It’s not only about being organized. One of the biggest challenges of living with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), no matter how old you are, is working with the ongoing challenge of monitoring our executive function, including:
- How we spend our time
- Managing our energy
- How we actively prioritizing our daily responsibilities
We recognise ADHD as a lifespan condition, but it’s not the same throughout life. Sometimes the symptoms of ADHD show up much more intensely than other times, which can be both frustration for the person with ADHD, and non-ADHDer’s who depend on them. This very inconsistency of the disorder itself makes it challenging to be consistent in proactively managing how it affects us.
In many ways, our problems with time are closely linked to many of our executive function challenges, with these invisible functions resulting in very visible missteps in life, which of course affects our relationships.
People with ADHD can:
- Have difficulty in estimating how long something will take,
- How much time is passing at any given moment, and
- How much time is left to finish the task at hand.
People with ADHD in therapy or coaching then, can become increasingly aware of how they manage time (a good thing), and more often notice time slipping by, but still often feel unable to do anything about it. Understandably, this causes distress, which leads to more inattentive or hyperactive and impulsive behaviours (sometimes things get worse before they get better).
Is this really ‘procrastination’?
ADHD-level ‘procrastination’ is not the same as non-ADHD procrastination – its’s next level. It’s fueled by similar things, like anxiety about decision-making (making a wrong choice), a fear of failure (which leads to perfectionism driven procrastination), and also ironically, a fear of success (if I do it well now, they’ll expect consistent success from me and I can’t do that).
The critical difference is that ADHD brains also have these very real challenges of invisible brain functions (or lack thereof) preceding these thoughts and emotions listed above.
How many times have you heard an exasperated parent say something like, “that child would forget their head if it wasn’t attached to their body?”
50% to 80% of all memory problems in daily life were, at least in some point, problems of prospective memory.
Prospective memory is a term which refers to the memory to perform an intended action at a particular point in the future, like, I need to grab milk on the way home from work today. It can also be described then as 'the delayed execution’ of an intended action - an essential skill for everyday life functioning. [i]
Prospective remembering comprises multiple processes and phases:
- First, the person has to form the intention and plan when they want to do what.
- Then they have to store this intention in retrospective memory while being engaged in other ongoing tasks.
- When the appropriate moment for intention initiation arises, the individual has to inhibit other ongoing activities and,
- switch to the intended action and execute it as planned.[ii]
The ability to plan, know when to start a task and what one will need to compete the task, are a fairly sophisticated set of functions that non-ADHDer’s might take for granted.
We can see then, the ability to recall at a certain time or event in the future that an action or task has to be executed, is the core of prospective memory and a core of how we expect emerging adults and adults to behave on a regular basis.[iii]
Challenges in time ‘management’ underpin many of the daily challenges of the ADHD brain.
Difficulties with the perception of time can lead to difficulties in the planning aspect of any remedy for executive dysfunction, such as the use of a calendar, scheduling the appropriate amount of time to complete an assignment, and setting short-term goals.
Interventions that address both the time issues as well as some of the other roadblocks, like interest-based nervous system and managing overwhelm are better than tips in isolation. A few of the quick tips that we find success in implementing include:
- ONLY think about starting - not finishing. The whole task can be too much and can trigger overwhelm. Try just creating an outline, and jotting down how many ‘chunks’ you can break this job into.
- Identify the best time of day for YOU to tackle something you kinda dread (even though its important). When is YOUR mental energy highest?
- Make a To-Do List but SHORT. Keep it to a maximum of 6-7 things, including daily Must-Do’s (like picking up the kids from school or daycare). Daily, within the month, within the quarter. This will help with prioritizing exercises later.
An invisible symptom I talked about in the article Managing overwhelm & other invisible symptoms of ADHD article, is ‘time-blindness’. Time-blindness really refers to both this inability to estimate how much time has passed, as well as challenges with not being able to consistently prioritize.
In bringing greater awareness to proactively managing ‘time-blindness’ we know:
- An overfilled calendar, like an overfilled to-do list, sets you up for failure. Ensure you have a few breaks every day, and in good measure throughout the week for the downtime you know your brain needs.
- Conversely, an underfilled calendar leaves you with too much free time, which could lead to boredom, impulsively taking on one too many new projects and finding yourself in paralyzed overwhelm, a feeling the adult ADHDer knows all too well. The fine balance between overwhelm and boredom is something that managing your calendar can really assist with.
- Plan 2-3 weeks out into the future. Starting to grow this muscle helps us manage in world built around deadlines and performance expectations.
- Make everything as visual as possible. Print it off, tape it to the wall. Visualize yourself actually doing the task you need to get done probably has a greater chance of success than creating reminders.
- Be explicit about the consequences of not planning. Taking a moment to think a few steps into the future about what happens if you don’t do X, and what else gets affected, might help set more external motivators you might be able to leverage.
Sometimes I say people with ADHD should be the ultimate champions of mindfulness because we are stuck in the present (we just need to start making it more intentional, rather than unintentional!). The principles of mindfulness are excellent guideposts for ADHD brains – being an intentional and non-judgemental observer of ourselves allows us to know what we need to do to get going toward the things that do bring us joy. We have great resources to help train your brain toward a more mindful existence, but there are also great apps around (like Headspace) and books to learn this from.
Check out our latest free offering for our clients, our new e-book: Take Back Your Calendar: Time Mastery for the Time Challenged.
Author: Christina Crowe, Registered Psychotherapist
Christina is a Registered Psychotherapist, ADHD Therapist & Coach, Clinical Supervisor, Founder of Dig A Little Deeper, Psychotherapy & Counselling and the author of the online course DIY*ADHD. Christina is passionate about accessibility in mental health care, which is why she spends her free time writing articles like this.
[i] Caitlin E.V. Mahy, Louis J. Moses, Matthias Kliegel. “The development of prospective memory in children: An executive framework.” Developmental Review, Vol. 34, 4, (2014).
[ii] Mahy. “The development of prospective memory in children: An executive framework.”
[iii] Fuermaier, Anselm B M et al. “Complex prospective memory in adults with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.” PloS one vol. 8,3 (2013): e58338. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0058338.