Why does Time Travel Differently When You Have ADHD?

Have you noticed how time plays tricks on you? It can whiz by so fast or it plods along incredibly slowly; leaving you bored and restless.

Ironically, time perception doesn’t run like clockwork. It changes and is distorted by situations, emotions and even your age.

I have a  memory of sitting next to my grandma telling her how excited I was for Christmas, but how it was taking a really long time to arrive. My Grandma laughed and said, “When you get to my age, you won’t have that problem, time travels very fast for me.” This was a very strange concept for my 8 year old brain.

Time perception is a subjective thing that is studied by psychologists and neuroscientists. For our other senses like touch, taste, smell, sight, etc., we have specialized sensory receptors. But there are no specialized sensory receptors for time.

Why does time travel differently when you have ADHD?

There are 2 big reasons why time travels differently for you.

  1. Being able to accurately process time is a skill that develops gradually from when we are babies to the age of 10. It involves memory, attention and dopamine. The 3 key elements needed to learn how to process time are also areas that the ADHD brain has problems with.
  1. Ideally, everyday, our circadian (body) clock resets itself to match the earth’s 24 hour rotation. It uses external cues like daylight, for this reset. However, many ADHDers’ body struggle detecting the rising and setting of the sun; which in turn causes problems for the sleep cycle and understanding the passage of time.

How does time pass when you have ADHD?

One ADHD client described how time passes for him:

“If I look at my watch and it’s 11:00am, then it’s 11:00am until I look again. I might look again in 2 minutes, or 4 hours. But it’s 11:00am until I have actually looked at the watch again to see what the hands are now saying”.

Dr. Hallowell says that to an ADHDer, there are only 2 types of time: NOW or NOT NOW.

Why is it a problem?

10 problems that can occur when your time perception isn’t fine tuned:

  • It is hard to motivate yourself to follow a plan when a project isn’t due for 2 months.
  • Your final work often doesn’t match your talents, because you have had to rush to complete it in the last few days before the deadline.
  • You seriously underestimate the time needed to complete a task.
  • You are often late, rushed and flustered when you arrive to meeting or appointment.
  • You have developed a reputation as being unreliable, insensitive, or self-centered, even though you are trying really hard.
  • You forget to buy presents and cards for your loved ones’ birthday.
  • You stress out the people around you, because you are still packing while everyone else is in the car, ready to go to the airport.
  • You always think travel time to appointments take less time than it really does.
  • You are overly optimistic of how much you can get done in one day, and then get very disappointed with yourself when you aren’t able to get everything done.
  • Getting ready in the morning and leaving for work on time is a daily struggle.

Here are some suggestions to help you develop your sense of the passage of time.

1. Wear a watch

Almost every person I meet who struggles with the passage for time, doesn’t wear a watch. Wearing a watch is quite an easy thing to do, but it has big benefits. It helps you develop an understanding of the passage of time, as well as being a visual reminder of what the current time is. Having a watch on your arm makes it pretty easy to notice what time it is, even when you aren’t actively looking. Go buy a watch, and start to wearing it today!

P.S, if you are thinking that you don’t need to get a watch because you can check your phone to see the time, that doesn’t count!

2. Have a clock in every room. 

Have a clock in every room including your bathroom. Traditional clocks (with hands) are more helpful than digital. They aren’t an expense investment, yet they can really help you keep track of how time is progressing and help you to be on time for appointments.

3. Use an agenda.

Buy an agenda and enter in all your appointments. Get the format that has the hours of the day for each day. It helps you to get a visual of what your days look like. It also helps you to plan your days realistically.

4. Get a wall calendar.

Get a wall calendar so you can see whole year in a glance. It allows you to see events that are scheduled in the future and how they relate to today’s date. This helps bridge the gap in your mind between ‘Now’ and ‘Not Now’.

5. Have a daily appointment

Develop a habit of looking at your wall calendar and agenda every single morning or evening. This daily appointment with yourself helps you remember exactly what you have planned and if there are any actions you could do today to help you prepare.

6. Play a game.

Play a ‘Guess What Time It Is’ game. At any time you haven’t looked at your watch for while, try to guess what time it is. It is a fun way to see how your time processing muscle is developing.

7. Reset your internal clock.

No matter how topsy turvy your body clock is, you can reset it. Not only will your sleep cycle be in sync with the rest of the world, it will be easier for you to understand how time is passing during the day. In the Sleep Solution: How to Sleep Very Well When You have ADHD,’ I walk you through a simple step-by-step process to reset your body clock. Come and join us!


How does time pass by for you? Leave me a note in the comments section!


  1. Soozcat says:

    In the last few years, I’ve started to time myself doing routine tasks — taking a shower, getting dressed, making the bed, putting laundry into the washer, etc. I drastically underestimated the time it took me to do these tasks *until I actually timed myself.* For instance, I used to give myself 15 minutes to get ready in the morning, but now that I know it will take me about 20 minutes to shower and 10 minutes to dress, I know I’ll have to give myself at least 40 minutes (30 minutes plus a 10 minute “fudge factor”) to be ready to leave the house.

