Losing track of time with ADHD

If you’ve been diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or if you haven’t been diagnosed but wonder if you could have ADHD, you may have a complicated relationship with time.

At one moment you may feel like time is stretching out, extending the discomfort of a difficult or boring meeting. While at other moments you feel like time melts away as you get lost in an internet rabbit hole of curiosity. Time as a concept is colossal and elusive, but one aspect that seems to come up over and over again is the challenge of losing track of time.

As an ADHD therapist in Ann Arbor working with ADHD adults and adolescents, clients discuss a variety of concerns with me: job dissatisfaction, perplexing existential questions, difficulty in relationships, missing deadlines, and chronic indecision to name a few. No matter what someone with ADHD comes into therapy to discuss, we almost always end up talking about their relationship to time and specifically the experience of losing track of time. ADHDers often have plenty of stories about being late to work, being late coming home from work, spending “too much” time on a task, or not getting enough sleep because they lost track of time.

Why do I lose track of time?

What is happening when we lose track of time? Generally when we lose track of time, it is the experience of our focus being so fully given to the object of our attention that we lose our awareness of time. Some people talk about this as a lapse in executive functioning or having “time blindness”.

Executive function is a frequently used term for the cognitive abilities like working memory and impulse control that facilitate the skills of organizing tasks, remembering details, and managing time – the skills required for accomplishing goals. So when there is a lapse in executive functioning it’s often seen as an indication of an ADHDers inability to maintain the skills that keep them productive and accomplishing goals.

“Time blindness”, a term coined by Dr. Russell Barkley, has often been used to describe a person’s inability to sense the passing of time. I have previously used the term to help people understand that ADHDers experience of time is more about perception than motivation. Recently I have stopped using the term as a way to honor the distinct and different experiences of people with visual impairments and plainly state that an ADHDers relationship to time is a perception issue, rather than a motivation issue.

The framework of executive functioning and “time blindness” are both built upon the premise that ADHD is a disorder and something to be managed or fixed within people. Yes, “disorder” is in the label “attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder”, but a growing number of people within the ADHD community are encouraging other names for the experience of being ADHD be considered. In the neurodiversity framework, the idea that there is biological diversity among humans and that can include differences in brain structure and bodily awareness, ADHD is less a disorder, something to be fixed or managed, and more of an identity – it’s just who you are.

ADHD as Identity

So if ADHD is just a part of your identity, what does that mean for the experience of losing track of time? First it generally means an acknowledgement that you’re living within a system that was not built for the way your brain and body move through the world. The predominant system here in the US is built on capitalist ideals such as productivity and competition. If you need to compete and be productive, to lose track of time on tasks that don’t increase your productivity are considered failures. While intellectually you may know that to not be true, often our embodied experience of losing track of time can feel like a failure.

This is not limited to our jobs, often people feel some degree of failure if they lost track of time being engrossed in a book and did not complete the chores they had hoped to accomplish. Even though the book was entertaining, there may be a felt sense of disappointment from not cleaning up enough. Students can even experience this when they follow their curiosity into learning about something that has genuinely piqued their interest, yet is not the subject of their homework. When they emerge from the curiosity trail having learned something genuinely interesting or helpful, they often still experience shame for straying from the homework task.

Acknowledging that the system in which you live judges you as a failure for losing track of time is an important part of liberating yourself from some of the shame you might feel when you lose track of time. Becoming engrossed in what you are doing is not a character failure. While this rejection of judgement may sound simple written out, the pervasive nature of capitalism often makes this resistance to shame an ongoing process, one that often requires community and support to maintain.

“Okay, I got it, I’m not broken even if the system tells me I am and it’s okay to lose track of time sometimes…but what about when I genuinely don’t want to. I have things I want to accomplish for myself.”

Becoming engrossed in what you are doing is not a character failure.

Strategies for managing your time with ADHD

  1. Assess: Before you start an activity that often results in losing track of time, sort through the time you actually have left in your schedule. Sometimes you have plenty of time to spend getting lost in a task while other times you don’t have as much.
  2. Get lost: If you have lots of time available then allow yourself to get lost! It can feel good and be really helpful to give yourself permission to really enjoy following your curiosity. Embrace your ADHD and see where it leads you!
  3. Set a timer: If you have real deadlines you need to hold, consider setting incremental timers to check in on your progress. If you have an hour total, try setting a 10-minute timer to go off and check in on your progress. How are you feeling about the task? Is there anything you need to adjust to help you focus? This is not an opportunity to criticize yourself if you’ve lost focus, but a reminder to prioritize what you’re trying to accomplish.
  4. Use a Planner: Using a planner alone is rarely enough to help an ADHDer stay on task and aware of time, but it can be a helpful tool. Dsri Seah has created The Emergent Task Planner a thoughtfully designed tool for both planning your schedule in advance and tracking the time it took to complete a task. There’s even a place for taking notes with the gentle reminder that “life just happens” and sometimes it’s not our relationship to time that affected task completion.
  5. Peer Support: Whether it’s finding a companion for intentional co-working time or having a friend or colleague check in with you at scheduled times, it can be helpful to ask for accountability or collaboration that helps you get stuff done.

This list of strategies is small and just a start. If you see this list and think to yourself, “I’ve tried all those things and I still haven’t found what works for me”, it maybe time to consider getting additional support. Therapy for ADHD can be a helpful way to both learn more about your unique needs and then think creatively about how to address them. If you’ve never tried therapy before, websites like Therapy Den, Zencare, or Psychology Today have listings of hundreds of therapists to start your search. If you’re in California or Michigan and would like to work with me, you can contact me here.

picture of Jesse Kauffman, LMSW

Jesse Kauffman

ADHD Therapist in Ann Arbor, Michigan

I specialize in helping people with ADHD find integration and alignment in their life. I provide support for professionals, adolescents, and families who are ready to live less scattered and more self-assured.

While losing track of time may be more common for people with ADHD, it is not an experience that is exclusive to ADHDers. All kinds of people lose track of time in different circumstances and it doesn’t benefit anyone to treat it as a character flaw. If the pace and intensity of your life create a situation where you don’t feel like you have the luxury of losing track of time, it may be time to consider what the systems, organizations, and relationships (even with yourself) are asking of you. Are they a good fit for your mind and body’s capacity to meet those challenges. You’re not alone if you’re looking around and feel like if you were to ask to slow down or stop, you will be left behind. The pace of life can often feel unrelenting. Here’s a gentle reminder that the life we are talking about is yours. Can you schedule yourself some time to lose to your own interest and curiosity?

How would it feel to be allowed to move through time, just the way you do? Does it feel safe to engage in such a daydream? Accepting that your relationship to time is unique to you and not just a symptom of a disorder, can make a significant difference in how you feel about losing track of time. Maybe, just maybe, your life is richer for taking the time that you need to wander through an idea.

Can you take the time you need?