how to take notes with ADHD

How to take notes with ADHD – or if you’re just easily distracted

Katie Azevedo good habits, note-taking, organization

How to take notes with ADHD

By Katie Azevedo, M.Ed.

Note-taking is a skill. The more you do it, the better you get. Even the most focused students get confused about note-taking. But throw ADHD or just general distractibility into the mix, and taking notes during class can seem impossible.

The most common questions I get about how to take notes with ADHD:

  • How do I know what’s important?
  • How do I know what to write down?
  • How can I write and listen at the same time?
  • Should I take notes differently for different subjects?
  • Do I even need to take notes?

Whether you have ADHD or you just have a hard time staying focused in class for other reasons, the note-taking strategy I describe here works because it will help you keep your thoughts where they should be, which is on the teacher and on the lesson.

How to take notes with ADHD

Short answer: Take notes, and at the same time, take notes on your notes.

Eek! Let me explain the steps.

1. Start with a piece of paper. Draw a simple line down the middle, creating two equal columns.

2. The left hand column is where you write your actual notes. (Stuff the teacher is saying and/or writing on the board.) Don’t write this stuff down word-for-word, but always aim for at least these two things: 1) The main idea, 2) Examples / explanations/ problem sets. Not even sure how to take these notes? Watch my note-taking video here.

3. The right hand column is where you write down your own thoughts on the information, in your own words or in your own pictures. Everything you write down here should come from your own head, in you own voice.

This is the part where most people with ADHD start to get distracted. At this point, you might start to think about random things that pop into your head. You can’t stop your brain from thinking – and nor should you – but TRY YOUR HARDEST to let your mind “wander” to something related to what you’re taking notes on.  

Some examples of the thoughts you might have: This is confusing, this is interesting, this is kind of like that other thing we learned, I don’t get this, this sounds like it’s important enough to be on the exam, this would make a good topic for our research paper, this makes no sense, yada yada yada…

how to take notes with ADHD or if you're easily distracted
Example of what your notes could look like using this method. Notice how the “real” notes are on the left, and your THOUGHTS are on the right.

As these thoughts pop up, write them down in the right hand column. If something is confusing or you just totally miss what the teacher says, write down a giant question mark. If the teacher describes something that you think would make more sense as an image or a chart, draw it out.

When we are distracted and can’t focus on what we should be paying attention to, it’s because our thoughts are going somewhere else. It’s silly to think I just won’t have thoughts. Suuuuure you won’t. Ha!

Why this note-taking method works for people with ADHD / distractibility

This note-taking method works because it still allows your inner voice (your thoughts) to bubble up, but then you channel them to something relevant that can be written down in the right hand column. If you’re a doodler, don’t expect yourself to stop, but at least doodle something in this column that is related to what your notes are about.

What to do if you zone out

We all zone out from time to time, no matter how good our note-taking method is or how focused we try to be. If this happens, follow these steps here.

Like any study skill that I teach, this one won’t work at all … if you don’t try it. You can listen to this video and think Yeah, that might work, but then you never actually try it. Or you could just “kind of” try it for two minutes in one of your classes … but no, that won’t work. You’ll still be stuck wondering why doesn’t note-taking work for me??

The challenge

Here’s how to make this “note-taking for ADHD” method work: For two weeks straight, take notes like this. No exceptions. Walk into your lecture classes, write the date and topic at the top of a piece of paper … then draw your line down the middle … then have at it. At the end of two weeks I’ll bet you’ll see a difference in your retention, your understanding, and your focus.

For more tips about managing ADHD, check out the podcast I recorded with world-famous ADHD expert Dr. Ned Hallowell.