ADHD brains have a unique and complex relationship with time. One of the most common ways this relationship reveals itself is chronic lateness. For example, how many times have you fully intended to show up to an appointment or event on time, but the three tasks you were sure you could finish before leaving actually took twice the amount of time you anticipated? Your ingrained optimism that you could squeeze in one more thing made you an hour late.
To a neurotypical person the solution is clear: simply shorten your To-Do list next time. The trouble is that ADHD makes it difficult to conceptualize a To-Do list that is appropriate for the amount of time one has. As ADHD expert Dr. Russell Barkley explains, this is because ADHD “disrupts the fabric of time” and creates a kind of “time blindness.” This difficulty with time management can have a significant negative impact on a person’s relationships, work-life, and more. As such, it is important that individuals with ADHD become familiar with their time blindness and also learn strategies to help work around it.
What is Time Management?
For a neurotypical person, the answer to this question might be so obvious that it need not be explained. This is because our culture begins teaching time management skills to children as early as preschool – a two-year-old learns that the length of the “Clean-Up” song is the amount of time they have to tidy up before the next activity. While our early introduction to these skills might make it seem like they’re innate, it is important to remember that, like all other skills, time management skills are learned. People with ADHD just don’t learn them as easily.
Put simply, time management is the ability to use the present moment to bring about a better future.
It requires the individual to prioritize their future goals over their current needs or wants, which entails centering one’s attention on those goals. Practicing this consistently leads the individual reliably closer to their desired destination.
In the context of lateness for example, effective time management allows you to ignore the temptation to press the snooze button again in order to prioritize your long-term goal of arriving on time for work each day. Regular punctuality might signal to your boss that you’re ready for that promotion you’ve been pining after, and thus the motivation to advance your career pulls you out of bed.
Someone with ADHD will have no trouble understanding the connection between punctuality and their chances at a promotion, but they have difficulty holding their attention on this future ambition long enough that it affects their behaviors – the tiredness they feel in the present wins out over the aspirations they have for the future. Dr. Barkley famously describes ADHD as not a disorder of knowing what to do, but a disorder of doing what you know. Such time management mishaps all stem from the same underlying reality: ADHD keeps people stuck in the present and blind to the future. Consequently, it can feel impossible to organize and plan for things later down the line.
ADHD and an Infinity of “Nows”
The ADHD brain creates a perpetual tug-of-war between maximizing the present and maximizing the future. The temptations of the present moment wage an unfair fight and the future has a hard time winning. In essence, people with ADHD struggle to “see” time and “feel” the future. This quintessential difficulty can be broken down into two distinct problems: short-time horizons and temporal discounting.
A person’s time horizon helps them determine how close a task or event must be to the present before they feel motivated to act. For instance, how long does it take for a looming work deadline to hit your mental radar? While the answer to this question varies from person-to-person (1 week, 3 days, 1 day?), people with ADHD typically answer on the lower end of the spectrum. This is because the time horizon for someone with ADHD tends to be significantly shorter than a neurotypical person’s.
To visualize this problem, picture a ship miles in the distance.
A neurotypical person will watch the ship cross the horizon and gradually move closer to the shore, slowly coming more into focus. Someone with ADHD, however, is unable to see the ship until it is just moments away from the shore. As such, they will have much less time to prepare the lines for the docking of the ship.
ADHD makes it very difficult to “see” the future until it hits you in the face. It creates a rigid dichotomy of the “now” and the “not now,” which can lead to frantic scrambling to finish a task at the last minute. This inability to clearly imagine the future is what Barkley calls “future myopia” and it can severely disrupt one’s ability to plan for long-term goals.
If short time horizons explain why “seeing” time is so difficult for someone with ADHD, temporal discounting explains why it’s also hard to “feel” time. Temporal discounting makes it very challenging not to select instant gratification over delayed rewards of greater value.
To an extent, everyone has been a victim of this phenomenon at least once. How many times have you sacrificed an hour or more of sleep so you could continue binging your favorite Netflix show? However, for people with ADHD the lure of immediate payoffs is much harder to ignore. The reason for this is that ADHD makes you more attuned to the present (and the thoughts, feelings, and sensations that come along with it) than the future. Rewards in the present moment often take precedence over the negative outcomes that might come later. The result can make it feel like you are doomed to the present, trapped in an infinite loop of “nows.”
