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Time blindness is a pain where a pill won’t reach. Seriously. There are many complexities in life, but few are as frustrating to the ADHD person as their relationship with time. I’m no different. Time rules our lives yet our neurodiverse brains slip in and out of time, treating it like the concept that it is. Unfortunately, like most social concepts, time is here, and it isn’t going anywhere. That means all of us wonderfully spontaneous and charming ADHD people have to find a way to survive in a world that isn’t best suited to the time blind.
People get super touchy about time. While I was researching for some resources for this post, one of the articles I happened across about time, in general, said that people show up late to establish dominance. Ok, maybe in the neurotypical world that’s a thing, but if I show up late it is likely because I was walking the dogs or got sucked into a task and didn’t take note of the time. It isn’t part of a nefarious plot, just a regular day function of my ADHD. Time blindness can be frustrating, but you can improve your relationship with time. Let’s take a look at the wonderful world of time blindness.
What is time blindness?
Time blindness refers to the inability to gauge the passage of time. The ability to estimate how long a task will take is affected. The ability to sense time is also off. Have you ever gone to send five minutes on a task only to stop working on it and realize it has been an hour since you sat down? Have you ever delayed sending an email, not realizing it has been two weeks since you replied? Have you ever gone out for just a few minutes and come back hours later than you expected? All of those instances are common occurrences for someone who is time blind.
Though the name and the symptoms clearly indicate how serious time blindness is, it is a difficult concept to convey to someone who is neurotypical. To gauge time seems effortless to them, almost like breathing. The idea that someone actually doesn’t know that dinner is burning and that isn’t a one-off occurrence but something that cannot be fixed by being “more careful” is foreign to them. If you’ve ever tried to explain time blindness to someone who doesn’t have it, you already know how skeptical they can be. They will listen and eye you suspiciously, trying to decide if you are serious or drawing a rather long bow at their expense. Ironically, after a period of time observing an ADHD person and seeing the consequences of time blindness, they usually begin to believe that there is a problem. Whether or not they’ll believe it isn’t caused by some irresponsibility on our part is another story, but they will absolutely believe it exists.
What are some of the negative consequences of time blindness?
Time blindness can cause some big trouble in our lives. Being late for meetings, not showing up for school before the bell rings, keeping a friend waiting for fifteen minutes for your lunch date. All of those things can happen when you are living with time blindness, and people are often too annoyed to try to understand. Employers especially can be unforgiving, as time blindness to the untrained eye can look like a willful disregard for the time of others. Without a proper understanding of how they can support the ADHD person with their time blindness, people will begin to exclude the ADHD person from activities, make rude comments about their tardiness, frequently insult them by saying things like “I don’t trust you to be on time” or “ we already KNOW you’re going to be late” and other insensitive remarks that don’t take into account that the most frustrated person isn’t them, but the person with ADHD.
Often the people in our lives can become so frustrated by our symptoms that they no longer see them as a symptom we have to deal with, but a problem that personally offends them. When people begin to take your ADHD personally it can cause serious damage to your relationships. For me, when I hear people beginning to make those kinds of remarks when I’ve already explained to them how ADHD works lets me know that I can’t trust them. In order to be a friend, coworkers, associate of mine and get along well, I need you to have a certain sense of humor and a level of empathy that doesn’t involve trying to “improve” me by scolding me for not being on time. I have a mother already, and she raised me well. I’m not taking any new applications. Funnily enough, I’m not often late anymore unless my anxiety or PTSD are triggered, but that’s another post.
Here the incredible Russell Barkley gives a great overview of what time blindness is and what it means for those of us with ADHD.
Are there any benefits to being time blind?
For every negative, there can also be positive, even if it can be hard to see at times. As much havoc as time blindness has brought into my life, there have been some benefits. I feel sorry for people who cannot lose themselves in something. To be able to sink into a good book and forget the world for a bit of time, to get swept away by a project you feel passion for is one of the good things in life. In fact, I feel the most alive when I am operating out of the constraints of minutes, hours and seconds.
Hyperfocus is one of those time blindness-related things that make me feel glad, even though it can cause me some trouble in the long term. The ability to focus on something when I desire to is sometimes just not possible. In those moments when I am able to, I feel grateful and can’t help but ride the hyperfocus wave and enjoy it. Hyperfocus isn’t something you want to rely on routinely to get tasks done because it is so fickle, but when you ARE able to get hyperfocus to align with your interests, it can be magical.
How time blindness turns your life into extremes
There are two times in the time blind world: now and not now. That means the doctor’s appointment you have next week, your cousin’s wedding that is in a month, and that project you have to have completed three months from now are not on your radar. Those are not now. ADHD people can find their lives in quite a wreck because of the consequences of dealing with the fallout from these types of tasks that require preparation and focus. Since we are always cleaning up the mess from the last disaster, that puts us behind for future tasks. We become hamsters on a wheel, running at top speed, but never seem to progress. Everybody wants to feel like their hard work is paying off, but despite many of us ADHD people working really hard to succeed in life skills, we often feel like we are failing. Certain parts of life just require being able to work a plan. Our time blindness, once it is managed can become much less of a factor in trying to live well. It isn’t going away, but you can learn skills to control it.
What kind of problems does time blindness cause?
TIme blindness is a troublesome symptom because the whole darn world runs on time. Taking a class? Gotta be there on time. Working at a job? Gotta be there on time. Watching a show on regular television? Gotta be there on time. We know those pretty well, but what about the other ways that time blindness can affect us? Once upon a time, I was in London, running a bathtub full of water to relax after an evening at the pub. I looked away for what felt like one minute, then hotel staff was knocking on my door to tell me that I had overflowed the tub. Or when I turn the water on to boil then get a phone call and come back to a nearly empty pan a while later.
