top of page

E2. ADHD and Time Sense

Today we're going to talk about ADHD and time sense, judging time. Now, for most of you who have ADHD, or love someone with ADHD, you know that this is a big jam up for a lot of us, myself included. It jams us up in more than one way.

We underestimate the time we need

First of all, and I run into this all of the time with myself and with my clients, one of the biggest ways this jams us up is that we don't judge the amount of time that things take.We end up with these crazy lists, these crazy expectations about what we're going to get done in a day. We usually can't get a fraction of that done in the day.

We forget how we spend our time/ don't give ourselves credit

We also don't remember all of the things we've done, we don't remember how we've spent our time. We have this list that has so much left and we feel cruddy. We don't feel like we've accomplished much (whether or not we have), because we're not judging how we spend our time and how long things take so we always have this feeling of catching up and scrambling.

One of the things that I do with almost all of my clients, right off the bat (if it applies to them) is take a look at how they judge time; we make it a game. Okay, this is what you want to get done. How long do you think each task will take? And people are amazed, I'm amazed still. If it's something that I'm going to say, "Okay, I can get this done in an hour". And maybe it takes three hours. So this is one way that our misjudging time does not help us, it makes us feel bad. We don't plan well, we don't anticipate the time that something takes.

We overestimate the time a "dreaded task" takes

But there's also the flip side of this, if there's a task that we're just dreading. I had an IRS related task not long ago, I wasn't in trouble, but it was going to be a lot of steps. I already knew I was going to be on the phone, not knowing what to ask and people would be helping me who didn't know the answers. This was going to be an undefined, long task, and it probably wasn't going to have an easy resolution. This thing stayed on my to do list for months.

I mean, literal months that I was like, "I've got to do this thing", and it hung on me. It took my energy, dragging this task along with me.If you had asked me, "How long will this take?", I probably would have told you half a day. And in reality, it was a really cruddy task, it was just as bad as I thought it would be. But the amount of time it took was nowhere near what I thought it would take. In total, (and this included having go to the bank a couple times and being on hold with the IRS) , it was no more than two hours, maybe an hour and a half. But this task took so much more than that from me because it carried over as a shadow of things to do.

Overestimating causes overwhelm and makes it hard to get started.

That happens to people with ADHD all the time. We misjudge something that we think is going to take a ton of time so we get overwhelmed and we shut down. We don't even do the first step because we think, "Well, why do the first step if this is just going to be a disaster?" It's going to take us so long, it's going to be such a drag, so we don't even start, it just shuts us down. It takes our energy. A lot of my work with people when managing ADHD is about managing energy, because we burn it all over the place. We burn it in so many different directions. Harnessing that and helping us use the energy that we have for what we want to do is huge.

We don't plan for the "accumulation" of time for small tasks

For ADHD brains, there's a third way we get jammed up with judging time- we don't anticipate the accumulation of time: all those tiny tasks that add up to be a significant amount of time. Let's say you're leaving for work and because of your commute, you've got to be on the road at 8:30. What a lot of us do, is we're busy doing something until 8:30. Maybe I'm finishing up this report or I'm just going to run one more load of laundry or maybe I'm just hanging out on my phone. Whatever we're doing, we're doing something until the point that we have to leave, but we're not factoring in all of the little tasks like "Oh, I have to get my socks and shoes. I have to find my keys. I've got to get my phone. I've got to put the stuff back in the refrigerator right before I leave or take my lunch out right before I leave." All these tiny things that we're not factoring in when we're leaving at 8:30.

When we're thinking 8:30, (if you have kids, you can double orn triple this and if you have kids with ADHD, you could quadruple this) you're trying to find shoes, you're trying to find bags, it really adds up to be quite a lot of time. Then by the time you leave, maybe you're late by 15 minutes. If you're around here in the Atlanta area, a 15 minute difference could mean you're adding 20 more minutes to your drive. By that time, the traffic is 20 minutes worse at that point. So at that time, you're actually 35 minutes behind getting to work and you don't know why that happened. You were going to leave at 8:30, and you didn't start something different at 8:30, but you weren't ready to walk out the door at 8:30.

How can we develop a better "feel" for time?

So what do we do? Are we hopeless? Are we never going to be able to judge time? Well, I don't know, maybe, but we can compensate for it. Right? We can know that this is a shortcoming for us and compensate for it. And I personally believe that some of the compensations that you use do help you judge time better. At least, that's been my experience. So I don't think we're hopeless. But even if there are some areas with ADHD that I'm not getting better in, I can compensate for those, so if time is one of those for you, there's things you can do.

  • One of the things I almost always do with people who are struggling with time, is taking their list of things to do and say "Let's guess- let's guess how much time each thing requires". Then we have a sense of how you're actually spending your time.

  • Another feel-good way that I use to work on this is making what I call a "Ta Da" list. This means that at the end of the day you write down what you actually accomplished- nota to do list, it's like, "Hey, tada!" So you're writing down (I know, my kids think that's really cringy. But whatever, it makes me happy). you're writing down the things that you've done and in doing that you're giving yourself credit for the ways you've spent your time. "Oh, yeah, that phone call with that teacher took 30 minutes, hurray, that's done, I got that done."

And you give yourself a little bit of that dopamine boost of satisfaction because you've completed a task, which can be pretty important for us. A lot of us have memory working memory issues, so we don't necessarily know how we've spent our time. So being conscious of that and actually giving yourself credit for that is fantastic. It gives you the ability to appreciate that you did get some things done and how you've used your time.

  • I have another strategy that I actually borrowed from my OT days, my occupational therapy days. I used a visual timer with a lot of my children. And this timer helps us internalize a sense of time, kind of the same way counting on your fingers gives you a physical representation of numbers.

That helps people get that concept and internalize the sense of a number. You can get these timers on Amazon, or really several places. They used to be something you had to buy at therapy stores. I use them myself and my kids and it gives us a good visual representation of time, so we can get a better feel for time.

So this visual timer like I'm describing, it looks like a kitchen timer, but there's a red dial so you can see the time elapse. You can actually see a fraction of a pie as time elapses and it's amazing how that can give you this sense of , "Oh, I'm needing to wrap up" or "Oh, great, I have plenty of time to complete this" when we don't necessarily internalize that normally.

Sometimes we'll even race the clock and have this timer set for a certain amount of time and see how close we can get to what we guessed. So, visual timers are another way that you can give yourself a sense of time if that's just not an intuitive thing for you.

So, wrapping up, time is an issue for us, most of us, but it doesn't mean there's nothing that we can do about that. We can work with things that we know aren't strengths and it can actually help improve these skills. I'm not saying we're going to be the "set your watch by me" kind of people but, (I mean, maybe you will be, I don't know) but there are ways that we can bridge the gap and help compensate for this thing that jams us up. And in doing that we're going to improve our own sense of time.


Interested in learning more about my group coaching program, Embrace Your Brain? Considering 1:1 coaching or have other questions for me? Please feel free to contact me here.

Learn how to use sensory input to change your energy and focus! Register for my FREE Sensory Strategies for ADHD workshop here.

bottom of page