“No, I mean, right now you have to get in the car,” I growled at my 10-year-old son. “As in, this second. It’s not time to gather your things and put on your shoes and start thinking about maybe moving in the general direction of the car.”
This used to be a common refrain in my household. How was my son never on time, even with checklists? Time is linear. A checklist is linear. Why was getting out the door so freaking hard every morning?
Plotting tasks across a timeline has always come naturally to me, so when I had a son for whom it didn’t come naturally at all, it boggled my mind.
Until I learned about the concept of time blindness. A trait shared by folks like my son who have ADHD, time blindness is just what it sounds like — a lack of awareness of time slipping by, often combined with the inability to plot and accomplish tasks within a set time frame. It’s way more than simply losing track of time, which happens to all of us. It’s losing your grip on the very concept of the time-task relationship. It’s being overwhelmed by the idea of using time as a tool with which to set and accomplish goals.
Experts believe that people with ADHD literally process time differently than neurotypical folks. That feeling of being engaged in a task you enjoy and not even noticing the passage of hours, or the opposite feeling of doing a task you hate seemingly for hours only to realize it’s only been 30 minutes is something we all experience, but folks with ADHD experience it to a much more extreme degree.
My 15-year-old son can go into his composition software on his computer and compose and orchestrate a piano concerto. He loses track of time — gets into a flow state, really — and it works for him. He’s wildly creative. But getting ready to go somewhere and be out the door at a specified time? He’s as likely to succeed at that as any ordinary person is to compose a piano concerto.
That’s because getting ready to go somewhere requires a particular awareness of not only the passage of time, but also the amount of time any given task is likely to take. But if you have ADHD you’re time-blind; how do you know how long any task usually takes? That’s not a detail you’ve ever paid attention to.
Another part of time blindness for people with ADHD is a shortened time horizon. Short-term goals are easier to manage than long-term goals, because short-term goals feel more tangible. At a certain distant point on the time horizon, scenarios start to feel more imaginary, more out of reach. What’s the big deal about planning for something that’s far away? When you feel like something is far off into the intangible distance, it makes it easy to put off planning for it. That’s why procrastination is another big issue for folks with ADHD.
Fortunately, if you or your child experiences time blindness, there are plenty of things you can do to mitigate the negative impact of that and learn to manage your time better. Here are a few that have worked for us:
Checklists, checklists, checklists.
For my son, time blindness can lead him not only to underestimate the amount of time it takes to accomplish various tasks, but also to forget just how many tasks there actually are. Having a checklist with items broken down into smaller components shows the number of tasks that need to be completed, thereby visually representing the need for additional time. For example, a younger child with ADHD might need to have “socks and shoes” separated to “socks” and “shoes” — two individual tasks to be checked off.
Time common activities.
A huge part of time blindness is simply being unaware of the passage of time and by extension being unaware of how long a task takes to complete. Time your child (or yourself) on a common task or with getting ready in the morning or any task that typically leads to you running late. Knowing how long something really takes will help your kid in the future when it comes time to plan.
Encourage your kid to take inventory of tasks in relation to time.
This is a huge one. In the morning, instead of saying, “You still have to put on shoes! Have you taken your meds? Hurry hurry hurry!” say, “We have 10 minutes before we have to leave. What tasks do you have left?” This approach is less confrontational and therefore less likely to induce the kind of anxiety that can cause a kid with ADHD to overload and freeze. Just as important, it prompts your kid to take stock of the time and put the remaining tasks in context within that set timeframe. This is the foundation of good time awareness — understanding how tasks fit into time.
For my son, this is partly to ensure he doesn’t forget things and partly for anxiety relief. Setting an alarm for something he needs to do allows him to get lost in whatever he’s doing leading up to the thing he doesn’t want to be late for. For example, he used to always forget about his Wednesday piano lessons via Zoom. Once he started setting an alert to go off 15 minutes before and 5 minutes before, he never missed another lesson. All the better if different activities have different alarm sounds.
Assume things will go wrong and build in time-buffers.
Assume any task or activity will take 20-50% longer than your first guess. If your kid thinks they can get ready to get out the door in the morning in 30 minutes because they accomplished that one time last year, then they need at least 45 minutes. Teach them (or tell yourself) that it’s good to build in these time-buffers for those days when you spill your cereal or the dog has diarrhea on the dining room rug. If you’re ready early, your reward is reading a book or scrolling social media for a few minutes (but set an alarm so you don’t lose track of time!).
Have a clock visible in every room.
One thing ADHD brains are good at is picking up on random details. If a clock is in a room, you’re more likely to notice it, and notice the time. This subconscious noticing can help build up an awareness of time passing.
Make sure your kid is getting enough sleep.
For many folks dealing with time blindness, mornings are the hardest part of the day. Don’t add to the problem with inadequate sleep. Ensure your kid gets the recommended amount of sleep so that they have the best chance of managing their time well in the morning. A tired, grumpy kid is not going to want to follow a stupid checklist no matter how well-thought out it is.
Despite all of the foregoing, it’s important to note that it’s not necessary for your child (or you) to manage all of the time you have available. One thing I’ve learned thanks to the gift of raising a kid with ADHD is that sometimes it’s the unplanned, unscheduled moments that lead to the coolest achievements. While it’s important to know how to manage time well when the situation requires it, it’s also great to let go of the idea of time altogether and let your creativity take you where it may.
Just make sure to set an alarm if you need to be somewhere.