Time is different for people with ADHD. This insight can help you overcome time blindness and be on time.

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If you live with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), you likely know how challenging it is to be on time. Deadlines can also plague people with ADHD.

These challenges aren’t a personal failing, and they’re not solely related to inattention, a classic ADHD symptom. A symptom of ADHD called altered time perception or “time blindness” plays a large role.

Folks with typical neurology often have an inner sense of how long minutes, hours, and days are, and how much they can do within each time increment. For those with ADHD, time tends to be amorphous, meaning it’s not well defined. It may feel as if time is passing you by.

It’s natural to feel frustrated when time management seems complicated. It can be reassuring to realize that what’s going on has little to do with your character and a lot to do with your brain.

Effective strategies can help you adjust your inner clock to get things done in a timely fashion just like it’s possible to manage other ADHD symptoms.

Folks with ADHD don’t really feel time, according to Sharon Saline, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist. “The switch is broken,” she explains.

Science offers reasons why individuals with ADHD may not naturally manage time as easily as those without the condition.

First, the brain uses memory, attention, and dopamine to accurately predict time. The brains of people with ADHD have problems with all those things.

Second, many people with ADHD have trouble setting a circadian rhythm, or internal body clock based on the earth’s rotation. People with typical neurology naturally sense the rising and setting of the sun, while people with ADHD often can’t — impacting their perception of time.

The result can be that no matter how much you intend or try to be punctual, or how much you want to be there for projects and people, you may have difficulty showing up on time.

A 2019 review and 2021 review of studies that compared time perception abilities of participants with ADHD to a control group found that people with ADHD have challenges in the following areas:

  • estimating the passage of time
  • assessing how long a task will take
  • retroactively assessing how much time was spent on a task
  • planning in preparation to complete future tasks
  • experiencing time passing more quickly than it actually does

The research also suggests there are brain differences affecting distortions of time in folks with ADHD, including:

  • blocked brain connection throughout the central nervous system, which controls how time is perceived
  • altered frontal lobe activity, which affects the ability to estimate time
  • differences in the prefrontal cortex and the pathways that control dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps signal pleasure and sustain motivation

Although you cannot change your brain chemistry, you may be able to learn strategies to manage time that account for these differences.

While living with ADHD looks different for everyone, symptoms can be managed with treatment.

It can be difficult to manage without professional support, and most ADHD treatment involves a combination of medication, therapy, and behavior management.

Similarly, managing time blindness is often best done with both professional support and personal habit-building. Here are some things that may help you hit your deadlines and be on time.

Medication such as amphetamines and methylphenidate that alter dopamine pathways seem to improve the results of time-related tasks in folks with ADHD. These medications also stimulate frontal lobe activity, so they may have positive effects on your ability to estimate time.

Working with a doctor can help you assess if and what medication might work best for you and monitor side effects and dosage.

Dr. Saline is a fan of visual timers, or analog clocks that display the passage of time in a countdown style. For example, if you set the timer for 45 minutes, this time increment is marked off in blue. You can watch over time as the blue lessens and disappears.

You can set the timer for how long you plan to work. An elementary school student with ADHD may only be able to work for 5 to 15 minutes. An adult may be able to work for an hour or longer.

When it goes off, you can set it for a shorter (5 to 15 minutes) break period. This is known as the Pomodoro Technique.

Rewarding yourself for a work block with a scheduled relaxing activity can boost your motivation. Taking a walk or calling a friend are good examples.

It’s also helpful to block out time to eat. Sometimes folks with ADHD begin to hyperfocus once they start working. If you don’t stop to eat, your cortisol levels rise. The resulting agitation and stress can lead to burnout.

Tiny breaks and snacks can sustain your positive energy and motivation for longer periods.

Dr. Saline suggests planning your day backward from a scheduled activity or goal.

Say you have an in-person meeting at 1 p.m. and it takes you 15 minutes to get there. At 12:30 p.m., you’ll need to leave your house. At noon, you’ll probably need to eat. At 11:45 a.m., you may want to heat up your leftovers. At 11:15 a.m., you’ll need to dress for primetime, and so on. Your plan ends where your day begins at your wake-up time.

This method makes future events, including distant future events, feel more concrete.

This is a basic but necessary step. Operate with the assumption that everything takes double the time you think it does. Those who don’t plan for this are almost always late, according to Dr. Saline.

You can set alarms on your phone not only for the starting time of events but also for the time you need to leave your house, etc.

You might also consider checking out apps designed for people with ADHD like:

  • RescueTime
  • Pomodor
  • Focus@Will

They might help you with time management.

When you live with ADHD, time management may not come naturally to you. Understanding how an altered perception of time affects you may help you adjust accordingly.

Consider working with a therapist to receive advice and support around new coping skills. If possible, working with an ADHD coach can also help you develop plans around goals and work on executive functioning.

Working with your brain differences can help make it possible for you to succeed at being punctual.