Time & Productivity

How ADHD Warps Time Perception: Strategies to Stop Wasting and Start Managing Time

ADHD impairs time perception. The ADHD brain, locked in the present and oblivious to the future, is prone to hyperfocus, time blindness, and poor time-management skills. Learn how to train your brain to “see” beyond now and “feel” tomorrow to improve time management and productivity.

Time concept using a distorted clock.
Time concept using a distorted clock.

“Lost time is never found again.” – Benjamin Franklin

No one knows this better than someone with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), who may lose, mismanage, underestimate, squander, and search for time daily. After all, warped time perception is a core facet of ADHD.

That translates into poor time management in the moment, and problems organizing toward the future. It means perpetually wasting precious time, falling into unpredictable hyperfocus, and turning your back on that onerous task — again. For various reasons, ADHD minds struggle to “see” time and “feel” the future. As such, the most useful time-management strategies for ADHD brains make time salient to the mind’s eye and pull the future into the present, which is felt the most.

Why Time Management Eludes ADHD Brains

Time Management Requires Attention Management

Effective time management prioritizes future goals over present needs or wants. It charts daily steps that lead the way predictably, reliably toward a desired destination.

As such, solid time management requires attention management — a defining difficulty of ADHD. It also demands dynamic attention regulation, wherein our attention shifts fluidly and frequently based on how it relates to our goals.

[Get This Free Download: Keep Track of Your Time]

On one end of the attention regulation spectrum is difficulty resisting distractions. Phone notifications, random (and ill-timed) down-the-rabbit-hole Internet searches, and other distractions work hard to hijack our attention from the task at hand. To resist immediate bits of stimulation and maintain focus on future goals, we need to practice potent response inhibition — another skill affected by ADHD.

At the other end of the attention regulation spectrum is hyperfocus, wherein intense absorption in a task becomes a type of distraction in itself — one that causes time to fall to the wayside. The antidote to unproductive or unhealthy hyperfocus is constant internal monitoring — “Do I keep my attention on what I’m doing, or do I shift to something else?” But this self-awareness, too, is impaired by ADHD.

Time Blindness and the Time Horizon Problem

Our individual time horizons determine the proximity of a task or event before we act on it. (In other words, how close in time does a deadline need to be for it to hit your mental radar? A week? A day? Twenty minutes ago?) Generally, the closer a task is in time, the easier it is to pay attention to. We won’t pay as much attention to a task that is further out in the future.

ADHD time horizons are typically shorter than those for neurotypical people. Russell Barkley, Ph.D., noted that for people with ADHD, time is all but split into two parts: the “now” (what’s on our radar) and the “not now” (what’s beyond our radar).

[Read: Intention Deficit Disorder — Why ADHD Minds Struggle to Meet Goals with Action]

This relationship with time, according to Barkley, causes a “myopia to impending future events.” In order words, planning feels impossible for people with ADHD because they don’t see the future as clearly. They take action toward a future goal (the not now) only when that distant goal moves into the present (the now). By then, frantic scrambling is often required to get the task done before it’s too late, much to the stress of others who see the future sooner.

ADHD and Temporal Discounting

If short time horizons explain why people with ADHD can’t “see” the future, temporal discounting explains why they can’t “feel” it.

Temporal discounting is why so many of us, ADHD or not, struggle to delay gratification. We delay a restful night’s sleep to squeeze in a few more episodes of an exciting show. We delay starting on a project, knowing it will mean stress, cramming, and all-nighters later on. We pass on healthy habits, even if we know those habits will serve us in the future. As shown in the famous marshmallow test, it’s hard not to select immediate payoffs over delayed rewards of greater value. That’s because we generally “feel” the present more than we feel the future. The pleasures of the moment outweigh the pain of the future.

That feeling is multiplied in ADHD brains. “Now” is a siren song that tempts people with ADHD to maximize the moment, future costs be damned. The pain or pleasure of the present is felt even more strongly than is the pain or pleasure of the future — until the moment of reckoning comes.

Temporal discounting helps to explain why ADHD is so often thought of as a performance disorder. Knowing what to do is the easy part. The hard part is turning intention into action, which requires feeling the future more fully and being motivated by it to sacrifice in the present.