Taking Charge of Your Future: Solutions for Time Blindness
Although time blindness may sound all doom and gloom, there are many time management strategies that can help you detach from the present and harness the future.
1. Visualize the Future
In order to compensate for temporal discounting and “feel” the future, try visualizing how your future self will feel if you do (or don’t) act now. For example, ask yourself: “What will I feel like tomorrow at work if I decide to stay out drinking with friends?” Imagine the tiredness you might feel under your eyes or the headache you might have as you try to complete your work. The key here is trying to picture the consequences as vividly as possible. The more distinctly you can imagine the feelings and outcomes, the more motivating the exercise will be. Other techniques include laying out the pros and cons of action and inaction before you make your decision, and asking yourself how your future self would feel about the decisions made by your present self.
2. Externalize Time
Having ADHD makes it difficult to conceptualize time – one’s internal clock is out of sync and often unreliable. So rather than relying on internal mechanisms to tell you when it’s time to leave for work or submit your assignment, try externalizing time-related information. One of the simplest ways to do this is by using analog clocks. Unlike digital clocks, analog clocks make the passage of time visible and allow you to literally see time move via the hour, minute, and second hands. You can also try setting reminders (or multiple) on your phone. For example, set one an hour before you need to leave, then 15 minutes, and then 2 minutes before.
The frequent alarms make it much harder to lose track of time. More generally, make an effort to elevate the time-sensitive information that requires your attention. You can do this by placing visual cues such as post-its or To-Do lists around your living space to remind you of upcoming deadlines or events. Finally, find a scheduling system that works for you – for instance, use a weekly planner or write your weekly tasks out on a whiteboard. Forcing the information out of your brain and onto an external source will help you stay better organized and be less surprised by future events.
3. Try Task-Chunking
ADHD keeps you stuck in the present, which can make the concept of completing a big future task feel overwhelming. A useful way to combat this is by breaking down larger tasks or transitions into smaller chunks – this is what psychologists call scaffolding. For instance, the thought, “I have to get ready for work” feels much more daunting than “I need to brush my teeth and then I need to take a shower.” Thinking about a larger transition in terms of small, easy steps can help prevent mental paralysis. Task-chunking can also be used to help you meet deadlines. Take a work deadline for example. To keep yourself on track, mark the date you should have a quarter of the project done, one-half, and so on. Breaking down your task in this way will ensure that you’re not playing catch-up at the very end.
4. Reduce Temptations
Sometimes distractibility, a hallmark symptom of ADHD, can supersede even the strongest time management strategies. Eliminating distractions altogether is a much more effective method than trying to make up for wasted time later. Try setting up your environment to eliminate your most tempting time sucks. For example, if you find yourself constantly checking social media, move your phone to the other room while you’re working on something important. If you become easily distracted by the outside environment, move your desk to face the wall so you’re not tempted to stare out the window. By eliminating the option to engage in whatever your vice may be, you can entirely remove willpower from the equation.
Having ADHD makes the concept of time sneaky and elusive. Time blindness keeps individuals more preoccupied by the present than attuned to the events of the future. This can cause major difficulties with timeliness, prioritization, and future planning. With the right strategies, however, individuals with ADHD can override the pull of the present and build better habits that support effective time management.
Begin Working With an ADHD Therapist in NYC
Our team of caring therapists would be honored to support you with improving time management and addressing other ADHD symptoms. We are happy to offer support in NYC and across the state. Our expert ADHD-Focused therapists look forward to speaking with you. We offer a free 20-minute phone consultation to discuss your case and how we can help. Contact us today.
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Other Services Offered By The ATTN Center in NYC
ADHD therapy isn’t the only service we offer. Our team also offers other services related to the treatment of ADHD and its side effects. This includes neurofeedback, group therapy, and ADHD testing options. At ATTN Center of NYC, we do everything in our power to treat ADHD without the use of medication, but we understand in some severe cases additional measures may be needed. As a result, we also maintain close relationships with many of NYC’s best psychiatrists. We are also happy to offer ADHD-focused couples therapy, depression therapy, and anxiety therapy.