ADHD and Beating Time Blindness

ADHD and Beating Time Blindness

By William Schroeder, LPC and Scott Allen, PhD

What is time blindness? Why can folks with ADHD or other neurodivergent folks have a different understanding of the process of time?

WS – Neuroscientists have been studying an area of the brain called the basal ganglia, which correlates with time perception. Recent tests seem to demonstrate that timekeeping functions are controlled by the basal ganglia, the right parietal cortex, and dopaminergic pathways. The basal ganglia nerve cells are primarily made of dopamine. This is a neurotransmitter that people with ADHD are demonstrated to have less than their neurotypical counterparts. This is also the reason doctors commonly use drugs like Ritalin, as they increase dopamine levels in the brain. Thus, many people with ADHD have a difference in their brain chemistry that makes them more likely to have gaps in time perception and estimation, which creates difficulty getting places on time.

Growing up with ADHD, I was always running late, and frankly, it was embarrassing. In high school, this resulted in detentions and friends that would say, “Are you going to be on our time or on Billy time.” Honestly, it wasn’t intentional and led to a lot of shame and anxiety from being late. I can’t tell you how many times I have had dreams about various scenarios, and it’s a reminder that people with difficulty in this area are often very hard on themselves. It helps to think about it like a person without glasses who might bump into things they don’t see clearly. I see similar shame and frustration with clients I have helped over the years, and the good news is that there are compensatory strategies that can help outside of medication alone.

SA – The concept of “time blindness” has multiple forms. Humans often underestimate the time we spend on reinforcing activities. The adage, “time flies when you are having fun” carries a degree of truth with it. I can’t tell you how many clients I’ve worked with that get sucked into the “black hole” of an immersive video game or even a good book. Due to differences in neurobiology, this difficulty is accentuated in those with ADHD. On the flip side, humans often overestimate the amount of time that undesirable tasks may take to complete. I’ve also been told many times, “I thought that the task would be really hard and would take a long time, but the hardest part was getting started.” As one can imagine, these two sides of the coin compound to make transitioning from reinforcing to more effortful activities harder for people with ADHD. Challenges with task initiation, motivation, and sustained attention often contribute to the struggles of getting multi-step tasks done. 

How can visual timers help with understanding how much time has passed? 

SA and WS – Visual timers, such as a red sweep timer (or even an hourglass), give you a physical representation of time passed and time remaining. The timer takes advantage of the visual strengths often associated with ADHD. With a quick glance, it is easy to determine how much time is remaining on a test or other time-limited task.  Another helpful tool is the Pomodoro technique, which uses a kitchen timer and breaks projects into smaller periods of time and single-task focus. It could also mean setting multiple alarms (one the day before, another 2 hours before an event, 1 hour before, one 30 minutes before). A basic timer provides external cues that help us initiate and stay on task, thus maximizing our efficiency. 

What are other tools or hacks you suggest for ADHD or other neurodivergent folks to stay on time or to better get control of time?

WS – There are a variety of methods to do this. I have some people who use timers, as I mentioned above. If needing to be on time somewhere, some people use things like Waze, which can help them to break down the exact parts that are troubling for them as it will show travel time, time to leave, and even factor in buffer time for parking. This can be a starting point, and then have reminders backtracking from there to assist with when to hop in the shower, eat, and wake up. All of the above are affected when people have difficulty estimating time. Breaking down more significant tasks into smaller pieces and then setting task timers for each one can be beneficial. The Mac OS app Vitamin-R does something similar, describing them as time slices. Some of my clients use Focus Mate to help push themselves for greater virtual accountability. They will start a virtual focus session with someone, state the goal of their session, and work for the previously established time until they complete their goal. It also might help to pay attention to work areas that best help you to focus. An example could be a library, a private study room, a co-working space, coffee shop, or room free of distractions to help complete projects in a timely manner. Working with an accountability partner who is good with time management can also be helpful whether you are a student or an adult professional. Look at what gets you off track and learn from it instead of being hard on yourself. You may function differently, and that’s okay. Just know what works best for you.

SA – It is important to know yourself and when you work optimally. We all have difficult cycles of alertness and tiredness, and it’s important to save those alert times for tasks requiring more sustained attention. Many people with clinical diagnoses falling on the neurodivergent spectrum can access accommodations at work and at school to assist them with time management or even provide extra time. I’ve found that many people who have challenges with timeliness also struggle with transitioning and procrastination. Transitioning may be aided with timers, but also by planning ahead and avoiding placing highly motivating activities (e.g., immersive video games, an hour-long YouTube video) before work times. It may be useful to practice starting and stopping a “break” activity in a disciplined way. YouTube, for example, can be a great breaktime tool IF you are able to limit it to a short period of time. If you fall victim to swirling into the “black hole” of YouTube, consider avoiding it until the end of the day. Procrastination is especially challenging for people with ADHD because they often struggle with self-accountability. Likewise, when others attempt to help with time management, it often opens old wounds and results in less-than-productive battles of will. Setting a time to plan ahead at the beginning of the week or, better yet, the beginning of each day is helpful or even essential for many people with ADHD. Including an accountability partner can be helpful when it is done proactively. This partner can help to set realistic expectations on the amount of time that projects will take, assist in breaking down tasks into manageable chunks, build in break/fun times, and help set visual/auditory reminders for transitions. From my experience, many people with ADHD work best under pressure; a common theme in my work is students who save 20 projects to the end of the term but somehow manage to complete them at the last minute. This tendency causes quite a bit of anxiety both in the students and their families. For any of these strategies to work, it is important to look at time management as an opportunity for growth and to be intentional about making this growth. For example, I’ve had clients who struggle to get to work on time tell me that they just set their clocks 10 minutes ahead, so they leave home earlier. Inevitably, they quickly fall into a pattern of leaving late for work because they have beaten their own system. For any strategy to work, it is important to plan ahead, particularly with someone who can help with time management, and to stick with the plan.   

Photo by Djim Loic on Unsplash

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