But Seriously, Where Does the Time Go? 8 Tips From ADHD and Productivity Experts To Conquer Time Blindness

Photo: Getty Images/aldomurillo
Time has been a perpetual struggle for me. I’m always late, and I’ve never—seriously, never—fully completed a to-do list. Something that would take another person an hour might take me three. I pretend to laugh it off as quirky behavior, but deep down, I feel inadequate and, frankly, a little broken. It wasn’t until recently that I learned there’s a name for the conundrum I’ve been facing: “time blindness,” or an inability to judge the passing of time and the many struggles that come with that.

Time blindness is widely associated with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and although psychiatrist Sasha Hamdani, MD, notes that it’s not a clinical term, nor part of the criteria for ADHD in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), it’s a very real challenge in the neurodivergent community. In fact, a 2021 review of time perception among adults with ADHD1 called for related symptoms, like inaccuracies in time estimation, to be included in the next revision of the DSM.

Experts In This Article

The concept of time blindness, then, is a “colloquial way” of encapsulating how a person with ADHD might relate to time, says Dr. Hamdani, or the ways in which time may seem to pass them by2.

Chances are, you’ve felt time speed up or slow down, depending on your circumstances: It might fly when you’re having fun, crawl when you’re bored, or practically disintegrate before your very eyes when you’re on a deadline. ADHD can take this subjective experience of time to its extremes. “For me, a minute can feel like an hour, or a minute can feel like a second,” says Dr Hamdani, who has ADHD herself. “It’s just a very different gauge depending on how active my brain is at the moment.”

The connection between time blindness and ADHD

There are several reasons why ADHD can make the passing of time so tricky to judge. Difficulties with attention regulation and differences in temporal processing3 result in symptoms like hyperfocusing, on the one hand, and distractibility, on the other. And both can contribute to the sensation of time blindness.

“When we’re interested, we hyperfocus,” says ADHD coach Tracy Otsuka, author of ADHD for Smart Ass Women. “That can lead to time blindness because we’re so into what we’re doing that we forget what we wanted to do.” In this state of being, minutes or hours can fall away without you really noticing. It’s not unlike being in a flow state, in which time is often felt to be standing still.

“[Hyperfocusing] can lead to time blindness because we’re so into what we’re doing that we forget what we wanted to do.” —Tracy Otsuka, ADHD coach

If, by contrast, you’re hopping from task to task—as is also common with ADHD—it’s hard to estimate how much time something actually takes, says behavioral neuroscientist and board-certified psychiatrist Zoe Martinez, MD, PhD, a clinician at ADHD telehealth company Done. For instance, taking a shower might take 20 minutes in theory. But if in the process, you decide to wash your towels, curate a shower playlist, and finally try your new face mask, you could double or triple that time. Such distractions can easily cause you to lose track of time (cue: time blindness), which makes it hard to plan, arrive on time, and stay on track throughout the day.

“Sometimes people think of distractions as other people, but you can walk through your own house and think, ‘I want to work on that,’” says Dr. Martinez, and just as quickly distract yourself from whatever you were doing or planned to start doing.

By a similar token, folks with ADHD are usually time optimists, too, meaning they have a higher tendency than their neurotypical peers to overestimate how much time4 they have and how much they’ll be able to accomplish within it. So, if a deadline isn’t in the immediate future, it feels like they have all the time in the world to meet it—which, in turn, makes them prone to procrastination.

“We have shorter time horizons,” explains Jessica McCabe, host of the YouTube channel "How to ADHD" and author of the forthcoming book How to ADHD: An Insider's Guide to Working with Your Brain (Not Against It). “It takes longer for a task to land on our mental plate as something that we need to get started on.”

How to recognize time blindness

Running late, procrastinating, overcommitting—all of these can be examples of time blindness in action. McCabe says the majority of people with ADHD self-report issues with time management. And productivity coach Donna McGeorge says she’s noticed that patterns like falling short of deadlines and struggling to get started with projects tend to be amplified in her clients who have ADHD. So if you have an ADHD diagnosis, some of these experiences may sound familiar.