How to “See” Time and “Feel” the Future: Time Management Solutions for ADHD

Time blindness, short time horizons, and greater temporal discounting work together to shine a spotlight on “now” and hide “tomorrow” in the shadows. Organizing toward the future is difficult when it’s nowhere to be seen.

Follow these time-management strategies – with intention – to help you manage attention, dislodge from the present, and stretch your time horizon to feel the future.

To Manage ADHD Attention

Reduce Temptations

Every interruption is like a roll of the dice — you never know if you’ll be able to get back on track. Sheer willpower is too unreliable to resist these time-wasting distractions; you need rules and systems. If you’re tempted to check social media during your workday, for example, keep your phone away from you, or at least on silent mode. Make use of web-blocking tools to take willpower out of the equation.

Make the Right Stuff Stand Out

As you preemptively reduce and eliminate distractions, make sure to elevate the tasks that need your focus.

To See Time More Accurately

Don’t Rely on Your Internal Clock

  • Use analog clocks to help you see time move.
  • Set reminders on your phone or a simple kitchen timer (sprinkle them liberally throughout your house or job).

Consistently Use a Planning Tool That Works for You

Whether a digital calendar, productivity app, or paper planner, the best scheduling system is the one you’ll use consistently. The more you use a system, the better it works. Even partial usage leads to tangible benefits.

  • Include important information pertinent to each task or event — like addresses, phone numbers, video conferencing passwords — as you add it to your planning tool. Your future self will thank you.
  • Schedules are not blood oaths. If the stars don’t align, you can always move the task later. Also, don’t over-commit if you’re not sure where to sneak a task into your schedule, as this will only lead to hesitation and anxiety. Remind yourself of your future self to increase motivation to accomplish what you set out to do in a given time frame.
  • Your schedule is for you, and you alone. Your schedule is supposed to help you accomplish more of what you want to do. Being forced to use a planning tool (even the impression alone) kills motivation to use it. Knowing that the schedule is for you might motivate you to stay consistent.

Schedule To-Dos

To-do lists quickly become graveyards of failed aspirations. Why? Because we struggle to answer this question: Is now the time to work on that? What about this other task instead?

Add tasks to your schedule so they don’t languish on your to-do list or even fall off your radar. Making tasks time-specific increases the likelihood that you’ll see them through. Plugging tasks into your calendar will also fill your schedule and make time more concrete for you.

To Feel the Future

Engineer Consequences

Temporal discounting elongates the space between action and consequence. That’s why waiting for natural consequences — far off in the horizon — doesn’t often work for people with ADHD. Rig the system by shortening that space between present and future.

  • Make consequences immediate to increase motivation to act on tasks and adhere to your plans. Make rules for yourself: I can’t watch my favorite TV show tonight until I spend at least 30 minutes paying and filing bills.
  • Make consequences frequent. One-on-one check-ins with your boss every other day rather than weekly, for example, might help you stay on track and increase productivity. Cater to your boss’s self-interest (you will hit their deadlines) to increase buy-in.
  • Externalize consequences. Aim for salient consequences that you will actually feel. For example, tell your friend that dinner is on you if you’re more than 10 minutes late to meet them.

Pause and Picture

Compensate for temporal discounting by pausing to visualize how you will feel in the future if you do (or don’t) act now.

  • Picture consequences as vividly as possible. Ask yourself: “How will I feel during the big work meeting a week from now if I don’t give myself sufficient time to prepare? Worried? Ashamed?”
  • Lay out the pros and cons of action and inaction. “If I wait until the eleventh hour to get this done, I risk losing time with my family or a restful night’s sleep.”
  • Think of yourself in two forms: present-you and future-you. How does the latter feel about the former?
  • “Do I want to do this now?” is the wrong question because the answer is always the same. (“No, I don’t want to do this.”) Whether it’s far away or due ASAP, the task will never be appealing. That’s why it’s better to consider how future-you will feel based on the decisions of present-you.

Wasting Time and ADHD Time Perception: Next Steps

The content for this article was derived, in part, from the ADDitude ADHD Experts webinar titled, “Why Is Time So Slippery? Understanding Time Blindness in People with ADHD” [Video Replay & Podcast #424],” with Ari Tuckman, Psy.D., MBA, CST which was broadcast on October 4, 2022.

Thank you for reading ADDitude. To support our mission of providing ADHD education and support, please consider subscribing. Your readership and support help make our content and outreach possible. Thank you.