine to put energy into initiating non-critical and non-urgent tasks.
This is an excellent learning state. Our solutions focus on Work Smarter rather Work Harder.
In this state of mind, we think that there is an urgent and critical thing that needs to be done. This can be triggered by various urgencies (due date, friend coming over, expectations and judgement).
In this state we narrow our creativity, and focus on practical solutions. While creativity is narrowed, it isn’t gone, so we are able to logically and creatively add to solutions, but the emphasis is more on “doing” than “solving”.
This state of mind is quite familiar to ADHDers who hand things in at the last minute. It may be good, but it could have been better. It is important to acknowledge that “good enough” is often good enough, but it doesn’t feel good.
Sometimes people enter Hyper Focus with an urgent feel. This is where “only this task” exists and we can break lots of time limits. It often feels like “one more thing before I stop”.
Our solutions focus on Persistence Wins rather than Work Smarter.
In this state of mind, we need something done and we need it now. It can feel very pressured and we have no room to think things through, because this is a Crisis damnit.
Our creativity and learning are minimal. We decrease our solution space to Flight and Fight and there is little to no “think it through”. Dexterity is often down and we will frequently be physically clumsy.
Our solutions focus on Push Harder or Escape rather than Work Smarter.
Sometimes we can enter into a state of mind where our enjoyment at learning and achieving triggers more neurotransmitter release. In this state of mind, we find that everything just flows and time can seem meaningless. This can lead to a very positive Hyper Focus with Creativity and Achievement being the central happy feel.
We need to acknowledge that ADHDers struggle to get sufficient Dopamine, which can lead to Brain Fog, and poor creativity. Often urgency is used to push us into a Critical Mode where we get the job done, but don’t necessarily learn that much from it. We can also use Anxiety and Anger to push ourselves harder, but this interferes with both Creative Solutions and closes our minds down to Simple Solutions.
What we want to do is to try to focus learning for when our brain has enough Dopamine to be thinking clearly, enough Norepinephrine and Epinephrine that we can get on with doing things and store long term memories. We want to use effective happiness to increase memory storing and if we can enter a Creative Mode or Flow State.
Euphoric feelings from cannabis and alcohol often interfere with memory storage, and learning critically needs memory storage and retrieval.
Here we have 12 learning Hacks that are geared towards ADHD Brains. Not all brains are the same, even amongst ADHDers, so some of these may not be optimal for you.
1 – Start on “Easy Mode”
What: Do things you know you can do, then add something that you want to learn.
How: Practice and refresh a bit of skill of something you have learned, then add new skills to that.
Why: By starting with something you know, your confidence will rise before trying something you are not good at, which helps buffer against a bit of failure and struggle.
Behind the Scenes: Success improves learning by promoting the reward neurotransmitter Dopamine and the happy neurotransmitter Endorphins. Failure, stress and anger raise Norepinephrine and Epinephrine, and if these rise too high, this will block learning.
2 – Focused Learning
What: Build skills sequentially, practice groups in parallel.
How: When you are learning, research about and experiment with one skill at a time. When you gain some confidence in that skill, add another skill, then another until you have a group of bundled skills.
Once you have a bundle of new skills, do something that uses most of those, practicing and consolidating them in parallel.
Start a new group of skills, adding one skill at a time, that are adjacent to the first bundled group. Now practice these in parallel.
If you are going well, add a third group.
If you can, practice all the skills together.
Why: When we can focus on one element, we can link it and explore it better. Greater understanding allows us to incorporate this into how we see the world, the area that we have learned in, and gives us maximum uses for the skill. Linking it to a bundle of skills allows our brain to store these in chunks, and memory chunks are easier to store and recall. Practicing the new knowledge and abilities in groups makes it more interesting, and more challenging, keeping our interest for longer.
