ADHD Time Management: Do What Works, Not What’s “Supposed To” Work
ADHD Time Management: The Struggle Is Real
Time management for ADHD adults can be a real pain. Planning a day is like solving a puzzle with no real answer.
I mean, you lose track of the clock so easily. You’re always running late. You never complete a task before it’s time to move on to the next thing.
It can feel like you’re the lone space cadet in a world full of grown-ups.
I get this. I get this sooooo much. I used to really struggle with it. I still do sometimes. But now I know how to create good guardrails to stay - more or less - on track. And it’s revolutionized my days.
In this blog, I want to share some guardrails with you. I want to make ADHD time management a realistic goal.
There’s no point in banging your head against scheduling “rules” that don’t work for you. It’s time to dump the old neurotypical methods and embrace what works.
Why Is ADHD Time Management So Hard?
But why is this even a thing? I’m used to ADHD being a mix of superpowers and super challenges, but I find the Time issue, maybe, the most bizarre element of this condition.
Why is ADHD time management so hard?
Here’s the quick version.
Dopamine and norepinephrine are two neurotransmitters that help your brain with executive functions. Executive functioning is all about organization, planning, and regulation.
It’s the “higher-level cognitive skills you use to control and coordinate your other cognitive abilities and behaviors,” according to Weill Neuroscience Institute. “How we organize our lives, how we plan and how we then execute those plans is largely guided by our executive system.”
When you have ADHD you have a problem secreting and maintaining dopamine and norepinephrine levels. And when this disrupts our executive functioning - it disrupts our relationship with time.
The term Time Blindness is self-explanatory for anyone who has ADHD. It’s the main reason ADHD time management is such a hard nut to crack.
If you have Time Blindness, you have a hard time sensing:
What time of day it is
How much time has elapsed
How much time you have left on something
If you can’t mark the time, it’s hard to manage it effectively. It’s like trying to organize smoke.
Instead, folks with ADHD feel time. We relate to it in a direct way. This moment is real. All time outside of this moment kind of loses meaning.
“ADHD brains have two switches: NOW and NOT NOW,” says Psychology Today. But time management is about taking the whole temporal picture into account. “The combination of NOW/NOT NOW makes you feel as if you are always behind or always catching up. It’s harder to get started on, organize, and prioritize the stuff you’ve got to do.”
Part of Time Blindness is more diagnostic. It blunts our ability to make guesses about time spans. The result is that our schedule can look more like wishful thinking than time management.
When you’re scheduling with Time Blindness
You have trouble assessing how long things take
You ignore small "time eater" activities
You have trouble seeing the time cost of switching tasks
This all adds up to a schedule that “works” on paper - but not in real life
When you get to the end of a day "half-done," you think you failed. If you do your scheduling like this every day, it takes a toll on your self-esteem. And that’s not fair or even useful.
So…First Things First
You’ve heard it a million times - do the hardest thing on your calendar first. But um, no. I mean, that’s maybe a great idea for someone, but not you and me.
At the start of the day, you just don’t have the requisite dopamine to sit down and power through something awful, tedious, or uber-challenging. Just like you need that cup of coffee to get going, you need your hit of dopamine too.
If you want to own ADHD time management - start with the easy stuff first. And write it all down on a to-do list.
I’m going to say that again.
Put the absolute easiest, most pleasing, and most inevitable things first on your to-do list.
✓ Eating breakfast
✓ Posting on LinkedIn
✓ Brushing your teeth
✓ Walking the dog
It may sound dumb, but every time you tick off one of those little things, you’re getting a nice pop of dopamine.
These are the little wins that put your neurodivergent brain in a better place to do the rest of your day - even the hard stuff.
Create Flow By Blocking Your Schedule
It’s said that ADHD entrepreneurs are weirdly suited to succeed - if we can get past a stumbling block here and there.
I think the main stumbling block boils down to:
ADHD adults do great in systems with structure.
ADHD entrepreneurs kind of suck at creating structure.
And when you work for yourself, you ARE the structure.
So the best way to manage this is to institute routines wherever you can. Don’t bounce from task to task. You need to work in blocks.
If you have a lot of calls in your appointment book - block them together on the same days, every week. I only do calls on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.
Cluster your emails at specific, regular times. Don’t do a little here and a little there.
The cognitive cost of changing tasks is lethal to ADHD time management. You simply won’t asses the transition time rightly. And bouncing from task to task will take a huge toll on your work orientation. You’ll spend more time than you realize anticipating the interruption.
Time will evaporate unexpectedly and your work will stay pretty shallow.
Cluster up similar tasks into long blocks, and you’ll get the best of both worlds. A structured schedule with a sense of deep flow.
Time Estimates, Let’s Get Real
As I said, one of the big hiccups of time management for ADHD entrepreneurs is rooted in bad time estimation. We neurodivergents have an unrealistic idea of how long things take.
Our schedules end up looking like an overstuffed junk drawer. Activities are just crowbarred in there. This is no way to live and no way to successfully schedule your work.
We have to step back and work against our instincts here. In fact, I’ll put this simple prescription out:
Make your schedule then…take half of what you have out.
WHAT?! Come ON, Katie!
Okay, not half. Try taking one-third.
Add big whopping open time slots as buffers. Put air into your schedule. And at the end of the day, you’ll find it was juuuuust about right.
ADHD time management is not like regular time management, folks. It’s not just math. It’s art, neuroscience, and psychology.
I’m telling you now…what you think fits into your schedule, does NOT fit into your schedule. I don’t care what your planner says.
You're not accounting for your invaluable ADHD hyperfocus, your creative booms. This is the stuff that makes you a unicorn in the business space. It swallows time, imperceptibly.
And you’re not accounting for the time eaters. Like grabbing your keys, crating the dog, turning out the lights, and getting into the car. You’re not accounting for things going wrong. Trains that break down. A file you need to go back inside for.
Your schedule is a best-case scenario. It’s an “everything is what I expect it to be” assessment. It’s a finger in the eye of your creativity. It’s pretending you’re not who you are.
If you can put some air into your schedule, you’ll see that ADHD time management works. You’re going to feel proud at the end of the day, instead of feeling behind.
My Last Tip
And this is real. Take a walk. Take a break. Get some B6 in you (tuna, chickpeas, dark greens, bananas, and such). Get some good sleep. Oh, and exercise.
I know these don’t sound like “time management for ADHD” tips. They are.
Remember ADHD isn’t a personality flaw. It’s chemical.
Stepping away from work, getting sun, moving your body, resting, and pumping up your B6 are all things that are going to alleviate fatigue, increase focus, and even relieve some anxiety.
You're going to find your ability to handle time gets better when you’re not running on an empty tank. Seriously. This is important. Do it.
It’s Not A Fault. It’s A Difference.
There’s no “supposed to” with ADHD time management. There’s just what works.
Your body is working from slightly different blueprints. So don’t feel like you have to work according to “normal” plans.
Time management for ADHD folks - for anyone really - is just about working with your brain, not against it.
So give your brain a break. Listen to its needs. Help it succeed. Then stand back and watch it do its amazing, creative, unrepeatable thing!
OMG, are you a super-creative, incredibly cool, ADHD unicorn too?
What a coincidence! We gotta connect.
Connect with me on LinkedIn. Don’t forget to say hello!
UCSF Weill Institute for Neurosciences, Memory and Aging Center, Executive Functions
Psychology Today, ADHD Time Warp: How to Stop Being Late, Frustrated, and Overwhelmed, Sharon Saline Psy.D.