“We Don’t See Time; We Feel It”
Always late? People with ADHD experience time differently — and lose track of it easily. Here’s how you can improve your sense of time without losing who you are.
Our internal clocks weren’t put together by a Swiss watchmaker, who sees time as a series of seconds and minutes, one coming precisely after the other. Some experts think that individuals with ADHD perceive time not as a sequence but as a diffuse collection of events that are viscerally connected to the people, activities, and emotions involved in them. That often means they’re always late.
Children and adults with ADHD don’t see events; they “feel” them.
Several problem behaviors result from our novel perception of time:
- missing deadlines
- doing things in the wrong order
- underestimating the time it takes to do tasks
Research suggests that those with ADHD are deficient in temporal processing abilities, which affect executive functioning. This interferes with our ability to perceive time accurately when tasks require our attention or present an opportunity for impulsive responses.
The good news is that there are exercises and strategies that can improve our sense of time. You can avoid time lapses in your life, as these three adults with ADHD did.
No Structure at Home
PROBLEM: Susan tried to plan her life at home, but things went wrong because she couldn’t estimate how long tasks took.
WHAT WE TRIED: We started by playing a guessing game to improve her ability to estimate how long activities took to complete. She bought a stopwatch/timer, with a cord, and wore it around her neck. Then she estimated how long it would take to perform certain tasks at home and at work.
If the timer went off before she finished, she set the stopwatch to record how much longer the task had taken above her original estimate. After a week of doing this, she discovered a pattern, which helped her plan better. Her estimation of projects at work was usually accurate, but she underestimated tasks at home. We talked about it and discovered that, when her time was her own, mostly at home, decision-making and prioritizing interfered with her ability to plan well. Her tasks at work were routine and didn’t require decision-making or prioritizing. Structure at work kept her on track, and lack of structure at home threw her off.
So Susan created more structure on the home front. She outlined a routine to take care of basic household chores before preparing dinner every night. Her evenings felt longer. She streamlined her weekend structure by slotting chores and recreational activities into her Saturday schedule. She gave herself Sunday off.
CHALLENGE: For Jill, time felt anything but linear. “In my brain, everything’s either now or not now.”
WHAT WE TRIED: I worked with Jill to break down her day into a beginning, middle, and end. We listed what she usually did during the day, and assigned each task to one of five slots: 1. Morning Wake-up 2. A.M. Work 3. P.M. Work 4. Evening Personal 5. Bedtime.
Tasks that required the most focus were done in the A.M. Work slot, and those that required the least were done in the P.M. Work slot. By doing the same types of things at about the same time each day, Jill gradually began to feel that her days did have a beginning, a middle, and an end.
When she found herself distracted by personal tasks at work, she’d say, “Oops, this is not the time to do this. These things should be done in the Evening Personal slot. I can do them when I get home from work.” She saw her day as a progression of events, which improved her sense of time. Planning things became less confusing when she separated her to-do list into personal and work chores. Her day became more linear.
Losing Track of the Minutes
CHALLENGE: Gerry loses track of time during transitions from one activity to another — especially at work.
WHAT WE TRIED: I asked Gerry to tell me what kept him from getting up and leaving. “I turn off my computer, get ready to leave, and when I get into the car, I look at the dashboard clock in horror, realizing I am already late for dinner.” Then I had him look at his departure in more detail. He realized that, on his way out, he talked with colleagues about a baseball game or updated someone about an unimportant matter. In Gerry’s mind, these chats would take only a couple of minutes, but they turned into a half-hour.
Gerry’s family eats at 6 p.m., which means he has to leave at 5:30 p.m. to be home on time. To do this, he set his computer alarm for 4:45 and 5:00 p.m., giving himself 15 minutes to wrap things up, and then a half-hour of wiggle room before he has to leave for home. On hectic days, he uses the half-hour to talk with supervisors and coworkers about project details. On calmer days, he makes it home a half-hour early and he can play with his kids.
To make sure Gerry doesn’t miss his 5:30 deadline, he sets an alarm on his watch, to tell him when it’s time to go. When the alarm goes off, Gerry puts up his hand and says, “Gotta get home for dinner! I’ll catch you tomorrow.”
A Keener Sense of Time
Sharpen your awareness of time with smartphone apps like these:
TimeTimer: displays time as a red disc that gets smaller as time elapses
QuickTimer: an easy-to-use stopwatch and timer
WatchMinder: lets you program fixed times or interval times, and set message reminders
Time Master + Billing: has single or multiple running times for project management and billing
ADHD and Time: Next Steps
- Read: Time Management Skills for ADHD Brains
- Watch: The Science of Time Management with ADHD
- Download: ADHD Time Assessment Chart
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