Behind the Scenes: Building skills takes a combination of balanced Dopamine and Norepinephrine. Before boredom can set in, learning a new skill until we have a grouping of skills keeps things interesting. To consolidate that set, practicing them all together keeps us winning and rewarding, increasing Dopamine release (the reward “do this again” neurotransmitter) that we can bring in to our executive functions; and increasing the release of Endorphins (the happy neurotransmitter) that helps us store that memory better.
3 The Spacing Effect
What: Take breaks inversely proportional to the effort, aka the harder it is, the sooner you take a break
How: If this new skill is hard for you to learn, then it is going to use up more of your brain fuel. If you start to struggle to do the skill, or you notice you are making foolish rather than ignorant mistakes, stop pushing and take a break.
In your break time, do something very different to what you were doing. If it was a physically active skill, your break should be sedate; while if you were using lots of brain and little body, do some exercise.
If you haven’t been snacking during your learning, eat something.
Then, if you feel you can, get back to that skill.
Why: Learning new things takes lots of brain chemistry fuel. While all humans have limits to how much they can make per hour, ADHDers have a bigger limit. If you run out of brain fuel, you will start to lose skill instead of add new skills, and will risk becoming angry or fearful, which can block learning. Taking a break allows the fuel to regenerate so that you can do some more.
Behind the scenes: ADHDers have difficulties with accessing Dopamine in the areas of the brain that do the learning, and often have a secondary Norepinephrine issue, resulting in anxiety and or anger. If Adrenaline starts to get substituted in, to get things done, then learning stops and action begins. Instead of pushing yourself that hard, take a break and do something else to let the learning neurotransmitters regenerate.
4 Expert Frameworks
What: A framework is a way to connect what we are learning to things that we already know, and a learning framework is a method to quickly learn related skills to create groupings and bundles that support themself.
How: Before you re-invent the wheel, look up to see if someone has already created a learning framework that is compatible with you and what you are trying to learn. If so, use theirs. If you can’t find one that you can use, create one.
To create a framework, consider the core parts of the skill area that you are trying to learn and consider how that can affect other things. A method to do this is by creating an explosion chart.
Why: Memory stores and retrieves better in chunks than individual strands. Learning skills that work well together allows for them to support each other, creating a stronger and more robust skill, that can then be stored and retrieved in chunks.
Behind the scenes: It can be easy to lose focus on what we are trying to learn and what the end goal is. We can easily slip into a hyper-focus and or rabbit holes of interesting skills, and not learn and do what we had intended. A framework not only reinforces the things we just learned, not only improves how we learn them by optimising the sequences of skills, it also keeps us on track to learning what we set out to learn.
5 Fast Feedback Loop
What: Either check with an expert how you are going, or have a way to determine if what you are learning is correct and working
How: Good teachers are able to help you know that what you are learning is good and working. In the absence of a good teacher, try to learn in such a way that you can verify that what you are doing is improving and or accurate.
Why: ADHDers often lose patience with new things when rewards are distant. A quick reward loop keeps things fresh and focused. This is how computer games keep your attention, fast reward mechanisms. We can hijack this idea to help you learn new skills.
Additionally this helps you know that what you are learning is working, which improves skills fast.
Finding out that you are making a mistake early, and how to avoid that, quickly allows for improvement.
Perfect practice makes perfect learning.
Behind the scenes: ADHDers benefit from quick Dopamine from skills acquisition, and knowing that this is working and improving adds in some Endorphins. This then helps positive motivation, keeping Norepinephrine in the positive “we are doing things because this is fun” mood, instead of heading towards critical / crisis mode.
6 Airplane Mode
What: While learning, turn social off
How: Where you can, turn social media off and other aspects of trying to track what people are doing, saying and meaning; focus on the thing you are learning.
The two exceptions to this are parallel body doubling and tandem learning.
Parallel body doubling is where someone is around but not interacting with you in a social sense. They might prompt you to stay focused, check in on yourself or take a break. This should be someone that you are comfortable and feel safe with.
Tandem learning is where the two of you are trying to learn a skill, or you enjoy learning with them.
