If you know someone with ADHD or have it yourself, you likely know about difficulties with time management. Why do people with ADHD have problems with time management? Neuroscientists have been studying an area of the brain called the basal ganglia which is thought to have to do with time perception. Recent tests conclusively demonstrated that timekeeping functions are controlled by the basal ganglia and the right parietal cortex. 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, people with ADHD have a difference in their brains that makes them more likely to have differences in time perception — and difficulty getting places on time.
First of all, I would like to say, there are two sides to this issue. As a person with ADHD, let me apologize to all of the people I have ever run late for in my past… college professors, friends, girlfriends, my parents, workout buddies… most everyone. As a person with ADHD, you will likely spend many hours of your life agonizing about running late and yet it can continue to happen. It can feel like a vortex with no escape. Working with people with ADHD, I see the agony and we try to build plans to learn from what went wrong to implement better systems. You may ask, “how can this work if their brain senses time differently?” It’s a process of building tools that help with areas of difficulty… much like glasses for someone with impaired vision.
Tips for helping with time management
- Try not to overwhelm yourself. People with ADHD are famous for making a todo list that becomes as long as the tax code and they get overwhelmed before they start. Thus, they don’t like doing to do lists. It’s important to have a system to track todo items but also one that helps to break them down into small chunks. I like the Daily Grid Balancer by David Seah a lot. Part of what is helpful about it is it gets you to focus on your top 3 tasks for the week, a few tasks each day, and “other stuff.” Doing something like this each week is really wonderful to help you visualize your week.
- Give yourself enough time for tasks. A good next step is to find slots in your planner or online calendar to focus on these tasks and give yourself more than enough time for them as things will always come up. I can’t tell you how often I have clients that show me their daily schedules which are double and triple booked with events at the same time and they don’t even leave time for lunch or basic daily needs.
- If you are going somewhere, use tools to be on time. Leave Now is a good app for iOS and they are even adding something similar into the core of iOS9. Leave Now is helpful though as it even shows you a countdown clock till you need to leave and factors in traffic.
- Analyze what goes wrong. Do you find yourself surprised when you look at your calendar by something you forgot that you had put on there? Would a reminder the day before help? Do you have too many reminders and they are making you numb to notifications? If you were a consultant paid to help yourself, what advice would you give? Pay attention to the little things as they will help you a lot in the long run and don’t get discouraged.
- Put deadlines in plain view. Each person is different about this. In college, I wrote deadlines on my hand. In grad school I put them on a white board in my bedroom. Now I have them on a online calendar with time appropriate reminders and on whiteboard as a visual cue. Find what works for you. Maybe even try a little GoogleFu on visual and auditory reminder systems… just set a time limit so you don’t get lost on tangents.
- Medication may be a part of things. I have seen some clients where medication has been helpful but I wouldn’t say this is the case for everyone. I strongly suggest for clients to see a physician for a checkup and if they are interested in medications, do some homework first to see what feels right. ADDitude Magazine has a whole section about ADHD medications.
If you have a partner with ADHD, ask them about their sense of time and how they see it differently. Many will report that time isn’t a sequence of events but rather a combination of emotions, feelings, and events that they recall but it is as more of an abstract thing. Be patient with them as this can easily affect their self esteem and potential make them defensive about a topic they are sensitive to. You might even want to consider using some motivational interviewing questions in talking with them. Certainly, you can be frustrated, but focus on potential solutions together and remember.