Time Management Skills for ADHD Brains: Practical Tips


The unofficial adage of ADHD time management is, “By the time you feel it, it is too late.” ADHD expert Russell Barkley, Ph.D., said ADHD is not a disorder of knowing what to do, it’s a disorder of doing what you know – at the right times and in the right places.

Struggles with time management cause the most heartache and difficulty getting things done for people with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity 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. The task was easy, but time management was difficult.

ADHD primarily concerns executive dysfunction. These deficits explain why people with ADHD have the difficulties they lead. Our executive functions help us do what we know we need to do. People with ADHD are stuck in the present and have a hard time doing what will benefit them later. The benefit of doing the office job tomorrow or adopting healthy habits now might be to avoid problems and illnesses later. Viewing ADHD as a time use issue will change the way you understand and deal with it.

ADHD is too present, not enough for the future

Life brings a constant barrage of stimuli competing for our attention and goals requiring our effort. Some of these stimuli and tasks are fun and easy, while others are boring, frustrating, or exhausting. Some report to us immediately (“Ooh, that tweet is hysterical!”), But others involve doing something now for future profit (“If I put away the receipts, I’ll be better off for next year’s taxes. “)

We should try to find a good balance between enjoying today and preparing for tomorrow. It’s hard to disconnect from the distractions and temptations of the moment to create the space where we can think about our options and make the best decision. People with ADHD are more absorbed than others by what is going on right now. It is more difficult to create this space to give the future its due until the future becomes the present and the rush begins.

[Take This Test: Could You Have an Executive Function Deficit?]

People with ADHD are strongly influenced by what is going on around them. Those without ADHD find it easier to ignore external stimuli. Neurotypical people can apply their executive functions to decide what to do based on their goals. The further away a potential reward or punishment, the less motivated people with ADHD are. A Friday deadline doesn’t mean much on Monday. Setting tomorrow’s alarm at 6 a.m. doesn’t put them to bed at 10 p.m. People with ADHD understand that it is good to act as soon as possible – they just have a hard time doing it.

I have a client who has been a seller for 20 years. He’s great with his clients, but struggles to take notes on his appointments and is always late on his sales report. Yet the inability to do the sales report on the 31st does not motivate him to take notes as the new month approaches.

For many adults with ADHD, future events and their consequences don’t appear on their mental radar until much later, and they don’t notice them. Even if a task is on their radar screen, they cannot muster the motivation to complete it. This leaves them too dependent on the pressure of the impending deadline and, therefore, free to procrastinate, as my selling client usually does.

See time by externalizing it

People with ADHD don’t understand time as clearly as they should – What is due when? How long will this task take? How long have I been doing this task? Is there still time to go? But that’s okay, if you supplement the internal capabilities with external tools, starting with many clocks within sight. Analog clocks are the best because they make the passage of time more visible. Make it easy to see what time it is, and also make the intentional choice to look at these clocks and think about what the time means – Should I keep doing what I’m doing? Is it time to do something else? Success begins with awareness, but requires intention.

[Get This Free Handout: How to Manage Your Time at Work]

It’s hard to do the right thing at the right time if you don’t know what you’re supposed to be doing right now. Therefore, some sort of planning system is necessary for most of us. Whether you use a paper or electronic diary, the more attention you pay to it, the better it works. If you have a lot of items in your schedule, set reminders and alarms to help keep you on track. Get rid of low priority alerts, so the most important stand out. Even if you’re not perfect at looking at your schedule, it’s better to have one than to do it from memory.

I often recommend that my clients put to-do list items in their schedules. Tasks tend to languish on to-do lists (“Is now time to do that? “). By planning to act at a specific time, you are more likely to complete a task and less likely to simply react to everything that happens to you during the day. I have a client who runs a busy office who could spend the whole week answering emails, calls, and walk-in visits. He planned his time better and closed his office door to work on specific tasks.

Scheduling tasks allows you to see your day fill up, which can reduce over-engagement. Block out time slots for each task, rather than having a to-do list. If circumstances change or something isn’t finished, that’s okay – move it somewhere else in your schedule. You’ll see the big picture: how much time you have in the day and what tasks are starting to fill that time.

Feel the time by maximizing motivation

I believe in natural consequences, but they have their limits. The problem for people with ADHD is that the last horrible late-night marathon doesn’t affect what happens this time around. Even though they know they should start earlier, they don’t feel the pressure soon enough. Meanwhile, the temptations of the present create an unfair fight, and the future is struggling to win. (“OK, let’s go out to eat. We’ll be saving for retirement next week.”) My programmer client knows he should use breaks to keep up with the documentation, but instead ends up on YouTube.

In order to feel the future consequences, we need to remember past experiences and bring that feeling back to the present. Imagine the future in as much detail as possible: “Won’t I feel better Thursday night if I start preparing for this Friday morning meeting now?” How will I feel on Thursday evening and also during the meeting? What if I waited until Thursday night, how will it be? The more vividly you can imagine the feelings and consequences, the more motivating it will be.

Tip the scales

Time management may seem like a slippery and alien concept, but it basically boils down to a tangle between maximizing the present or maximizing the future. The siren song of the present will always call softly, so make intentional efforts to keep those future goals in the foreground. Managing ADHD is above all about helping the future overcome the present.

Convenient Ways for ADHD Brains to See Time

1. For your morning routine, post a note in the bathroom indicating when to leave the bathroom.. Put a similar note in your room and another in the kitchen. Make sure there is a visible clock in each room.

2. When making an appointment in your schedule, include the travel time before and after, as well as preparation or transition time. Then set an alarm to go off when this first step begins.

3. Take a few minutes at the start of your day to plan your priorities. – and when you will work on it.

4. Put your lights and / or your TV on a timer to turn off, to remind you to go to bed.

5. Use devices that limit the Internet, like Circle, to limit the time spent online.

6. Disable autoplay on your various streaming services, so you see the current time between videos.

Practical ways to be aware of the weather

1. Schedule frequent check-ins with your boss or colleagues, so you can’t procrastinate.

2. Create external accountability by telling someone else what you intend to do, then ask him to check with you.

3. Create intermediate deadlines for your major projects (finish writing the report by Sunday, first draft by Wednesday).

4. Make sleep, diet and exercise a priority, because 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 finishing the dishes).

6. Have a fixed bedtime, so that you feel the pressure to get things done earlier in the evening.

7. If delay is costing you financially (late fees, etc.), imagine what you can do with the money you save by taking action sooner.

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