If you are often late for class, make friends wait 20 minutes at a cafe for you to show up, or turn in papers or projects beyond their due dates, you are not alone. Many young adults with ADHD struggle with managing time. Despite trying different tips and tools, you’re still miscalculating how long something takes or waiting until the last minute to start it. Why does this keep happening and what can you do to change it?
Learning to manage time depends on understanding the executive functions that affect it. ADHD brains have two switches: NOW and NOT NOW. If the NOW is compelling, you can easily make time for it, perhaps even get lost in that activity. NOT NOW refers to tasks that are uninteresting or tiresome but need to be completed. You put them off for some undetermined time in the future. The combination of NOW/NOT NOW makes you feel as if you are always behind or always catching up. It’s harder to get started on, organize, and prioritize the stuff you’ve got to do.
To improve your approach to the hours of each day, you have to shift your relationship to time, address procrastination and find techniques that make sense to your brain. The key is learning what you can actually do in a certain amount of time and how to know what the movement of time feels like. ADHD brains often experience what's known as "time blindness," which makes this difficult.
Time responds very well to direct instruction: external alert systems, electronic calendars with reminder systems, using analog clocks and timers to see time moves, and setting warnings and alarms can really help you. Organizing a plan for timed work periods with timed breaks can also increase your productivity and reduce internal pressure. If you need assistance with this, ask a counselor or learning support advisor. Put your shame aside: a lot of young people with and without ADHD struggle with organization and planning related to time.
Time management is also linked to procrastination. One of my clients tells me that he’s “the best procrastinator” and leaves everything until the last minute until “there’s a fire under me to do it.” In the meantime, he’s anxious and has trouble relaxing. Procrastination can be debilitating: it’s difficult to start or finish things and leads you to feel bad about yourself in the process. There are three types of procrastination: perfectionist, avoidant, and productive.
- Perfectionist procrastination is an attempt to limit mistakes by making sure something is perfect and, if you can’t, you don’t try. It’s related to the anxiety of wanting to get things right and avoid embarrassment.
- Avoidant procrastination occurs when you really dislike something that you need to do and feel overwhelmed by it. You can’t see where to start and how you will finish.
- Productive procrastination happens when you keep yourself busy doing other smaller things that need to be done but not the main, big task that’s really important. It’s really just a form of avoidance. I’m a big fan of this delay tactic; it makes me feel temporarily efficient.
Improving time management fundamentally involves changing how you put things off. Which type of procrastination do you use and why? Once you’ve figured this out, you can start to break things down into small enough chunks so they don’t feel so daunting. If you break a task down and you still can’t start, then it’s not little enough. Make it smaller and don’t judge yourself as you do this. Use incentives to motivate you.
Of course, you can increase time management skills by reducing distractions. Every time your phone or computer sends you an alert about a message, email, Snapchat, or Instagram post, your focus moves away from what you are doing. These interruptions disrupt the flow of time and make tasks take much longer as your brain has to shift back and forth. This media multitasking slows down efficiency and makes us feel overwhelmed—because we are. It takes more time for our brains to regroup and return to the task at hand than we expect.
Fundamentally, part of learning the tools for time management is believing that you can do things differently. Like most people with ADHD, you’ve probably heard plenty of negative comments over the years about your weaker executive functioning skills. These have likely been transformed into your own internal critical voice. Those blaming and shaming conversations that run through your head about how poorly you organize your time hold you back from making changes.
Instead of negatively judging yourself, take a minute to think about some situations when you overcame obstacles related to time management. Write down what you did to make that happen. Whether you keep this on your phone or post it in a visible place in your home, the goal is to refer back to these tips when you’re stressed. These reminders will build your confidence about trying new tools to do things differently.
Start shifting your relationship to time by looking for little accomplishments that will eventually grow into larger ones. Initially, aiming for big changes that require a vastly different way of being may lead to frustration. It’s too much, too soon. Be patient with yourself to reduce overwhelm and remember that change takes practice, tweaking, and more practice.
Here are a few tips to guide you:
- Slow things down: Panicking about time only makes it worse. You won’t get anywhere good when you’re worked up. Whether it’s breathing techniques, drinking a glass of water, calling a partner or friend, or taking a walk, lowering your anxiety will allow you to think more clearly about possible solutions to your time dilemma.
- Recall a similar situation: Reflect on the last time you were in a time warp. Ask yourself: “How did I get through? What tools did I use? Who or what assisted me? How can I apply any of them to what’s happening right now?” Following my earlier suggestion, write these down so you can glance at them when necessary.
- Practice backward design: Starting with your end goal, work backward and allocate your time accordingly. This means reviewing what needs to be accomplished and honestly assessing how long things really take using basic subtraction. Let’s say your class starts at 9 am. What time do you have to wake up? If it takes 15 minutes to walk there or set up your computer and gather your materials, 15 minutes to eat something and another 20 minutes to get dressed and take a shower, then we’re at 8:10 am for leaving your bed. But since you like to snooze for 10 minutes once the alarm goes off and, because it’s rough to get out of bed, you often need two alarms, one placed across the room. So really, the time to set your first alarm is 7:45 am., which also gives room for any unexpected events like a clogged toilet or no internet connection. You can apply backward design to writing papers, creating presentations, or doing household chores.
- Acknowledge positive steps: Improving time management skills takes practice, tweaks along the way, and lots of patience. But it also depends on self-compassion and celebration: notice your successes. Use incentives and set them up in advance. When you’ve reached a goal, it’s really important to celebrate your positive steps without judging them as being insignificant or unimportant. Pat yourself on the back or do something fun. You’ve earned it!