Running late or falling behind

“If someone is unable to accurately assess time, it becomes difficult for them to plan ahead for things that are coming up in the future,” says Dr. Hamdani. That goes for the short term and the long term. Scheduling an afternoon of work, planning ahead to meet a project deadline, or making sure you arrive on time are real challenges for people with time blindness.

Feeling a disconnect with time

It’s common for people with time blindness and ADHD to feel particularly out of sync with time. “Some people have a really sharp sense of time and can tell how much time has passed,” says McCabe. “We often can’t.”

Under- or overestimating how long things will take

“Not only are we not sensing time passing the way that others do, but we’re also not always going to be accurate in terms of how long we think something should take us,” says McCabe, of people with ADHD. After all, if your estimation of what an hour feels like is much longer or shorter than it actually is, it would be tough for you to predict whether you’d need one hour or two (or three… ) to get something done.

Putting off starting something

There are many reasons why a person with ADHD might procrastinate a task, but in some cases, time blindness is to blame. McCabe says a person might put something off thinking they have plenty of time, only to find that the task takes them longer than they expected due to distractions that they failed to account for in their estimation.

How does time blindness affect everyday life?

Planning ahead and completing tasks on time is an integral part of reaching both short-term and long-term goals, and time management is essential to our well-being, says McGeorge. “When we falter,” she says, “procrastination [and] stress can hinder our personal and professional growth.”

Time blindness can also impact others’ views of you and how much they feel like they can trust or rely on you. After all, when people depend on you to arrive at a particular time or turn something in by a deadline, failing to do so—no matter the reason—lets them down. And it’s beyond frustrating to come up short of others’ expectations when you’re trying your best to keep up. “It looks like we’re not trying hard enough, or we don’t care when we’re late for the 17th time,” says McCabe.

In reality, people with ADHD are just operating with different neurobiology. But the feeling of letting yourself and others down as a result of struggling with time management can trigger negative emotions, like anxiety, guilt, and shame. “That shame that we feel, that can get in the way of any strategy being implemented at all,” says McCabe. Getting stuck in a shame spiral surrounding time blindness makes it even harder to figure out how to deal with it and work through challenges.

8 tips for how to deal with time blindness

1. Make time visible

“One of the things that’s really important for the ADHD brain is for things to be visible,” says Otsuka. And that can apply to time, too. Analog clocks are great for making more visual the passing of time, and Dr. Hamdani also recommends getting a visual timer that changes color as each hour passes. This way, you’re not just relying on your innate sense of time passing or even the chance that you look at a clock regularly to register the time; you’re using your sense of sight, says Dr. Hamdani, to see the time “moving” by the minute.

She also suggests using music to keep track of time. Familiar songs and albums will have a distinct beginning and end that can help you measure and take note of time. “You’re still working according to a timer, but you’re using audio cues to get there instead of discrete minutes and hours,” says Dr. Hamdani.

2. Develop your time wisdom

Time wisdom is a way of describing how knowledgeable you are about how long things take you to do; the more of it you have, the more accurate your estimations of time needed to do something will be.

One way to build up your time wisdom is to “guess how long a task will take, and then track how long you actually spend doing it,” says McCabe. The more often you time yourself doing things, the closer your estimates will be to reality, and the more realistically you’ll be able to plan your schedule, says Otsuka, so you don’t wind up with deadlines you can’t actually meet.

3. Plan backward

When McCabe began writing her book, she knew the faraway deadline could make it easy for her to procrastinate. (Remember that concept of a short time horizon?) So she broke down the work into smaller tasks and communicated with her editor to build an accountability plan. That way, she was working toward more frequent deadlines for smaller workloads (rather than one large one), which helped her figure out how much time she’d actually need and schedule her work accordingly.

“[For people with ADHD], time is not intuitive,” explains McCabe. “It requires doing an equation; we actually have to put it on paper, and plan it out, and make time real.”

4. Try a planner

McCabe says planners can be helpful, but only if you’ve built up your time wisdom first. “If you’re trying to accommodate a brain that doesn’t understand time with the same brain that doesn’t understand time, you’re going to create a calendar for yourself that’s really not something you can stick to,” says McCabe.

