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ADHD Time Blindness

Updated: Dec 20, 2022

Brain drawing with colors and colored paint splatter

One of the greatest struggles for many people with ADHD is that of "Time Blindness". It wasn't until after I got my diagnosis and began my deep dive down the rabbit hole that is ADHD that I even discovered that Time Blindness is actually a thing. Up until that point, I had just thought that I was incapable of being able to keep track of time as long as I was doing anything I was really interested in.

After learning more about ADHD and how the brain works, I discovered that there seem to be some key components to how the brain processes time when it is engaged in a task or activity. For most neurotypical people, time is linear. Something happens, and time just keeps moving forward. For ADHD brains, however, things work a bit differently. One reason is that hyper-focus affects our ability to process time. When we are laser-focused on something we are interested in, it's like people with ADHD are able to take a snapshot of a timeframe. But when we do that, we keep hitting the enhance button like on TV shows and in the movies. But unfortunately, we can't zoom back out after we hit enhance, so now all we have is that super zoomed super cropped snapshot of time we've brought into hyperfocus when in reality there is a whole image surrounding it that we've forgotten exists making an hour seem like only a few minutes.

On the other hand, if we don't have something keeping our brains stimulated, a few minutes could seem like hours as they drag on. This really makes the whole "the watched pot never boils" adage painful.

One unusual effect of time blindness is that it seems to have the opposite effect for many people with ADHD when it comes to events in the past. To a person with ADHD, an event that happened years in the past could seem as if it just happened yesterday. This effect is usually tied to the emotional dysregulation part of ADHD as the events are usually tied to some emotion they were feeling at the time. A sad event such as a death, or a difficult breakup, could suddenly come up and the person would feel the same as if it had just happened. This makes it very difficult for many people with ADHD to move on from the past.

Time blindness doesn't only affect our immediate perception of time though. It also shortens our "time horizon". A time horizon is a point in the future at which things cease to feel real and begin to feel imaginary. It is the temporal frame in which we can realistically envision and work. Most neurotypical people are able to plan months, and sometimes years into the future because events in the distant future seem real and tangible. For people with ADHD, however, that timeframe is vastly reduced, sometimes down to mere weeks, or even days. This can cause major issues when trying to set goals for the future, or meet deadlines. Oftentimes, if a large project is assigned to someone with ADHD without a deadline, that project will be ignored (especially if it seems boring to that person) until a hard date is set. This is because having no date automatically puts it way out in the future making it not seem tangible. However, if a date is put on the project, especially one that is within a few weeks, that project will suddenly become something tangible within the ADHD brain's time horizon. Thus, it will get put high on the priority list. Many people with ADHD tend to develop coping mechanisms to compensate for their shortened time horizon, becoming very good and working efficiently in a time crunch. This is why people with ADHD often put things off until the very last minute but still manage to pull through thanks to their unique abilities to be at peak performance during a crisis.

Hyper-focus can be a true skill for those of us with ADHD. But, as with all things, there is a time and a place for everything. It's important to always consider the time blindness that inevitably comes with hyper-focus. So, here are some tips to keep your time blindness in check.

  • Never start in on a project if you know you have an appointment or other prior engagement in a few hours. And if you MUST start on the project, set an alarm to go off well before it's time to get ready. This will give you the time you need to break from the focus and recover a bit before getting ready for the scheduled event.

  • Resist the urge to use extra time before doing something you already had planned. Whether it's leaving the house, or going to bed. Don’t do “just one more thing” beforehand. It always turns into more than "just one more thing." Scope creep is an ADHDer's worst enemy. Remember the video of Hal from the TV show "Malcome in the Middle." You know the scene I'm talking about.

  • If you add a commitment, you must always subtract one to balance things out. If your boss tells you to do something when you already have a full plate, simply ask him "Okay, I won't have time to do everything then, which other task should I bump?" If it's making plans with someone, simply say something like “Let me check my other commitments first.”

  • Divide large and overwhelming projects into bite-size tasks with deadlines and reward yourself somehow for each task completed.

Time blindness is certainly one of the harder aspects of managing our ADHD. It's also one of the things that is sure to disappoint those closest to us. But, if we really be honest with ourselves and learn as much as we can about the struggles we have to overcome, I think that we can truly learn to strive with our ADHD and not merely survive.

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Mar 10, 2023

I had no idea what the Hal scene was on Malcolm in the Middle and ended up in a rabbit hole searching. I’m guessing you’re referring to the changing the light bulb that ends with him under his car fixing the engine? Great ending… “Did you fix the lightbulb?“ “WHAT DOES IT LOOK LIKE I’M DOING?!” Lol thanks for the laugh.

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