Reading academic papers while having ADHD

Disclaimer: Any discussion of experience with disability walks a tricky line between individual and more "general" experiences. I'll try to make it clear when I'm speaking for just myself vs. reporting "common knowledge" about ADHD, but in either case, remember that ADHD manifests very differently for different people. Please don't make assumptions that my experiences or preferences are the same as yours or someone else you know with ADHD.

If you do research, you have to read a lot of papers. Reading papers is challenging for most people, especially when you're new to it, but what if on top of that, you're fighting against a brain that would rather be doing literally anything else?

Read on to learn how real live ADHD academics manage this challenge in practice.

The Problem

1. Papers are hard to read.

Academic papers can be notoriously difficult to read. The subject matter can be dense and technically difficult; the paper might rely on "insider" knowledge that you don't have when you're new to the subject the paper is about; it can try to cram too many details into a tight page limit; it can simply be poorly structured and unclearly explained. Usually, reading a paper linearly (in one go from start to finish) isn't the best way to make sure you understand the main points you need to get out of it.

2. ADHD makes reading hard.

At the same time, reading in general is something that ADHDers struggle with. Reading requires a sustained period of focus on a static, monotonous object (a body of text) without much built-in affordance for interaction. It's a canonically "understimulating" activity. This can be especially true for academic writing. We may go in with an intention to read a paper, but 5 minutes later we're scrolling Twitter and don't even remember opening the tab. Conversely, if we don't set a timer, we might still be poring through every detail of the paper and chasing references three hours later -- even though all we really needed was a 2-sentence summary of the key findings.[1]

Some Solutions

When I posed the question on Twitter, the responses I got had a few strong themes. They seem to boil down to approximately these steps:
  1. Tend to your environment. 🎧
  2. Clarify your intention. 🎯
  3. Preprocess. ✂
  4. Converse. 💬
Let’s elaborate each of those themes.

🎧 Tend to Your Environment

Creating an ADHD-friendly environment isn't specific to reading papers, but it's a prerequisite. You may already have tricks up your sleeve for this, but commonly cited ones in the replied include:
  • Noise cancelling headphones
  • White noise generators (I'm a fan of
  • Tidying up to remove visual distractions (as long as tidying doesn't itself become a distraction)
  • Activating a sense trigger (e.g. sound/music/scent) that tells your brain it's time to focus. For example, I have a specific configuration at that I use for my writing-focus periods.
  • More specifically to papers, one thing that multiple people said they do was print the paper out on actual paper and move to an area with no screen devices to read it.

🎯 Clarify Your Intention

Lots of people mentioned the usefulness of clarifying to yourself before you begin reading, "what do I want/need to get out of this paper?" Are you trying to understand something specific about their formalism, definitions, study setup, results? Are you trying to figure out if they solved a problem that you were trying to solve yourself? Are you trying to compare your work to theirs for a related work section? Do you need to thoroughly assess the claims made by the authors and the evidence for those claims because, say, you're conducting peer review? All of these purposes mean that different sections of the paper will have different relative importance.

If all you need is a summary of the main points, consider:
  • Reading only the title and abstract (+ add conclusion/intro if you need more)
  • Looking for papers that cite the paper and seeing how they summarize it
  • Looking specifically for answers to the following questions (recommended by K B):
  • What is the general question at the heart of the paper?
  • What specific question does this research ask (how do design choices narrow the scope of the question)?
It’s also ok not to have just one intention, or to allow that intention to fluctuate as you read. @CouragePhD suggests asking:
  • Is this a good paper for the research findings?
  • Is the method particularly clever?
  • Could it be good for teaching?
  • Is it an example of good writing?

✂ Preprocess

Once you know why you're reading the paper, you'll probably find a lot of the information in it is actually irrelevant! A lot of people mentioned strategies for avoiding irrelevant parts of the paper so that you can avoid getting lost in details.

These strategies include:
  • Making an outline of the paper. One of my personal favorites: gives me a visual roadmap of what's in the paper and what the author was thinking when they were in the drafting stage.
  • Reading the paper "outside-in." Read the title, abstract, conclusion, and introduction first, in that order. If you've gotten what you need from that part, stop.
  • Reading the paper "inside-out." My preference for papers I need to understand at a lower level of detail is actually to start in the middle of the paper -- specifically, flip to the first example or figure, and see if you can understand it. If so, you probably don't need the background material that explains it. If not, it will probably generate a lot of questions, so you can read more of the paper in a goal-directed way (the goal being to answer those questions).
  • Reading only first sentences of paragraphs. A senior colleague once gave me this tip for writing papers, that it should make sense if you only read the first sentence of each paragraph; that's what "topic sentence" means.[2] It turns out that if your paper's author did this, you can reverse-engineer more structure as a reader! Cool, it's like you’re decrypting a secret message hidden in the paper (which is incidentally also more or less the real message of the paper)!
  • Skimming. Several people mentioned skimming, which is a skill I can't speak to much because I don't really feel that I have it. If you do have this skill, though, the preprocessing stage is the time to use it. (Skimming is one of those skills that I previously suspected only neurotypical people could do. I feel like I'm either engrossed in every detail or I'm just moving my eyes across words without retaining anything.) 

