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Coping with time blindness and ADHD

May 21, 2024 | Kristina Lindgren
Image shows an illustration of human head covered in clock faces, each displaying a different time. A blue section at the top of the head shows gears flying from the prefrontal cortex, part of the brain affected by time blindness in people with ADHD and other cognitive disorders.
Overcoming time blindness involves rethinking and resetting your relationship to time, says Dr. Geeta Grover, a UCI Health developmental and behavioral pediatrician.

Hallmarks of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, are chronic impulsivity, inattentiveness and hyperactivity that interferes with learning or functioning.

A less common symptom is time blindness, the persistent inability to gauge the passage of time and how long a task will take.

Time blindness is linked to the workings of the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that manages executive functions, the higher level cognitive skills needed to control impulses, pay attention and complete goal-oriented tasks, says Dr. Geeta Grover, a developmental and behavioral pediatrician at the UCI Health Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders

“Imagine your brain is like a big orchestra,” she tells U.S. News & World Report. “This prefrontal part of your brain is the conductor of the orchestra. It makes sure that everyone is making music together so that we get beautiful sounds.”

People diagnosed with ADHD and other neurodevelopmental disorders have differences in their prefrontal cortex that hinder time management skills and other executive functions. This doesn’t mean their brains cannot produce beautiful music, says Grover, who also is a professor of pediatrics at the UCI School of Medicine.

“They just require a little more practice before they are ready to perform.”

Time blindness is not laziness or purposeful behavior, she emphasizes. “It is not willful. Time blindness is part and parcel of the executive function skills deficits.”

At the Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders in Irvine, Medical Director Peter Chung, Grover and their colleagues work with patients to help them understand how the ADHD brain works and why they are having difficulty sensing the passage of time. They also offer comprehensive strategies, therapies and tools to manage time blindness going forward, and always without judgment.

Signs and Symptoms

Not everyone with ADHD experiences time blindness, a term popularized by neuropsychologist Russell Barkley in the 1990s. People with autism spectrum disorder and other conditions, including anxiety and depression, may also have trouble accurately perceiving the passage of time to a degree that is detrimental.

If issues of focus, time management or productivity are a patient’s concern, Grover often poses a number of questions, such as:

  • Do you often have trouble achieving your goals?
  • Are you having difficulty with your day-to-day productivity?
  • Are you often late to meetings or events?
  • Do you frequently forget tasks or miss deadlines?

If the answer is yes to most of these questions, Grover suggests consulting with your doctor to discuss  ways to address the problem.

Treating time blindness, as well as ADHD, requires a comprehensive approach. It may include behavioral strategies, cognitive therapy, medication, if appropriate, and practice, Grover says.

“What we are really doing is helping people learn to better manage their executive functioning skills. We help people recognize where their weaknesses are and practice skills to compensate for that.”

Tips and tricks

Overcoming time blindness involves rethinking and resetting your relationship to time. A few key changes could include:

  • Adding an extra half-hour or hour to prepare for work or other deadlines to stay on schedule
  • Building in buffer time between activities to avoid overscheduling and to give yourself breaks
  • Logging the actual time to complete tasks or activities to help with future scheduling

“Setting regular routines for daily tasks can help develop a consistent rhythm for them, which will in turn require less conscious effort to get things done,” says Chung.

“Practices like mindfulness and meditation can also help center someone in the present moment. But certain activities like playing video games or looking at social media are more likely to result in excessive lost time, so these should be limited and carefully monitored.”

Time management tools

Many external tools are available to help people shore up their time management, such as phone apps and alarms. Others include:

  • Kitchen timers – The ticking of these low-tech devices can help keep a person accountable to finish in the allotted time frame, Grover says.
  • Hour glasses – If the sound of a ticking timer is distracting, an inexpensive hour glass offers a visual cue to stay on track. They also come with different time intervals.
  • Visual lists – Whether written on a white board or a simple piece of paper, checklists can help prioritize tasks, not to mention offering considerable satisfaction when you can cross one off.
  • Rewards – Do the hard thing first and treat yourself upon completion. “It's much easier to do what you need to do, then reward yourself with an activity that you find enjoyable,” she says.

A variety of “brain-training" programs are also available that are intended to improve executive functioning and attention through mental exercises. But Chung notes that current research is limited on the effectiveness and long-term benefits of these programs, and most aren’t covered by insurance.

“Some brain training programs might be beneficial,” he says. “But I would recommend that people who have concerns about time blindness consult with a professional first.”

Practice self-compassion

Coping with time blindness can be challenging. Building new habits requires tenacity and commitment. What works for one person may not help another. It’s important to acknowledge how challenging it is, Grover says.

“The first thing that I want all my patients to understand is: Be compassionate with yourself and understand that this is not willful, but part of their brain-based differences. Our goal is helping patients to develop and internalize the skill sets they need.”

It’s also important to remember that if you are struggling to manage your time, there is no shame in seeking help from medical professionals and loved ones. “ADHD is a health condition and time blindness is a real symptom,” she adds. “It’s natural to need more support to manage your diagnosis.”

Pediatricians can help a child with ADHD using a multipronged approach that includes behavioral therapies, medication and practicing skills. They can also help develop an education plan with the child’s school counselors.

Adults may get similar treatment and support from their doctors. They may even consider working with an ADHD coach, although these services aren’t usually covered by insurance.

Friends, family, bosses and co-workers also can play a supportive role for someone coping with time blindness.

“Compassion on everyone's part is really, really important,” Grover says. “We need to meet people where they're at.”