Why: Socialising takes up a lot of brain processing, which can distract you from learning. Often AuDHDers (Autism and ADHD) have brains that specialise in doing one thing very well, or two or more things poorly. Learning needs you to do one thing really well, so switch off the most distracting and resource hungry multitask – social.
You may learn better with music or television on in the background. Generally this works best if the music or television are very well known so that your brain can effectively ignore it. The more these have people interacting in them, the more it may switch your brain to social mode and out of learning mode.
Behind the scenes: We evolved to survive predators. Mostly non-human predators have been eliminated, leaving only human predators. Neurodivergent people (like ADHDers) have had to learn to navigate around neurotypical people and conventions that seem unnatural to them. This means that socialising is often prioritised over other things, such as learning. Socialising is a resource hog, leaving little resource for skills acquisition.
7 Positive Self Talk
What: Keep track of your self talk, refocus on positive reinforcement as needed
How: Not what your self talk is. ADHDers often have a fairly strong negative self talk track that is used to drive up “motivation”, which can help in getting things done, but often interferes with learning.
This isn’t the time to challenge the thoughts, just to redirect them with a counter talk track.
Self talk like “I can’t do this”, or “I’m no good” can be countered with “I haven’t mastered this yet, but I’m getting there” and “All expertise starts off terrible, so being no good at a thing is a good place to start”.
Why: ADHDers and AuDHDers often compensate for inadequate Dopamine and Norepinephrine by being very self critical. This toxic vehemence drives the person into Critical Mode, which allows things to get done in a more limited sense. While some learning can be done in this mode, it is poor compared to positive mind frame, and risks slipping into Crisis Mode. By re-routing the self talk to “I’m getting there” and “Of course I’m not good yet, I’m learning” we allow ourselves to acknowledge the reality of not being good yet, but also pushes us to see that we are progressing, keeping the brain more focused on Dopamine rewarding rather than Adrenaline Compensating.
8 Refresh Your Skills
What: Memory loves repetition, so refresh what you’ve learned.
How: After you have had a good learning session, take a nice long break from it, at least 2 hours, preferably 6. Go back and look over what you’ve learned, perhaps even doing some practice of it.
The following day, or after an afternoon nap, refresh and quickly practice again.
Why: We experience a great number of things every day. Before our brain puts what we have experienced into long term storage, it does an assessment trying to work out if it is important enough to store in detail, in brief, or just point to an already stored memory with a “mostly like this” message. We want to tell the brain “this is very important, please store it in detail”. Refreshing the skill later the same day and then the following morning is the optimal way for your brain to determine that this is an important thing to store well.
When we add links to many other ideas and skills, we create lots of ways to retrieve that memory. Part of your refresh should be considering how this can be used and what it is similar to.
Also check out Step 10, Have Fun.
Behind the scenes: Medium epinephrine (adrenaline) and medium blood sugar level are important in permanent memory storage. Refreshing the skills is less resource hungry than working the skill out in the first place, allowing more resources and focus to be on long term storage. The repetition informs the memory section that this is a priority, especially if that refresh follows a sleep.
9 Validate Progress
What: When you succeed, acknowledge that you did so. After a while, review how far you have come.
How: Celebrate when you get something right, or when something works.
Look back at your progress, over this learning session, over the last week, over the last year and so on. See how far you have come and celebrate that too.
When you celebrate, it can be a small internal positive feeling, a statement of “nailed it” or similar, or for the big end of learning session review, some bigger self reward.
If your review that you haven’t learned much, or you find that your success is eclipsed by failure, reconsider your learning framework. Something isn’t working here. Stop trying to learn this way and use a different method.
Why: We can often feel like we are not making any progress or that we are failing in what we are trying to do. If we only pay attention to the mistakes, we feel that things are terrible, which can hinder learning.
Quick celebrations trigger Reward Dopamine, which we explained earlier (5). It also reinforces that we are making positive progress, which counters confirmation bias that our negative self talk tries to convince us of (7).
