ADHD and Time Blindness

Managing Life When You Live in a Time Warp

Navigating ADHD and time blindness can be one of the more difficult areas of ADHD. To outsiders, it looks like we can’t be bothered to be on time. This often negatively impacts our jobs and relationships. People often assume we are lazy, unorganized, uninterested, or simply unbothered and self-absorbed. In reality, it is yet another area where ADHD causes regulation issues.

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What is Time Blindness?

Time blindness is the inability to judge how much time has passed and estimate how long it will take to complete tasks. This isn’t just an inability to tell time or losing track of it, it is a disruption in brain signals. Researchers have found a link between medical conditions that involve a disruption in dopamine signaling (such as ADHD) and time distortion. Our ability to perceive and estimate time is made possible by activity in multiple parts of the brain. ADHD disrupts the network of brain signals between the different areas of the brain that are required for time perception. Multiple factors go into time blindness and how it impacts people with ADHD.

Time Blindness Factors:

  • Time management: time management requires planning and coordinating how much time you can give to different tasks. It’s a process that requires memory, concentration, and planning which are all things people with ADHD struggle with.
  • Time perception: the ability to estimate how much time has passed. Time perception enables you to assess how much time is needed to complete a specific task.
  • Time horizon: time horizon is how you determine how soon a task is approaching. This is how our brain knows when to start tasks. ADHD causes people to have a shorter time horizon. By the time our brain alerts us that the task is approaching, it’s often too late and leaves us rushing.
  • Time reproduction: time reproduction is the ability to repeat specific tasks or actions for the same amount of time as the last time the task was carried out. You can safely say we are not good at pacing.
  • Time sequencing: this is the process of sequencing tasks or events in the correct order of when they occurred. Sequencing also determines the right order things need to occur for the task to succeed.

What Does Time Blindness Look Like?

Well, if you have ADHD, you’re probably already very aware of how it can manifest. Often it looks like perpetual lateness or doing unimportant tasks in place of more urgent ones. It often results in claims that you’ll be done in five minutes, only for two hours to go right on by. This is especially true if you’re doing something you enjoy. We also tend to get stuck in waiting mode. This happens when we know a task or appointment is later, and we can’t determine how to sequence out tasks. Unable to manage our time beforehand, we just get stuck sitting around being unproductive. It can also manifest as an inability to keep a schedule or estimate when something happened. It also leads to heavy doses of procrastination, and impulsivity.

What Does Time Blindness Feel Like?

Well, it’s confusing, to say the least. And also frustrating. ADHD causes you to struggle with prioritizing tasks so everything feels urgent to us. We have a million things to do and we feel like we need to do them all right now. So often in this quest to get an impossible amount of things done, we think it’s feasible because we can’t accurately assess how long each task will take us. Tasks that come up we didn’t account for, or one of the tasks had more steps to it than we thought, and suddenly the whole day has passed and we’ve only completed a few things on the list.

Let’s take the example of getting ready. Most people can quite easily estimate how long it takes them to get ready and what time they need to leave. For people with ADHD, we think we can also do this but it always ends up way messier. Something takes longer to do than we expected. We can’t find the shirt we want and we can’t regulate well enough to stop looking and choose a different one. And of course, we get distracted.

There are times I’m running late and trying to put on my necklaces and suddenly I’m untangling jewelry I’m not even planning to wear. Part of my brain is screaming at itself that this isn’t important right now and we need to go. The other side is saying, “But I’ve almost got it and it will feel so much better if I don’t leave it unfinished.” It’s like your body is moving separately from what your brain knows it should be doing. There’s a disconnect there and time blindness is one of the times you’re most acutely aware of that disconnect.

How Does Time Blindness Impact People With ADHD?

Time blindness often negatively impacts school, work, and relationships. (Oh, is that all?) Struggling to be consistently on time and meet deadlines can make teachers and bosses dismiss you as lazy, unorganized, and unmotivated. In school, many kids are punished or given negative labels as a result of their struggles with time blindness. As adults, it can be hard to find jobs that are cohesive with your chaotic brain and even harder to find a boss who’s understanding and willing to make adjustments for you.

Friendships and dating can be difficult as people tend to feel put off and like you don’t care about them if you’re perpetually late to meet them. Especially if you have some ridiculous story of the reason you were late was because you couldn’t get yourself to stop suddenly organizing the closet after trying to find the coat you wanted. You end up disappointing your loved ones and as a result, disappointed in yourself. Which, more times than not, just leads to more stress and more dysregulation the next time you’re getting ready to meet them, lacklusterly launching you into a shame cycle.