Schedule things in your planner according to how much time you know you will need for them (ideally, based on having literally timed the tasks) versus how much time you wish they would take to complete. McCabe also recommends leaving buffer time between tasks. This way, if something goes wrong or takes extra time, it won’t throw off your whole schedule and risk making you late for (or putting you behind on) each successive meeting or task.

5. Make lists that you can celebrate

As time optimists, people with ADHD often create to-do lists that go way beyond a realistic capacity. When you only achieve five of the 20 things on a list, Otsuka says, you can feel overwhelmed and perpetually behind. (It’s tougher to feel good about the five things you did do, when 15 things are left undone.) These negative emotions can, in turn, keep you from feeling successful and make moving forward all the more difficult—which can actually worsen your ability to time-manage.

The answer? Write to-do lists that you can actually finish (meaning, shorter ones). Dr. Martinez also recommends breaking down tasks into smaller steps so you can see that you’re actually completing things, even when you don’t finish the entirety of a particular task. And give yourself permission to celebrate every one of your achievements, no matter how small.

“Every single time you cross something off your to-do list, you feel a pop of dopamine,” says Otsuka. “That’s positive emotion, and that generates more positive emotion that allows you to move on to the next thing.”

6. Find the system that works for you

For people with ADHD, managing time and getting things done is all about having a system in place. And what you might not realize is that you already do have a system, Otsuka says. “There are things that you’ve had to get done,” she says. “You’ve used the system to get those things done.”

Think back to a time when you managed to complete something on time, and identify what worked and how you might replicate it. Maybe you broke a task into all of its constituent tasks, wrote them down, and crossed them out as you did them; or maybe you set a timer for every hour, on the hour, and used it as a recurring cue to move to the next item on your list.

There’s no right or wrong here, but rather, this is about experimenting and finding what you like. “It doesn’t matter what works for everyone else,” says Otsuka. The important thing is that the system you land on works for you, and you’re able to use it consistently, says McGeorge.

7. Give yourself a break from time

If you’re racing against the clock, hyperfocusing can pose some challenges; after all, getting sucked into one task for hours can keep you from doing other things that need to get done. But ultimately, the ability to hyperfocus on things that interest you can also be a gift when used to your advantage.

McCabe emphasizes the importance of giving your brain a break from adhering to time restraints and letting it thrive in its natural flow state. “If we have a project that we’re working on, it’s actually better for us to have time in our schedule, or entire days, where time does not matter,” she says, “and we can lose track of time, so that we can get into that flow.”

This way, you can reap the creative benefits of devoting your full attention to a task for a dedicated period of time, without suffering any consequences of falling behind on other things.

8. Speak to an ADHD coach or therapist who specializes in ADHD

If none of the above tips seem to be working, it may be worth your while to connect with an expert who understands ADHD and time blindness, and who can help you figure out how exactly your time perception may be keeping you from time management. In particular, an ADHD coach or therapist specializing in ADHD can help you better understand your time roadblocks and try different solutions to get around them.

In any case, it’s also important to give yourself plenty of compassion as you learn how to deal with time blindness, and to remember that this is a real struggle that lots of people face. With due time, however, you can hack your schedule and your system for your unique brain in order to make better sense of time.

Well+Good articles reference scientific, reliable, recent, robust studies to back up the information we share. You can trust us along your wellness journey.
  1. Weissenberger, Simon et al. “Time Perception is a Focal Symptom of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder in Adults.” Medical science monitor : international medical journal of experimental and clinical research vol. 27 e933766. 17 Jul. 2021, doi:10.12659/MSM.933766
  2. Ptacek, Radek et al. “Clinical Implications of the Perception of Time in Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): A Review.” Medical science monitor : international medical journal of experimental and clinical research vol. 25 3918-3924. 26 May. 2019, doi:10.12659/MSM.914225
  3. Toplak, Maggie E et al. “Temporal information processing in ADHD: findings to date and new methods.” Journal of neuroscience methods vol. 151,1 (2006): 15-29. doi:10.1016/j.jneumeth.2005.09.018
  4. Zheng, Que et al. “Time Perception Deficits in Children and Adolescents with ADHD: A Meta-analysis.” Journal of attention disorders vol. 26,2 (2022): 267-281. doi:10.1177/1087054720978557

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