Time blindness doesn’t just affect our ability to be on time, it also affects our ability to estimate how much time a task will take. We are constantly having to do this over the course of a day. How long will a task take? How long will a commute take? How long will it take for me to get ready to go out? All of those things are more difficult for us to gauge and we also live in an impatient world where people expect us to have quick answers for those questions. Then if our estimate is off, they get upset with us. Over time it begins to feel like a scenario we can’t win. It can sometimes be helpful if we can get the people in our lives to understand.
What’s an easy explanation for the people in my life?
Here’s the thing that I have found over time that can help with situations like this. Just explain to them that you have trouble estimating time. Don’t bring up anything about ADHD at all. For some reason, whenever we bring up the fact that we have an actual condition that can cause an issue for us, people immediately reject that explanation and tell us to stop making excuses. I don’t know why this is so ingrained in our natures, but when someone explains their issue to us and gives us the reason, we often take it as an excuse. Don’t set yourself up for that pain. Tell them that you have difficulty estimating how long something will take. Tell them you get absorbed into projects and lose track of time. Tell them all of the symptoms without telling them the reason why, unless you feel that there is some reason they should know specifically. That will help you get around the whole “don’t use that as an excuse” pushback that we so often get.
Why time blindness has been hard for me to accept
Time blindness has been difficult for me to make peace with, mainly because for so long being time blind made me feel incompetent. Adult ADHD kicks my butt. Being able to arrive places on time, being able to know how long a task is going to take, and being able to perceive the passage of time is seen as such a natural piece of life that it felt shameful almost. The entire time that I struggled with those feelings of inadequacy, I lost time – no pun intended. I lost time that I could have used learning new skills. The time that I could have used asking for support from the people who loved me I spent reading. I lost time that I could have been successfully navigating the world because I didn’t like the idea of my brain being different in this way. It made me feel broken. I just wanted to be able to tell time as everybody else did. So I wasted time trying to tell time neurotypically instead of managing my time in a way that would help me to be successful in the areas I needed to be successful in. Once I came to the end of my desire for what I perceived as normalcy and decided to apply some skills to begin telling time in a way that worked for my mind.
What are some ways to combat time blindness?
The name of the game when you are ready to begin managing time blindness is to externalize. When your brain can’t estimate the passage of time, it is totally ok to find some device, tool, or technology to give you a hand. These tools are there to supplement what your brain can’t do: mark the passage of time.
- Use an analog watch– We’re in the digital age, but sometimes it is good to be old fashioned. For people with ADHD, it can be difficult to visualize time, but analog watches help to bring that back into possibility. While digital clocks only give you what the present time is, analog clocks allow you to physically see how much time has elapsed in an hour and how much time is left in an hour. Being able to see the time can help you to track time outside the present moment.
- When trying to stay on task, use a nudge alarm– When we are working on a project or even just goofing off, it can be difficult to track the passing of time. For some of us, it can be helpful to have an alarm or a chime go off to alert us to the passage of time. For me, having a timer go off every 15 minutes as I am working can be so helpful. I often have a timer set that will go off at those intervals to help me not lose track of the time that is slipping by.
- Stop hyperfocus before it starts– So there I was, getting ready to start my day when I sat down to watch just ONE episode of a TV show. A TV show I really, REALLY like. You know what happened next. Several hours later, there I was watching the show still and being very annoyed with myself when I didn’t get the job done. Hyperfocus happens to us so naturally that we just can’t help ourselves. Once we get into a task that we love to hyperfocus on, it is not shocking at all to find we can’t tear ourselves away. Do your best to stay away from these kinds of tasks before you have to do something important. If you just can’t resist, go in there with an alarm and a UNSHAKEABLE commitment to doing the task at hand once the time has elapsed.
Do the same tasks at the same time each day- Every day at 10 AM I take my meds, walk my dogs, and eat. Why? Because doing the same task at the same time day after day after day has gotten that task ingrained in my mind and produced a rhythm for my day that is unavoidable. Just like any other type of repetition, it becomes easier to mark the passage of time when you have performed that task time after time. In other words, practice can make better. Not perfect, but better.
- When estimating the time it will take to perform a task, estimate off the worst-case scenario– When an ADHD person works on estimating the time it takes to do something, you’ll find that they often estimate on the very best case scenario, or they will leave the steps it takes to complete a task out. For instance, it may take only about 20 minutes to drive to work. So you budget for 20 minutes, but you don’t budget for the stop to the convenience store you make every morning. You also don’t budget for the time you’ll need to run back if you forget something or make a late start or run into traffic or any of the other real-life scenarios a person may encounter. We budget for the 20 minutes total drive time that it takes if we get in the car and go straight there. A way better way to plan is to expect some extra time will be needed. Let’s take our driving to work scenario. If you add a twenty-minute buffer into that daily commute, you’re leaving yourself enough time to stop at the convenience store or get caught in traffic, or god forbid go back home to get what you missed. Also, if you set an alarm for when it is time to leave it will be SUPER helpful, just trust me.
ADHD presents many challenges to us over the course of a lifetime, but few of them can be as frustrating as our relationship with time. This is a skill that you CAN sharpen over time, I promise. I know it feels impossible now, but if you can stop seeing time as your enemy, it will become less frightening to you over time. Time blindness is something that can be worked with and your timekeeping skills will improve. It has taken me a few years of tweaking, and life is always throwing a new challenge into the mix that makes it more complicated, but if you can believe it, I’m so often on time that now it throws the people in my life off. My best friend, who was friends with me seven years prior to my diagnosis, shared with me the other day that she has had to stop putting the time buffer in that she was used to giving me because now I show up on time and she’s not ready yet! Who would have ever thought it? If *I* can overcome time blindness, I feel like there’s big-time hope for you.
Until next time,