ADHD Symptom Spotlight: Time Blindness

Woman working on her laptop in her bedroom at night

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ADHD Symptom Spotlight is a series that dives deep into a hallmark or overlooked symptom of ADHD each week. This series is written by experts who also share their tips on managing these symptoms based on firsthand experience and research-backed insights.

The human body senses time in a similar way that it senses light, sound, taste, and other elements of our environment. Based on a mix of internal and external cues, a typical human brain can map out a reasonably accurate sense of what time of day it is, how much time has passed, and how much time there is before any upcoming events.

For people with ADHD, though, this time perception is disrupted, resulting in a symptom known as time blindness.

What Is Time Blindness?

Time blindness is the inability to sense the passing of time and it can make nearly every aspect of a person’s life more difficult. The important thing to understand is that it is a sensory issue, not an intentional disregard for time.

While the process is not fully understood yet, the most widely accepted framework for time perception among researchers is the scalar expectancy theory (SET). SET describes time perception as a kind of internal clock where time is measured out in pulse rate.

For most people, it’s possible to estimate with reasonable accuracy when one minute has passed because their brain knows roughly how many times their heart beats in a minute. As that number of beats nears, they’ll intuitively start to feel like the minute is almost up.

The brain combines this pulse information with other sensory inputs like brightness levels and temperature changes in their environment to build an overall picture of where they are in time and how fast they’re moving through it.

How Time Blindness Shows Up

Time blindness happens when that process is disrupted or defective leading to problems that often get mislabeled as poor time management, including:

  • Underestimating or overestimating how much time has passed, how long a task will take, or how much time is left before an anticipated event
  • Chronically missing deadlines or arriving late, even for things you are excited about
  • Difficulty making a realistic schedule or sticking to a schedule
  • Constantly “losing track” of time
  • Frequently feeling like time is “slipping away”

It can also show up in subtler problems like:

  • Slow response or reaction times (like putting your hand up to catch a ball too late)
  • Difficulty regulating the speed of movement (like trying to make yourself walk slower)
  • Difficulty estimating how long ago an event happened, such as when answering seemingly simple questions like “when did you eat lunch?” or “when did you last go on vacation?”

It feels like being suspended in an eternal present. I’ll check the clock at 9:35, go back to reading my book for “a few minutes,” and after what honestly feels like a few minutes, I’ll look up again to see that the clock now says it's 12:15. 

If I forget to set a timer, I’ll put a pot of water on to boil and leave the kitchen for “five minutes,” only to come back hours later to find an empty pot because all the water has evaporated.

Before treatment, I would make the most ridiculous to-do lists, assuming I could crank out upwards of 15,000 words worth of articles in a single day because I had no idea how long it actually took me to research, write, and edit an article. I’d agree to a deadline, only to utterly fail at planning the project in a way that allowed me to actually finish it by that deadline.

Time Blindness in ADHD

People with ADHD consistently have challenges with perceiving time (estimating how much time has passed or how much time is left before an upcoming event), time sequencing (correctly recounting the order in which events occurred), and time reproduction (repeating a task for the same amount of time that it occurred previously).

This time blindness may be, in part, related to the fact that people with ADHD do better with hot cognition (emotionally charged tasks). One study that compared time perception on neutral and emotionally charged tasks found that people with ADHD consistently performed poorer on neutral time perception tasks than the control group, as was expected. On emotionally-charged tasks, however, participants with ADHD outperformed the control group.

This also fits with the growing body of research on emotional asymmetry in non-ADHD populations, where strong emotional stimuli can distort their perception of time, possibly because changes in heart rate triggered by heightened emotions disrupt that “internal clock.”

In other words, the intense emotions that can end up disrupting cognitive functions in a non-ADHD brain are exactly what a person with ADHD needs to get those same functions working effectively.

The need for emotional stimulation in order to perceive time accurately is further confirmed by research linking time blindness in ADHD to dopamine deficiencies. One study found that prescription stimulants and monetary rewards (both of which increase dopamine levels) were able to improve time perception in participants with ADHD.

So time blindness in ADHD seems to be a combination of the brain failing to unconsciously or passively interpret sensory input like pulse rate, light levels, and temperature changes as indicators of time passing and insufficient dopamine levels to trigger a conscious or intentional tracking of time.

How Can People with ADHD Cope With Time Blindness?

I still struggle with time blindness. Medication is the closest I’ve gotten to feeling like I could actually sense time passing, but it’s still a tenuous grasp at best. For the most part, coping for me has meant developing a time management system that can account for time blindness. Here are some of the strategies I find most helpful.

Consciously Track Time

Whether you use time tracking apps or just a spreadsheet (like I do), start timing yourself for the tasks where you need an accurate perception of time. When I sit down at my desk to start an article, the first thing I do is log the time I started. I also note when I stop for breaks and when I finish the project.

After a while, this time log will be a helpful reference when planning out your schedule, giving you a much more accurate idea of how much time each task needs.

Give Yourself a Dopamine Hit (or Two)

Since time blindness may be linked to dopamine deficiencies, increasing dopamine levels can help compensate for that. Build a dopamine enhancing routine that includes some or all of the following things:

  • Eat foods rich in vitamin B6. B6 deficiency is associated with dopamine deficiencies. Good sources of B6 include fish, chickpeas, bananas, oranges, and dark leafy greens.
  • Drink coffee. Like prescription medications for ADHD, caffeine is a stimulant so it will have a similar (but milder) effect. Just keep your daily intake of caffeine at or below 400 milligrams (about four cups of coffee).
  • Go out in the sunlight. Sunlight stimulates neurotransmitters that can trigger dopamine release.
  • Exercise. Like sunlight, exercise also stimulates dopamine production. But don’t overdo it as overtraining can have the opposite effect.

Since many of the cognitive issues people with ADHD experience seem to relate to low dopamine levels, these habits can also help moderate your other symptoms.

Set Timers

For any activity where you risk getting lost in time, set a timer in advance that can pull you back and remind you to check the clock. For example, never leave the kitchen while cooking without first setting a timer to remind you to check on the food. Before you open up social media, set a timer to make sure you close the app within a reasonable time frame.

Decide how much time you can give to an activity, then set a timer for that much time so that you actually know when time is up.

Include Buffer Time in Your Schedule

Buffer time is extra time I don’t think I need (but actually do) because I’m terrible at judging how long a task will take. If I think it will take one hour to edit an article, I give myself two. If I think it will take 15 minutes to run to the post office, I give myself 30-45 minutes.

This helps prevent overloading your schedule for the day and gives you some wiggle room in case you get sidetracked at any point (which, let’s be honest, is going to happen).

Listen to Music

Listening to music has been shown to help most people focus. For people with ADHD, though, it has the added benefit of improving your ability to perceive time. Background music may provide an external cue for your brain to track time while you focus on another task. If it’s music you enjoy, it may also provide the emotional stimulation needed for your brain to kick its own time perception system into gear.

It could also just act as a stand-in for boring timers. Instead of setting a timer for one hour before you start a task, put on a playlist or album that lasts one hour. You can make a variety of playlists for different time intervals so that you have them on hand when needed.

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