💬 Converse

Finally, instead of "reading" the paper (boring, for boring people with the boring ability to control their focus), have a conversation with the paper (fun, interactive, you get to sass back, the paper has no feelings so you can say whatever you want).

This might mean:
  • Highlighting the heck out of it in different colors
  • Making notes in margins
  • Keeping a separate notebook nearby where you can write down all your replies, snarky sass-backs and unrelated tangential amazing ideas the paper just gave you, without trying to cram it all into the margins
  • Annotating with a PDF reader or ebook reader
  • Using a text-to-speech tool on the paper so you get that sweet multisensory reinforcement of audio + visuals matching up as you read (I do this with books; not yet with papers but I'm planning to look into it!)
  • Making a list/glossary of unknown vocabulary that you can build as you go
  • Giving yourself permission to skip the boring parts
  • If you're understimulated, trying to make it harder. This could mean setting timers to try to "beat the clock" for reading a specific section, adding a task like writing a summary after each section, or challenging yourself to predict the arguments as you go (and maybe keeping a running tally of points for when you're right vs. wrong)
  • If you're genuinely interested in the material, learning to harness the power of hyperfocus. People with ADHD tend to have a high degree of natural curiosity and make lots of unexpected connections between things -- embrace this and give your brain the space to do it! (This can also be a good use for that notebook you might keep by your side.) "Follow the fun," as the game design saying goes.
  • Tweeting about the paper as you read it! That's a thing I do sometimes, and it has the extra benefit that you might help someone else with ADHD: maybe someone else scrolling through twitter will be able to learn a thing through your tweets that they wouldn't have otherwise without deploying a massive arsenal of attention-directing tricks. :)
  • Finding a buddy to read with and discuss the paper! Especially if your buddy is neurotypical, you’ll probably catch very different things.

Things Take Time (and Accommodations)

To zoom out for a minute, I want to emphasize that paper-reading is a skill that can take a lot of time to learn. It took me probably a decade or more to get to the point where I can comfortably read and make sense of an entire paper within a single day.

The ADHDer in question who's struggling with this, whether that's you or someone else, needs to be the key agent in building a solution that works. Most of us require interoperating systems of support that enable our target habits, and it’s rare that any two such systems look alike.

That said, don’t rule out a possible solution just because it costs money or requires assistance from someone else. Although it’s sometimes hard to get others to recognize ADHD as a real disability that deserves accommodation, you don’t need to be complicit in that belief. Talk to your advisor, department head, and/or disability services office to find out what’s possible.

Neurotypical Doesn’t Mean Better

Also, it’s worth pointing out the inherent ableism in expecting everyone to read papers in the same way and get the same thing out of them, and in the assumption that that’s even a worthwhile goal to strive towards. Talia Ringer shared this really important insight in a comment on a draft of this post:
“I've had professors who expected me to understand every detail of a paper, and honestly that's just never going to happen, at least not without lots of conversations with the authors (which I frequently do when I think a paper is cool). But on the other hand I get to like page 3 and I have 50000 ideas on cool future projects and sometimes they're REALLY GOOD IDEAS other folks don't have. [...] Can [neurotypical] folks just synthesize ideas like that? Not usually. But we don't expect them to, because the world is built for them, not for us.”

Embracing neurodiversity means not pathologizing differences or forcing assimilation to a neurotypical norm. The best way to support an ADHD brain’s full potential for research is to let it be an ADHD brain -- if you do, you may be surprised by the creativity and insight it generates. Especially in combination with complementary neurotypical abilities, these differences can be a huge strength.


Thanks to Talia for feedback on a draft of this post, to my mentees for asking good questions, to everyone who responded to my query on Twitter, and to Jessica McCabe of the “How to ADHD” YouTube channel, from which I learned much of what I know about ADHD.


1. ADHD is something of a misnomer; it's not that we have a "deficit" of attention, it's more that our attention is difficult to direct or regulate. For specific people and specific tasks, the task might actually trigger hyperfocus: the ability to get "sucked in" to the task, excited and engaged with it to the point of losing track of time. Sometimes, attention jumps around without ever stabilizing on a particular activity. But in either case, the problem is that it's hard to control and regulate attention.

2. Since being told to write them in grade school, I never had any idea what a "topic sentence" was actually supposed to be, other than the first sentence of a paragraph. Thinking of them this way caused an "aha!" moment for me.


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