The unofficial adage of ADHD time management is, “By the time you feel it, it’s too late.” ADHD expert Russell Barkley, Ph.D., has famously said that ADHD is not a disorder of knowing what to do, it’s a disorder of doing what you know — at the right times and places.
Struggles with time management cause the most heartache and lack of productivity for individuals with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD). I had a client whose coworker noticed that if she asked him to do something, and he did it immediately, he would do a great job. If she said he could do it later, it probably wouldn’t get done. The task was easy, but time management was hard.
ADHD is mostly about executive dysfunction. Those deficits explain why people with ADHD have the struggles they do. Our executive functions help us do what we know we should do. Individuals with ADHD are stuck in the present, and have a hard time doing what will benefit them later. The benefit to doing tomorrow’s office assignment or embracing healthy habits now might be avoiding problems and illness later. Looking at ADHD as being about the use of time will change how you understand it and manage it.
ADHD Is Too Much Present, Not Enough Future
Life brings a constant barrage of stimuli competing for our attention and goals needing our efforts. Some of these stimuli and tasks are fun and easy, whereas others are boring, frustrating, or exhausting. Some give us immediate payoff (“Ooh, that tweet is hysterical!”), but others involve doing something now for a future benefit (“If I put away the receipts, I’ll be better off for next year’s taxes.”)
We should try to strike a good balance between enjoying today and preparing for tomorrow. It is hard to disconnect from the distractions and temptations of the moment to create the space where we can mull over our options and make the best decision. Individuals with ADHD are more absorbed than others by what is happening now. It’s harder to create that space to give the future its due until the future becomes the present and the scramble begins.
Those with ADHD are heavily influenced by what is going on around them. Those without ADHD have an easier time ignoring external stimuli. Neurotypicals can apply their executive functions to decide what to do based on their goals. The further away a potential reward or punishment is, the less people with ADHD are motivated by it. A Friday deadline doesn’t mean much on Monday. Setting tomorrow’s 6 a.m. alarm doesn’t get them into bed at 10 p.m. People with ADHD understand that it would be good to act sooner rather than later — they just have trouble actually doing it.
I have a client who has been a salesman for 20 years. He is great with his customers, but he has trouble taking notes while meeting with them, and is always late with his sales report. Yet the inability to do the sales report on the 31st doesn’t motivate him to take notes when the new month comes around.
For many adults with ADHD, future events and consequences don’t show up on their mental radars until much later, and they don’t notice them. Even if some task is on their radar screen, they can’t muster the motivation to act on it. This leaves them overly dependent on the pressure of the looming deadline, and, therefore, free to procrastinate, as my salesman client usually does.
See Time by Externalizing It
People with ADHD don’t understand time as clearly as they should — What’s due when? How long will that task take? How long have I been doing this task? Is it time to leave yet? But that’s OK, if you supplement internal abilities with external tools, beginning with plenty of clocks within easy eye-shot. Analog clocks are best because they make the passage of time more visible. Make it easy to see what time it is, and also make an intentional choice to look at those clocks and think about what time means — Should I keep doing what I am doing? Is it time to do something else? Success starts with awareness, but requires intention.
It’s hard to do the right thing at the right time if you don’t know what you’re supposed to be doing now. Therefore, some sort of scheduling system is necessary for most of us. Whether you use a paper or an electronic schedule, the more you pay attention to it, the better it works. If you have a lot of items in your schedule, set reminders and alarms to help you stay on track. Get rid of low-priority alerts, so the important ones stand out. Even if you aren’t perfect about consulting your schedule, having one is better than winging it from memory.
I often recommend that my clients put to-do list items into their schedule. Tasks tend to languish on to-do lists (“Is now the time to do that?”). By planning to take action at an actual time, you are more likely to get a task done, and less likely to merely react to whatever comes at you during the day. I have a client who runs a busy office and could spend all week just responding to emails, calls, and drop-ins. He has been planning his time better and shutting his office door to work on specific tasks.
Scheduling tasks lets you see your day filling up, which can reduce over-commitment. Block out chunks of time for each task, rather than having a list of tasks to be completed. If circumstances change or something isn’t completed, no big deal — move it to somewhere else on your schedule. You will see the big picture: the time you have in the day and the tasks that are beginning to fill that time.
Feel Time by Maximizing Motivation
I’m a believer in natural consequences, but they have their limits. The problem for individuals with ADHD is that the last awful, late-night marathon doesn’t affect what happens this time. Even if they know they should get started earlier, they don’t feel the pressure soon enough. Meanwhile, the temptations of the present create an unfair fight, and the future has a hard time winning. (“OK, let’s go out to eat. We’ll save for retirement next week.”) My programmer client knows that he should use breaks to stay current on documentation, but instead finds himself on YouTube.
In order to feel future consequences, we need to remember past experiences and bring that feeling to the present. Imagine the future in as much detail as possible: “Won’t I feel better on Thursday night if I start preparing for that Friday morning meeting now? How will I feel about myself on Thursday night and also during the meeting? What if I wait until Thursday evening — how will that feel?” The more vividly you can imagine feelings and consequences, the more motivating it will be.
Tip the Balance
Time management may feel like a slippery, foreign concept, but it basically comes down to the tug of war between maximizing the present or maximizing the future. The siren song of the present will always call sweetly, so apply some intentional effort to keep those future goals front and center. Managing ADHD mostly involves helping the future to win over the present.
Practical Ways for ADHD Brains to See Time
1. For your morning routine, post a note in the bathroom stating the time you need to leave the bathroom. Put a similar note in your bedroom, and another in the kitchen. Make sure there is a visible clock in each room.
2. When putting appointments into your schedule, include travel time before and after, as well as prep or transition time. Then set an alarm to go off when that first step begins.
3. Take a couple minutes at the start of your day to plan your priorities — and when you will work on them.
4. Put your lights and/or TV on a timer to shut off, to remind you to go to bed.
5. Use Internet-limiting devices, like Circle, to limit time online.
6. Turn off auto-play on your various streaming services, so you see the current time between videos.
Practical Ways to Be Mindful of Time
1. Schedule frequent check-ins with your boss or coworkers, so you can’t procrastinate.
2. Create external accountability by telling someone else what you intend to get done, then asking him to check in with you.
3. Create intermediate deadlines for your big projects (finish writing the report by Sunday, first draft by Wednesday).
4. Make sleep, diet, and exercise a priority, since these will give you more energy and allow you to use your time well.
5. Create rewards for completing tasks (you can go out after you finish the dishes).
6. Have a set bedtime, so that you feel pressure to get things done earlier in the evening.
7. If delaying is costing you financially (in late fees, etc.), imagine what you can do with the money you will save by acting sooner.