What are Some Ways to Manage ADHD and Time Blindness?

ADHD and time blindness don’t have to ruin your life. There are a variety of coping mechanisms you can try to find what works best for you.

Time Management Tips

  • Set Alarms and Timers.
    Don’t just put an appointment or deadline in your calendar. When you put it in the calendar, also set reminder alarms for when you need to start preparing. You can use this both to remind you when to get ready for dinner plans later tonight, as well as when you need to start working on a project three weeks before it’s due.
  • Use App Blockers.
    Many phones now have app usage limits you can set up to help you manage your time blindness. One way is by setting up usage limits that prevent you from accidentally doom-scrolling for hours. Another way is by limiting apps to specific times to help you stay on task so said task doesn’t take longer than you planned.
  • Make Playlists that Help Keep Track of Time.
    Need to be out of the shower within 10 minutes? Make a playlist that’s 10 minutes. Have 45 minutes to get ready in the morning? Make a 45-minute playlist and avoid putting it on shuffle so the song order can help cue you in to how much time you have left.

Make Things Manageable

  • Prepare for Hyperfocus.
    If you’re going into a task that you tend to get hyperfocused on, make some preparations to help you keep track of time. If you like the alarm system, set an alarm for the time you need to stop. I’d recommend setting multiple alarms as we tend to dismiss the first one mid-task, and then forget it happened. Sometimes, alarms can make me feel time-stressed in a way that triggers waiting mode and I do a distracted, poor job. That’s why I use my water bottle as a bit of a time management system. No Stanley Cup for me, I keep a smaller cup on my desk because my meds make me frequently thirsty and having to get up to fill my water cup every couple hours is an ADHD hack for me that pulls me out of the hyperfocus and makes me notice the time.
  • Break Down Big Goals Into Manageable Pieces
    If you’re overwhelmed with where to begin in working towards a goal, break it down into more manageable goals. By breaking it into pieces and setting deadlines for each subtask, you keep the goal within your ADHD-shortened time horizon so you’re not left scrambling.

Clocks as Coping Mechanisms

  • Used Fixed Intervals or Daily Time Reminders.
    If you’re worried about losing track of time, you can set alarms to go off every hour. If that’s too annoying for you, you can set daily alarms for certain times that help you orient yourself. For example, my husband has two alarms that go off at different times of the day to cue him into how far into work he is and when it’s time to feed and walk the dogs.
  • Remember that Wall Clocks Still Exist.
    Our phones are just mobile distraction devices (as are our smart watches) so relying on these for telling time can be a time-blindness trap. Putting easy-to-read wall clocks in every room can help you keep track of time. A colorful analog clock can help you visualize the time while colorful digital clocks can help you remember the time better so you don’t end up checking it 6 times in a 10-minute timespan.

Time Out Your Time Blindness

  • Get a Visual Timer.
    Having a visual timer in your workspace can help you keep track of how much time has passed since you started the task. They make dark-colored, “adult” ones that are suitable for corporate office spaces and such but personally, I’m a fan of the cute rainbow ones meant for kids to add a little dopamine to the dreariness of desks.
  • Use Time Blocking:
    The technique of time blocking is used to divide your time into blocks. Each block is dedicated to a specific task, and only that task. You can also use time blocking to group smaller tasks together as a way to break down larger tasks.
  • Try the Pomodoro technique:
    This technique for time management involves dividing work into blocks of time with built-in breaks. For some, that looks like 25 minutes of focused work, and 5-minute breaks. For others, it’s 45 minutes of work with a 15-minute break. I wouldn’t recommend going longer than 45 minutes for a focus period because let’s be honest, you’re not focused that long. There are also nifty timers you can get to streamline this process without risking phone distractions to set all the timers.

Coping with ADHD and Time Blindness

ADHD definitely doesn’t make your life easier and time blindness is one of the reasons why. It can be hard to manage life when you basically live in a time warp. No, it’s not fair that we have to do so many more things and find all these coping mechanisms to get by but what’s the alternative? To be perpetually stressed, late, and behind on everything is just asking for a shame spiral. Coping mechanisms help you not only manage your ADHD and time blindness, but help you take care of yourself as well, and you deserve that.

Do you have any coping mechanisms for managing time blindness that I didn’t mention? Share them in the comments!

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