ADHD & Time Management

Are you always late? Do you find yourself constantly disappointing your friends, family and co-workers for not showing up on time for key appointments? Do you ignore the clock when you have to leave the house, because you “know what you’re doing?” Do you sincerely wish you could learn to be on time, but secretly fear that chronic lateness is just a part of who you are?
Welcome to Adult ADD’s war on time management.

If my description strikes a familiar chord, I’d like to let you in on a little secret: I’ve been there, done that and bought the t-shirt. As someone who has struggled with Adult ADD, I vividly recall the days when I simply could not show up anywhere on time. I also recall the looks of frustration on the faces of the people I kept letting down. Their reactions to my chronic lateness usually depended on how long they had known me, but the pattern was always the same. The first few times, people were willing to cut me some slack. After a while, my inability to show up on time became a major issue in my relationships with other people. Girlfriends gave warning. Bosses issued ultimatums. Parents and relatives stopped even trying. Slowly but surely, I watched as a “quirk” in my personality morphed into a permanent label. I was branded with the scarlet “L” of lateness.

In fact, it was not until I joined a men’s support group, where an honest exchange of thoughts and feelings was valued, that I truly began to understand that my lateness actually hurt other people. It also led to a self-fulfilling prophecy that destroyed my self-esteem and left me feeling ashamed of myself most of the time. Once I realized this, it was “easy” to accept that I had to change. I began to chart my reactions on the rare occasions when I did show up time. I noticed that being punctual helped me feel better about myself and relieved the shame I was carrying around. As I continued to gain mastery of this aspect of time management, I even reached the point where I felt I could hold others accountable for not being on time without feeling like a hypocrite. All of which is to say that coming to the realization that I had to change was the easy part of the equation – painful, but easy. Putting it into practice was a different story altogether.

Before we get focus on what you can do to learn how to show up on time, it is important to clear up misconceptions about how adults with ADD relate to time in general. You may unknowingly harbor these misconceptions yourself, so it’s vital that you gain an understanding of some basic concepts if you want to move on to the next step.

Contrary to what many people assume, the vast majority of adults with ADD, do not actually intend to be inconsiderate or disrespectful when they show up late for an appointment. Instead, it all goes back to how your brain is wired. Research shows that the Adult ADD brain is wired for stimulation. To anyone with ADD, this is probably not news. What is news is that the way your brain is wired has a direct impact on how you relate to time. Non-ADD adults operate within the familiar time frames of past, present and future. Adults with ADD, on the other hand, view the world in just two time frames:

Now and Not Now.1

“Now” is whatever is in front of you at the moment. The meeting that’s supposed to take place in twenty minutes? That’s called “Not Now.” To make matters worse, to the ADD mind, Now always takes precedence of Not Now. What does this look like in everyday life? Consider the following “Now/Not Now” scenarios:
• The manager who delays writing his meeting agenda until moments before the staff meeting. (Now trumps Not Now.)
• The hostess who does not clean the house are go shopping until the morning of her dinner party. (Not Now, even though it has been on the calendar for weeks, does not exist.)
• The dad who keeps surfing the Internet instead of cooking dinner for his family. (YouTube is Now. Dinner is Not Now.)

Left to their own devices, adults with ADD do not see these actions as rude, insensitive or careless. Rudeness has to be intentional to count. Instead, for someone living in a binary Now/Not Now world, being late does not factor into the equation. Nevertheless, to the rest of the world, it’s not much of an excuse. It may not be intentional rudeness, but it is still the root cause of all late behavior and poor time management. Furthermore, because the rest of the world views time as a continuum, failing to modify this core way of behaving inevitably wreaks havoc on relationships.
For example, as part of my practice, I sometimes work with the spouses of adults with ADD. The most common complaint I hear is “What is he (or she) doing with all of his time?”
Sheila L. is one such client. She works as an executive recruiter in Manhattan. Her husband, Martin, is unemployed. She described a typical scenario as follows:

“I had him create a card catalog with chores that need to be done around the house,” she said. “The other day he had three cards to complete. Three. Not 13, not 30, but three.
“Cat box, dog poop and sweep the kitchen.” She went on to describe Martin’s day. “He got up at seven in the morning. When I got home from work at three in the afternoon he was just starting the floors.” For his part, Martin told Sheila that he liked the card system – but he still had trouble managing his time in terms of getting things done.

“The cat box and dog poop might take about five minutes each,” she said. “So where did the remaining 7 hours and 50 minutes go?” She added that she was additionally irritated by the fact that Martin was unemployed and therefore “had all day to complete these tasks.” What Sheila did not know is that for nearly eight hours, Martin was caught up in the Now/Not now continuum. He did not relate to his day as being eight hours long. He related to his day as being eternally “in the present moment.”  Now imagine adding in the additional responsibility of showing up for time to an interview, or work, or a lunch appointment, and you can see just how much devastation this one symptom can cause.

For Martin and other adults with ADD such as yourself, the first step to improving basic punctuality is to develop a conscious awareness of what you are doing at any given moment. Many adults with ADD think that being “on time” means arriving at the start of the meeting or appointment. In other words, if the meeting is called for 8 a.m., then being “on time” means getting there at 8 a.m. The truth is, “being on time” requires much more than that. It requires a series of concrete steps prior to the meeting that result in your successfully achieving that goal. Non-ADD people do this automatically. For adults with ADD, the process has to be delineated and learned, similar to any other multi-step skill.

For example, ask yourself, “What activities have to end and what have to begin in order for you to be on time?”
Furthermore, traffic, parking, walking to the meeting place all have to be factored into a proper understanding of what is required to arrive on time. To compensate for this, a good idea is to simply plan on arriving 15 or 20 minutes early. That means considering – and writing down – 7:45 as the “starting time” of an 8 a.m. meeting.

Try a few practice runs. Think of it as an adventure. Time yourself on how long it actually takes to get to work or even to complete a “quick” errand. Telling your wife you will be back in “ten minutes” should not translate into three hours. Try running an errand to the corner store to see how long “ten minutes” actually takes. Then make a note of it so you can manage not just your time but also the expectations of the people around you. It is also a good idea to be aware of what activities you did that were not included in the original task. How much time did they take?

Another part of learning how to show up on time is to build in safety mechanisms that help you transfer focus from one task to another. Once you have determined how long it takes you to get to an appointment after you walk out the door, work backwards and then set alarms to remind yourself to shift focus. It may even help to program verbal messages into your phone. If you set two alarms, the first alarm could come with a message that states, “You must leave in five minutes. Stop doing what you are doing and get ready to leave.” The next alarm could state, “Five minutes are up. You must walk out the door.”

Speaking of getting out of the door, many adults with ADD find the simple task of walking out the door nearly impossible to do in one fell swoop. Keys go missing, important folders disappear, phones get left under the bed. This can lead to a lot of extraneous running around – and wasted time – prior to leaving the house. The remedy for this is to prepare beforehand. It may seem childish to lay our your supplies the night before – but it works. Leave a large not on the door that reminds you to make sure you have everything you need, with an itemized, specific list: Keys, directions, phone, important papers, wallet, money, snack, etc.

Incorporating these steps into your routine will help you master the fine art of showing up on time. You will be amazed how much stress can be relieved by this one fix. But there’s another side to the time management coin that causes a lot of headaches for adults with ADD: Over-commitment and managing expectations. We’ll cover that in the next chapter.

1. Why ADHD adults are usually late and how to improve your time-management skills so you’ll be on time, every time. by Michele Novotni, Ph.D.