If it does turn out that we aren’t making good progress, then we need a new framework. This validation has to be honest.
10 Have Fun
What: Enjoy the learning experience, bring in the fun even if that means bringing in the silly
How: If validating (9) and noting wins (5) isn’t enough to bring a positive mood, try being silly on your own, or with a study buddy (6). Being silly can be making up a funny repetitive song with the key elements, or drawing a silly memory aid, or using the key idea as a swear word etc. Sometimes putting on fun music can lift the mood, or reading and talking the idea out in an odd place can work.
Why: Having fun makes a positive learning experience and better, more flexible memories.
Behind the scenes: Eliciting fun releases Endorphins which promote Dopamine and positive Norepinephrine. This encourages understanding, experimenting and keeps us going. If we can, we may enter Flow Mode, long term self-sustained learning.
We can store fear memories or happy memories. Fear memories are specialised in staying alive in a crisis, and not much use otherwise. Happy memories are flexible and easy to retrieve. By having a positive fun mood as we learn, we make the learning a positive experience and that allows us to store this as a happy memory.
11 Teach Someone Else
What: Teach someone else how to do the thing you have just learned how to do
How: This can be teaching a study buddy, or a friend later on, or even a teddy bear. Rehearse how you would teach someone later on as a way to refresh the skill yourself.
Why: When you teach someone how to do a thing you have just learned, you reframe the concept and knowledge in your head into a system of learning for someone else, and effectively teach yourself at the same time. This also kicks in the Refreshing Your Skills (8) and gives you some positive feedback that you have learned the skill (5). If your framework is missing some key ideas, it highlights that problem too (4).
Behind the scenes: We may learn well in spirals, but we teach best linearly. Switching spiral layered learning into a linear explanation creates flexible understanding of the skill we are storing. By changing the focus from pulling the skill into our minds and body to teaching an external person, we give our brains a different way of understanding the knowledge and reinforce and consolidate that knowledge.
12 Self Empowerment
What: Acquiring skills is its own reward – there is no wasted knowledge
How: Knowledge brings power and choice. Learning is acquiring more knowledge and skill. Frame your learning towards increasing your choices, your options and your future.
A game you can use during a lesson is to look for the information or idea that you didn’t know before and speculate on how that can be useful. This can work even if you don’t like the class or teacher, because this is for you.
Why: We don’t always choose to start learning, sometimes we are pushed into it. When we do choose to learn, we may stumble on some failures and feel like a failure ourselves. This negative mind set interferes with learning and makes it even harder.
When we embrace the options that we can open up in our future, even if we can’t see it right now, then we can choose to learn. With choice comes self-empowerment, which brings in that positive mind frame we’ve been pushing for in the previous 11 Hacks.
Behind the scenes: PDA (Pathological Demand Avoidance) can kick in when we are told to do something, even learning. This triggers an epinephrine (adrenaline) response that generally turns towards anger and aggression, which can be quite self-damaging.
If we feel like we are struggling, we can also have an epinephrine (adrenaline) response that can become a general push back against a thing. This is a form of ODD (Oppositional Defiance Disorder). We feel that we can’t, so we make it impossible.
Pushing ourselves to learn through this can lead to actions with minimal memory of how, sabotaging our own learning process.
When we embrace that this is for ourselves and that we are going to gain from this, even if it is not in ideal circumstances, puts us on the path to embracing the learning. When we feel empowered by it, we switch the PDA and ODD off. When we follow these 12 Hacks, using small wins, frequent rewards, taking breaks as needed, and feeling good about what we learned, we overcome our ADHD learning impediments.
ADHDers can learn really well. Often, though, ADHDers don’t learn as they want to, they learn as their passion or random interests falls.
Even though these 12 ADHD Learning Hacks can help most ADHDers in most circumstances, they are not a substitute for appropriate medication as your brain needs it.