Time Management Tips for Adults With ADHD

Time management is tough for most adults with ADHD

business man running late

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I’m running late.
I’ll be there in just a little while.
I am so sorry I'm late.

How many times have you said these words? It feels terrible to be late—to work, to your doctor's appointment, to your meeting, to meet a friend, getting the kids to school, and even worse, picking the kids up from school. How can you stop this cycle? How can you improve your time management?

ADHD coach Kay Grossman, M.A. explains that effective time management requires two skills that people with ADHD often naturally lack, but can learn–planning and marking the passing of time.

According to Grossman, the best prescription for being on time includes:

  • planning ahead on a daily basis
  • employing strategies that use the individual’s preferences and personal style
  • using external cues to indicate elapsed time

Grossman provides a few no-fail solutions for addressing specific time-management dilemmas.

Challenge: Planning Too Many Activities

How many times have you committed yourself to too much? Grossman says that this over-scheduling occurs quite often. Sometimes we become too gung-ho or unrealistic about the number of things we can get done in a given period. Other times, we may have difficulty saying “no” to requests others make of us. Unfortunately, over-committing and over-planning simply sets us up for frustration.


  1. Choose a planner that works for you, considering size, technology, ease of use, portability, color, and feel.
  2. Mark out times for known, set, key events such as work times, meal times, carpools, and standing appointments.
  3. Keep note of items that you "should" do versus items that you "want" to do. You may want to tackle your disorganized filing cabinet, but you should first tackle an assignment that's due tomorrow.
  4. Create a to-do list and then choose no more than three to five high priority items to complete on a given day, marking them with an asterisk or color-coding system. Write those items in your planner in the gaps of time available.
  5. Think “subtract” or “swap” when you add an item to your daily plan. Keep in mind the finite number of minutes in a day and the fact that you are only one person. If you have the means, consider delegating some tasks to others, like sending dirty clothes to the laundromat rather than doing the laundry yourself.
  6. If a big project overwhelms you, consider breaking it down into multiple mini-projects, with a deadline for each.

Challenge: Having What You Need to Get Out the Door on Time

It's time to go, but your necessary items are scattered all around the house. Where are those car keys? Where are my glasses?


  1. Establish holding places near the door for keys, wallets, backpacks, and purses. Make it a habit of placing those items in the special place any time you walk in the door.
  2. Put any items you need to take with you in the morning in the designated holding place or on the floor next to the door. Encourage all family members to do the same.

Challenge: Having Too Much to Do in the Morning 

You can’t decide what to wear. Your shirt is wrinkled, so you have to iron it. You finally decide what to wear, but now one of your shoes is missing from the closet.


  1. Reduce morning stress by preparing the evening before. Gather all items for your morning outfit, including shoes and accessories, before you go to bed.
  2. Establish and post a list of the morning routine. Do only those items. Do not squeeze in anything else.

Challenge: A Lack of Internal Cues That Help You Judge the Passing of Time

How many times have you been engrossed in an activity on the computer and lost track of time? This happens to people with ADHD quite frequently. We get involved in an interesting activity, completely lose our sense of time and as a result, we miss an important meeting or picking the kids up from school on time.


  1. Strategically set timers to ring or vibrate as a convenient external cue of elapsed time. You may even use a combination of a vibrating watch alarm set as a warning signal and a freestanding timer set 15 minutes later as a reminder to get off the computer in a timely manner.
  2. Set a cell phone or watch alarm to vibrate every 10 or 15 minutes. When the alarm goes off, use that as a cue to orient yourself in time. Ask yourself if you are doing what’s most important at this moment and if you are where you need to be.

Challenge: Estimating How Long Specific Tasks Take

Grossman notes that with a fluid ADHD-style time sense, it is difficult to know if there’s enough time to finish a report the morning before the big meeting, to take one last phone call before leaving to drop off the children at soccer practice, or to make “just one stop” en route to the doctor’s office in time for the appointment.


  1. Double or even triple the amount of time you think it will take to do something and then plan accordingly.
  2. Make a rule for yourself that you will simply not do that “one last thing” before leaving the house for an appointment or en route to a destination. Set and stick to your deadlines and to-do list.
  3. Hone your time sense by practicing. Start by estimating how long tasks will take. Write your estimates in your planner next to the item and keep track of the actual time spent. Look for patterns. Do you usually underestimate how long it takes to drive places? Do you tend to overestimate how long it will take you to complete your expense report? With a vigilant practice of guessing and recording the actual elapsed time, the gap between your estimated and actual time will narrow. You’ll feel more in control and will arrive places consistently on time.
  4. Determine how much time it truly takes you to get ready to leave the house in the morning, accounting for everything that must be done.

Challenge: Failure to Account for Time Eaters 

What are time eaters? Grossman explains that time eaters are the seemingly trivial, peripheral activities that accompany most actions we take, eating into our time without our awareness. They include traffic snarls, searching for parking spots, walking from parking lots into buildings, elevator delays, finding the right office, and the need to run back to the car for a forgotten item. Time eaters also show up at our workplace, interfering with on-task effectiveness. They include phone calls, audible e-mail alerts, and stoppers-by.


  1. Build in plenty of time to account for time eaters. Double or triple the amount of buffer time you normally allow for traveling to a destination.
  2. To optimize timely task completion, choose a chunk of time when you’ll turn off the phone ringer and your e-mail alerts, and hang a sign on your closed door requesting no interruptions.

Challenge: A Desire to Avoid Being Early, Which Results in Being Late 

Grossman notes that some people simply don’t like to arrive places early. They may dread the discomfort or tedium of waiting for a meeting or appointment to start.


  1. Pack a "guilty pleasures" tote bag and keep it in your car to use just in case you arrive somewhere early. Guity pleasure items are those you enjoy but often deny yourself due to a perceived lack of time. They might include magazines, novels, catalogs, or crossword and sudoku puzzles. A variation on this theme is a "found time" tote bag, which might include projects without a set deadline, such as thank-you cards (along with pens and envelopes). You may even find yourself aiming to arrive early so you can reward yourself with your “indulgent” activity.
  2. Use the wait as necessary downtime in your day. Try a simple meditation technique of focusing on your breath, or simply remind yourself that a few minutes of daily downtime is required for recharging your brain, making it a productive use of your time.
  3. Take advantage of this time by accomplishing those things you're unlikely to schedule such as cleaning out your wallet or purse, balancing your checkbook, or tweaking your to-do list.

The next time you find yourself running late, review Grossman’s list. Find your “challenge” and try each of the suggested solutions. You may find yourself arriving places on time (maybe even early!) and feel much more relaxed and happy.

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By Keath Low
 Keath Low, MA, is a therapist and clinical scientist with the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities at the University of North Carolina. She specializes in treatment of ADD/ADHD.