Time & Productivity

What Is Your Time Style?

Answering this question could help salvage your relationships if procrastination, poor planning, and perpetual lateness are driving your loved ones crazy. And we think they probably are.

Why the ADHD brain "feels" time

“I told you the movie started at 8 p.m., but we missed it because you’re always late.”

“Let’s just see another movie. This one looks good.”

A primary foundation of any relationship is spending time together, and decisions about how to use time are made every day. But when one partner has adult attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD or ADD), time management can be as big a thorn in the side of your marriage as those classic relationship problems: money, sex, and communication.

“Time differences are a critical issue to these couples,” says psychiatrist Donald Davis, M.D., co-founder, with his wife, clinical social worker Susan Davis, of the Family Therapy Institute of Alexandria, Virginia.

After years of counseling people with ADHD, the Davises saw that they have a fundamentally different sense of and approach to time than most other people. A body of research, indicating that people with ADHD have difficulty with time perception and reaction time, backs up the Davises’ conclusions.

So the team devised a way to reveal how each person perceives time, a framework “that allows people to talk about how their minds work differently, and gives them something to do about it.” They gathered couples in which one partner has ADHD in workshops to help them understand their differences and ease tensions that stem from disputes over planning, memory, and time management.

[Get This Free Download: Time Assessment Chart for Greater Productivity]

Diagramming Time for the ADHD Brain

At a recent workshop, Dr. Davis led couples in a simple exercise in diagramming their time-organization scheme. He first asked the participants to envision a simple, everyday event in the past. “Imagine a meal you had 20 years ago,” he suggested. All took a moment to see their meal. Then they imagined a meal from 10 years ago, then one year ago, then a month, a week, and a day ago. They kept going, into the future — tomorrow, next week, and beyond, to 20 years from the present.

Finally, once all the meals were imagined across time, Dr. Davis asked participants to see all the meals at once. The people with ADHD sighed, groaned, or squirmed as they labored to bring all the meals together in their minds, while their partners had far fewer struggles. As each described his or her picture, Dr. Davis drew it on an easel.

With each pictured image, the pattern became clearer. The people without ADHD saw events in a linear format, and depicted neat lines and precise grids. But the people with ADHD didn’t see events so much as “feel” them. They organized events in clusters, often out of time order, and the patterns they drew frequently followed the shape of their bodies rather than a straight line. The Davises labeled the ADHD style “kinesthetic,” for the sense we have of our bodies.

The pictures reveal that people with ADHD perceive time not as a sequence of events the way others usually do, but as a diffuse collection of events that are viscerally connected to the people, activities, and emotions that fill them. The person with ADHD focuses intensely on all of the related details, experiencing these events with all of their interconnectedness. Slotting events into their proper place in time is a challenge. This simple difference in the experience of time can profoundly affect life for people in both groups.

[Take This Test: Could You Have Emotional Hyperarousal?]

A Couple of Different Timelines

The time picture of workshop participant Tim Hanley fits the typical ADHD pattern — jumbled shapes organized in a way only he could understand. Tim’s time scheme came out very different from the neat, linear-brain calendar his wife, Tammy, described.

“When I visualize the passage of time,” says Tim, “I see before and after and during and everywhere in between all at once, and everything is forever changing.”

Tim and Tammy’s approaches to planning reflect different wiring in their brains. “My wife can organize a to-do list and prioritize it and carry out each activity one at a time to completion,” says Tim. “I approach a to-do list full on, with the chores or activities all needing to be done at once. I call it ‘living the matrix.’ I feel I can do everything while time stands still for me.”

People with ADHD describe several problem behaviors that trace their origin to the elusive nature of time and the way they perceive it:

  • Procrastination
  • Missing deadlines
  • “Hyperfocusing” on one task for hours at the expense of other tasks
  • Underestimating the time needed for tasks or trips
  • Doing things in the wrong order

Their sense of proportionality is often skewed — a week from now and a month from now may seem closer together, or further apart, than they do for someone with a linear time scheme.

The usual ADHD style of handling time often doesn’t fit into typical life schemes. Since most people employ a linear approach to time, like Tammy, the world largely operates that way. But the linear pattern isn’t always best.

“Focused Attention Disorder”

In the partner workshops, Dr. Davis is quick to equalize the two styles. He informs the people without ADHD that they too have a disorder, which the Davises have named Focused Attention Disorder [FAD]. The only reason FAD is never diagnosed, he says, is that most people have it. Whether in the workplace or at home, the world is organized around the FAD way of doing things.

