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My ADHD Brain Knows That Time Is A Big Ball of Wibbly-Wobbly, Timey-Wimey… Stuff

Time. For some people, it is natural, concrete, and predictable. For me (and for Doctor Who), however, it is abstract and nebulous, racing by during one activity while slowing to a halt on another activity. You may have heard of “time blindness” – a short-hand term for the ADHD brain’s cluster of time-related difficulties. While this term doesn’t point me to a solution, it certainly resonates with me since my brain doesn’t automatically record or predict time.  If you have similar struggles, here are four of my biggest struggles around time, and some tips to make time into something tangible.

My ADHD Brain Knows That Time Is A Big Ball of Wibbly-Wobbly, Timey-Wimey… Stuff

1. Long-term deadlines seem impossibly far away. No matter how well-intentioned, a deadline extension can sap my motivation in a heartbeat. And a reward that’s too far from now seems positively mythical. If long-time scales feel meaningless to you, set mile markers along the way that will actually fit into your view. Got an end-of-the-semester paper? Give yourself weekly progress deadlines. Want to clean out the basement by the end of the month? Set a daily time devoted to working on it. Bring your deadlines as close as you need to to make them meaningful.

2. When I have free time, I get less done. I often imagine a movie where an astronaut has become untethered from their ship and they’re floating out in space. If there’s nothing on my schedule, I drift through time, waiting for “later” to arrive. So, I set anchor appointments to help myself not lose whole days of free time. These are things that will help define my time and create a boundary if I do take time to do nothing. I especially like it if these appointments are pleasant and have a social component; that way, I’m not motivated to skip them!

3. My lateness is highly context-dependent. When teaching dance, I was always on time for a class. Yet, I could be relied upon to be late every time for personal gatherings. After I moved past beating myself up over it, I realized that when I was getting into “teacher game-face mode,” I would talk through the timing of when I needed to leave. By externalizing the plan, I moved from vague to specific and had a better idea of how long I would need. You can guess which two examples had better results in the two examples below. Whether spoken or written, the more concrete my plan was, the more likely I was to arrive on time.

a. Vague planning: “We’re meeting at 10, so I’ll get up at 9.”

b. Externalized (specific) planning: “Class is at 10. I want to get there early to change shoes and set up the music, so 9:45. With parking, call it 9:40. It takes 20 minutes to get there, plus 10 minutes for me to hunt for my wallet/shoes/keys; leave at 9:10. So I’m going to need to get up at 8:30 to make sure I can get dressed and grab some cereal before we head out.”

4. I don’t naturally know how long anything takes. If you ask me how long something will take, there are two options. I’m either going to be able to recall a similar task and make adjustments, or I’m going to ultimately make up an answer without really meaning to. The second one feels like estimating, but if I’m honest with myself, it’s just guessing. So the trick is to have a lot of data so I can use the first method – the one that’s actually estimating. If you want to develop your mental time database, you can either record the duration of a task or squeeze work into a defined block of time and record how much you got done. Whether it’s a time-tracking app, the Pomodoro method, a clean-for-fifteen, or a daily journal – the point is to use the tools to gather information instead of expecting your brain to observe the passing of time on its own.

It’s normal if time-viewing doesn’t come naturally to you! If you struggle with conceptualizing time, the most important thing to do is identify what puzzle piece is currently tricky for you and choose strategies that address that challenge. All the timers and calendars in the world won’t help if they’re not being applied to the right problem. But you and your magnificent brain can find all sorts of creative ways to support yourself once you’ve identified the issue.

Mike Legett

ADHD Coach and Life Coach, Executive Skills Coach