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6 Tips for Better Managing Time for Adults with ADHD

Adults with ADHD have a fluid relationship with time.

Adults with ADHD just don’t experience time as others do. This results in some fair amount of conflict with others at home, socially and on the job. Here are just a few examples of the kinds of run-ins around time I’ve heard about from my clients:

  • The couple who, in the middle of their move, realize they forgot the keys to the moving truck. The ADHD husband drives to their home, which is five minutes away, to get them. He returns to his waiting wife two-plus hours later. It turns out he decided to watch some TV while he was home.
  • The wife who says she will go to pick up some supplies but is distracted by something else and never manages to leave the house.
  • The man with ADHD who has been asked to be ready to leave the house at 6 pm, and who gets up from his computer to begin getting ready at 6 pm. His wife is angry, as he does this regularly and doesn’t seem to pay attention to her suggestions to start getting ready earlier.
  • The man who decides to repaint the porch shutters before the family’s engagement party, starting the day before the party in spite of the protests of his wife, who knows full well the job needs a week to complete.
  • The woman who has work to do Sunday afternoon and tells her family she will be ready to join them by 2 pm. She opens her office door at 4 pm, surprised it’s so late.
  • The couple who both want to go to church, but the ADHD partner never can make it on time. To the embarrassment of his partner, they consistently walk in about 10 minutes late.

If you're married to someone with ADHD, it’s possible that one or more of these situations sounds familiar. Time management skills for those with ADHD are often impaired as part of their executive functioning issues. The key issues are:

  • Living in the present moment
  • Distractibility
  • Flow and hyperfocus
  • Transitions
  • Poor time estimation

Living in the present moment

Ned Hallowell likes to say, “There are two time zones with ADHD, the now and the not now!” Either something is in the now and you are paying attention to it or it’s in the not now (past, future, or currently holding your attention) and it’s completely off your radar screen.

There are some implications for adults with ADHD. First, it helps to bring something important into the "now" at the right time. This is why alarms and reminder systems are so important for ADHD. Second, a great way to get something done is to do it right now! That’s why an ADHD partner, when he or she decides to do something, will run off and do it right then.

But if that same partner gets distracted, then the original task moves into the "not now" and it may never surface again, as with the second example above.

Flow and hyperfocus issues with time

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is miserably and incorrectly named. Not everyone who has ADHD has hyperactivity. Furthermore, it’s not about attention deficit, it’s about attention dysregulation. People with ADHD sometimes have trouble holding their attention, while at other times have trouble not holding their attention. This latter is called hyperfocus or, sometimes, flow. When you are really interested in something and you have ADHD, it can be hard to break away from that interesting thing. Further, you lose all sense of time. This is what happened to the woman who worked on Sunday. And the man who watched TV instead of returning to his wife to move got distracted, then hyperfocused.

Transitions and time estimation

People who have trouble with attention regulation have real trouble with transitions from one thing to another, which is definitely the case with ADHD adults. Sometimes they transition too quickly because something captures their attention (distraction) and sometimes they have trouble getting away from something (hyperfocus is hard to break out of). The man who didn’t start getting ready soon enough both misestimated how long it would take him to get ready and had trouble moving away from what he was doing on the computer (“I can get one more email done before I stop!”)

In this case, it turned out that this man had quite a long transition routine of which he was completely unaware. When I asked him what he needed to do to get ready he answered: "Walk the dog, take a shower and then get dressed." We figured out the who thing took him about 45 minutes. And he did it every time he prepared to leave the house. No wonder his wife was angry about his tardiness all the time! Once he realized he had this transition period, it was easier for him to plan that leaving at 6 pm meant starting at 5:15 pm.

The woman who was always late for church had a similar issue but never figured out how to allot enough time for her preparations to get to church on time, in part because she didn’t really care if she was late, even though her husband did. That couple solved their issue by driving separate cars so each could arrive at the time they desired.

The man who painted the porch? That was poor time estimation, and the party needed to be moved elsewhere. His wife was angry for a very long time. To address the issue, the couple needed to work on some of their interactive strategies, and he needed to trust her instincts on time estimation better.

6 tips for managing time better if you have ADHD

  1. Set alarms to interrupt hyperfocus or flow. If you wish to work for one hour and then join your family, set an alarm to go off at 55 minutes and 60 minutes. The first tells you to finish up, the second to get up and leave.
  2. Be creative in your solutions. It’s okay to drive two cars and arrive separately. Do what works, not what's expected.
  3. Take transitions into account. Think about how long it takes you to get out of the house; drive home for dinner; get out of bed in the morning or whatever the thing is that you are trying to do. Time it, don’t guess if you have trouble estimating time. Then, give yourself that amount of time plus a 10-20 percent fudge factor so you really can get out (or be done) when you want to.
  4. Be humble. If your partner suggests you don’t have time to paint the porch before the engagement party, consider doing touch up or just leaving the project until later and buying a few potted plants to mask the peeling trim. If that thing hasn’t been done in forever and your non-ADHD partner is telling you not to do it instead of “do it now!”, heed his or her advice. There’s a likely good reason for it.
  5. Set reminders to bring you back to really important tasks. Studies suggest that kids with ADHD who have a mirror placed behind their desk stay on task longer, because when they get distracted and start to look around they see themselves studying in the mirror. This reminds them they are supposed to be studying and they settle back in. You can set up a similar sort of reminder system – either one you "stumble upon" (like the mirrors or notes you leave yourself on the garage door to bring something to the cleaners) or audible alarms – say every 30 minutes while working at your desk that remind you to return to the paper you’re writing. Change the tone regularly so you don't just shut it out.
  6. Co-regulate. The man who went to get the moving van keys could have said to his wife, “If I’m not back in 20 minutes please give me a call to make sure I didn’t get distracted.” While this is less ideal than his setting an alarm for himself, it is still better than sitting around for two hours waiting. Even without the conversation, it would probably have made sense for this woman to call and check in somewhere around the 30-minute mark to see what had happened. Co-regulation means using each person’s strengths to jointly accomplish your goals. Consider it a buddy system.

ADHD partners will likely continue to have a fluid relationship with time. But with these strategies and a better understanding that this doesn’t mean the ADHD partner isn’t committed to the relationship, the two of you can traverse this issue much more easily.

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