People generally assume minds should work similarly, an assumption that can lead to negative judgments about those who think differently. “Because of the bias in society toward minority groups, it’s easy to see the minority ADHD way of thinking as a liability,” says Dr. Davis. The majority think about time in a linear way, so they tend to be good at planning and budgeting time. But this is not the only way to think. Giving the majority group a label with the word “disorder” in it takes the pressure off people with ADHD.

The Davises suggest that partners look objectively at each other’s time styles. Couples then see that ADHD thinking can have advantages over FAD thinking. “A typical asset of the ADHD way of seeing time is the ability to step into the moment and experience it fully,” says Dr. Davis, “not burdened by thinking about the before and after (how did this happen and where is it going?).”

Try This Time Style

The ADHD and FAD styles each have advantages, but what happens when you put them in the same room? Whether it’s a romantic relationship, a parent and child, or even an employer and employee, different time styles can lead to conflicts. The linear thinker may feel that her partner with ADHD doesn’t care about her priorities, or may be forced into the role of organizer. The person with ADHD might see his partner as controlling, or caring too much about little things.

“Sometimes it feels like I’m his boss and his secretary at the same time,” said Helen McCann, a participant in the Davises’ workshop, whose husband has ADHD. “I do all the scheduling, and when I ask him about planning, he stresses out about it. And then he sometimes forgets what I plan anyway.” Missed appointments and incomplete tasks may seem unimportant to someone with ADHD, but they matter a lot in a relationship.

You can’t just wave a wand and change anyone’s perception of time. But the Davises hope that, by understanding the difference in the partner’s brain, couples can smooth out time-management differences — or at least reduce the stress over them. This understanding makes it less likely that a person will attribute their partner’s behavior to other reasons, like disrespect or hostility.

“If I had a nickel for every time we’ve started off an argument with, ‘What were you thinking?’ I’d be a millionaire,” says Tim Hanley. “Now I try to adapt to her thinking about time and tasks. It may seem obvious to someone who doesn’t have ADHD that a person can do only one thing at a time, but I needed to learn how.”

Tim has borrowed planning skills from Tammy and applied them to his work. “I approach each task in its own time,” he explains. “I may have several tasks going at once, but now I can remain focused on each task individually — and switch to another without anxiety or concern about when I’ll return to the first, or how much time is left, or what new task is on the horizon.”

The Other Clock

The borrowing goes both ways. The Davises urge people with linear time styles to try on their partner’s time style, too. In doing this, they can learn to be more spontaneous, or see the big picture, or find newly creative ways to do things, or remember to enjoy what they are doing, or change their plans to suit new opportunities. They might even experience some stress relief.

“Sometimes my husband calls me at work on a beautiful day and says, ‘Now it’s time for you to borrow my time style,'” reveals Helen McCann. “Then we go to an outdoor restaurant instead of cooking. He helps me remember that a plan is just a plan and you can change it. We also schedule free time for him, and he doesn’t have to decide what to do with it until it arrives. He can choose to do everything on his list, or nothing, if he wants.”

For each person in a relationship, understanding their own time style as well as their partner’s can help every aspect of their life. This became clear to Tim Hanley, who says that borrowing his wife’s time style has cleared his mind of clutter and increased his productivity. “My talent can now shine through my work, and my home life is positive and fulfilling.”

[Get This Free Download: Manage the ADHD Impact on Your Relationships]

Time Capsule: Zero Time

I am driving to the grocery store, hoping it will take zero time. I operate on the premise that if I were really efficient, if I made every stoplight and nobody else was waiting in the checkout line, then I could get to the store and back without any time passing.

I look at my watch, cursing every movement of the second hand. I groan at every red light. I am furious at the people waiting in the checkout line.

Time Capsule: Nonexistent Time

I am pretending that time doesn’t exist. Work starts a little later for me today, but I am acting like I have endless hours. I stay in bed a long time. I have a big breakfast. I pick up a magazine and get dreamily lost in an article.

Suddenly it’s time to go to work. A minute ago time didn’t exist at all. Now it’s crashing down on me like a sledgehammer. I race around wildly, ripping clothes off hangers, tripping over my shoes. I arrive late to work, feeling completely unready to face this day.

Time Capsule: Free Time

Time stretches before me, an entire day all to myself, with no commitments. A luxurious day I’ve been looking forward to for so long. It’s a day bursting with potential and possibility. But something about all that potential becomes unnerving as the day wears on. I find myself filling up the time in ways I hadn’t meant to — gazing into the fridge, flipping on the TV. The afternoon begins to taste like a stale cracker, and the coming of dusk leaves me with a feeling of melancholy. I had wanted wondrous things to spring from this day. Now that time is mine, all I seem to be able to do is waste it.

Time Capsules are adapted from Confronting Your Clutter, by Carolyn Koehnline.

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