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Time Blindness and ADHD

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By Sarah Ludwig Rausch

About two years ago, I essentially banned myself from Facebook because I totally lose track of time while I’m scrolling through. Every single time, and then I emerge an hour or two later, horrified when I see how much time I’ve just wasted. That’s how it is when you have ADHD and time blindness. If you’re not careful, a good chunk of your day can slip away before you know it.

Understanding Time Blindness

Time is an issue for most people who have ADHD. In a presentation to parents of kids with ADHD back in 2009, Russell A. Barkley, Ph.D., infamously said that “ADHD is … time blindness.” That definitely struck a chord for me.

Time blindness means you have absolutely no concept of time. No idea how long tasks take, no clue what time it is without consulting a clock, no perception of how many minutes have actually passed. Time is subjective. And if it’s not melting away faster than snowflakes falling on a campfire, it’s crawling along like a crocodile with a full belly.

Susan Ciardiello, Ph.D., LCSW, an ADHD coach and psychotherapist in New York and New Jersey, explains that time blindness is an ADHD trait that involves chronic lateness and a poor sense of time — “or ETA — the estimated time of anything,” she says, laughing. “You don’t have a realistic sense of how long things should take or how much time has passed when you’re engaged in an activity.”

According to Nikki Kinzer, a Professional Certified Coach, an ADHD coach and founder of TakeControlADHD.com, people who experience time blindness see time as fluid, without a beginning or an end. “You don’t have a good sense of how fast or slow time is going,” she says. “It’s almost like time doesn’t exist unless you are looking at it.”

Why Time Blindness Affects People With ADHD

Most people with ADHD have difficulty with executive function. Ciardiello says this is a set of skills that includes:

  • Planning and prioritizing
  • Time management
  • Working memory
  • Organizing tasks and materials
  • Initiating tasks and following through with them
  • Flexibility
  • Response inhibition (the ability to stop yourself from getting distracted)
  • Emotional control
  • Sustained attention
  • Goal-directed persistence (having a goal, sticking to it, and completing it)
  • Metacognition (understanding your own thought processes)

“Keeping track of time involves a number of these (skills), such as flexibility, sustained attention, time management, goal-directed persistence and metacognition,” Ciardiello says. In other words, time blindness is related to executive functioning. And since that’s where ADHDers tend to struggle, it makes sense that time management is an issue for us.

“How someone with ADHD experiences time depends on what they’re doing and their interest level,” says Kinzer. “If they love it, they can hyperfocus. If they don’t like it, they can easily become distracted.” She says her clients have a hard time estimating how long a task will take, especially if it’s a new one. “It can be very frustrating for people because it’s hard to plan your day when you really don’t know how much time you have,” Kinzer says.

Tips for Managing Time Blindness

If you’re struggling with the frenzy that time blindness can cause in your life, our experts have some tips:

  • Put a clock in every room of your house. “Visual cues help!” notes Ciardiello.
  • Use alarms to remind you of upcoming events, tasks and activities. Kinzer recommends setting two or three to go off at different times before you need to leave “just to make sure you don’t get distracted.”
  • Give yourself some structure. Make a rough daily schedule of your priority tasks to increase your awareness of time, suggests Ciardiello.
  • Try hourglasses or time timers (clock-like devices that show time passing in a more visually stark way. And yes, that’s what they’re called). Kinzer says using either of these gives you a visual to show you how much time is passing by.
  • You might try the Pomodoro Technique. This involves working on a project for a set time (usually 25 minutes), then taking a short break (five minutes or so.) Then repeat that process four times, after which you take a longer break (usually 20-30 minutes.)
  • Be mindful about overbooking and don’t squeeze in “one more thing,” Ciardiello advises.
  • Track your time on tasks that you do regularly, such as getting ready in the morning. This will tell you how long it really takes instead of how long “you think or hope it is. Then you can start to plan more effectively,” says Kinzer.
  • Make a point of overestimating how long tasks will take, Ciardiello says.
  • Pinpoint activities that put you in hyperfocus (intense focus that lasts for a long time) and then plan for them. But don’t forget to set alarms and/or ask someone to tell you when it’s time to stop so you don’t lose time, Kinzer notes.
  • Get more comfortable with being early. “Think of how many things you can do on your phone if you’re early,” says Ciardiello. “It’s not that bad!”
  • Watch out for time suckers. If you’re going to do something you know is a time suck, be sure to set an alarm first.
  • Consider ADHD coaching and/or cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) to help you develop time management skills.

Sources:

Russell A. Barkley Presentation at Centre for ADHD Awareness, Canada conference

Medical Science Monitor: Clinical Implications of the Perception of Time in Attention Deficit Disorder (ADHD): A Review

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