    It sounds obvious, but it’s made all the difference in the world to me. Try it. TIME YOURSELF DOING ROUTINE TASKS. It will help you plan out the time you need much more effectively.

  2. Mark M says:

    The 10 problems describe me better than I can describe myself. I want to share it with every person I’ve let down over the years and say “read this, this is me! No, seriously, this really is what it’s like to be me.” Problem is I have very little hope that they would understand or ‘get it.’ It’s not easy to live every single day of your life almost totally convinced you are worthless. It’s made even more insane when people either can’t or won’t believe you. I have yet to find a way to describe ‘now’ vs. ‘not-now’ to someone in a way that they understand.

  3. Karen Davis says:

    I found out I had ADHD inatentative in my late 40’s. With a empty nest and husband leaving and going with the flow of everyones schedule I never really noticed my time issues. Now I cannot get house work done, get to work on time, get things finished at work. This explained me in every detail. I have used various timers, tried to use planners none work for me. I am lucky if I am ready to go to bed at 3 in the morning. The more I try to fix the issues with time the worse it gets. I am going to try your suggestions and I pray it works.

  4. Andra Zakis says:

    Wonderful! Thank you Jacquie & all who commented above. So very helpful in identifying traits and solutions.

  5. Paris says:

    Your list of “10 problems” defines me to a T! Spooky! And Depressing. But your suggestions make sense and give me hope. I have never understood why time never works for me. I try so hard.

  6. Rachel says:

    Great article Jacqueline! The best way to help me get out of the house in the morning is by having several alarm clocks scheduled on my phone to go off while I am getting ready. Noise helps me as it creates more of a sense of urgency than if I just look at a clock. I have one that goes off every 15 minutes for an hour and I know that I have to several things in that hour that I need to do to be on time to leave for work. The alarms help me keep track of how quickly I am getting through all the things I need to do. The alarms stop me from procrastinating and sometimes they work so well that I’m even ready early and have a spare 15 free before I need to leave which I use to rush around doing chores or cleaning. My perception of time becomes even more skewed when I am on my ADHD medication so a watch is a must have essential for me.

  7. Laura says:

    More gold! Thanks Jacqueline! I’m going to commit to watch wearing and checking my year planner daily – great ideas!

  8. Lee says:

    Stephanie G, you’re awesome. No intervention is perfect, but if it’s helpful, we can be thankful for it. I need to have a clock visible when I see patients. I’ve had a 45 minute appointment turn into a 90 minute one before b/c I forgot my phone alarm & didn’t have a clock visible. Letting things go like that can make me feel like I really failed at something b/c it always screws the next patient(s) out of valuable minutes. Now I keep a clock visible instead of using an alarm b/c it works better for me. Maybe a better way of saying we use a system of trial & error to find what works would be to say we’re constantly researching ourselves and our ‘conditions’ (NOT our ‘disorders’ or ‘problems’) to maximize our performance @ work or in life. Why would someone NOT want to find ways to maximize his/her performance?

  9. It is exactly me JACQUELINE SINFIELD, I was jumping easily between task from the age of 8, and now at 40 I am being diagnosed by ADHD. The more I read about its symtomps, the more I find me. It is only since 4 days when my boss complained about my being so slow that I think my concept of time is so different from real time. Then I google “ADHD where did my time go” and found your article.

    I have been also having a severe Sleep Apnea, now am at the 6th month of treatment with CPAP. First I blamed all my problems: concentration, forgetfulness, lack of energy, memory to a brain damged by Sleep Apnea. But now my family doctor has thought more about ADHD when he finds I am chaotic, which is not Sleep Apnea. Since 3 weeks I read more about ADHD, and today I start reading about “am I living in a different time-space than other people ? “.

    Thanks again

  10. Stephanie G says:

    My job requires me to track my hours to bill the client… yikes! Luckily, I’ve had to learn a few things. First, a clock is always visible (either a watch, my phone, or my computer). Second, a calendar is always on hand.

    Google calendar has saved me – as long as I use it! It’s on my phone and open at work all day. I know what time I have certain events or meetings or whatever, and I actually know what day it is (which is a surprising challenge). I set reminders for due dates, follow-ups, etc.

    I also schedule out my work tasks based on to-do lists, and keep track of my tasks throughout the day in a good old-fashioned notebook.

    I write down the name of a project and when I start on it, then when I finish I look at the clock again. I get distracted mid-task a lot, so I have a system in place when that happens… write down the name of the task that distracted me (and at what time).

    It’s not a flawless system, and I’m sure I miss a little bit of time here and there. However, having to track my hours has made me better at knowing how much time is passing, and it’s helped me be efficient and stay on task better than I could have imagined.

  11. This SO describes me! Thanks so much – for validating that there are good reasons why I am the way I am, and then for giving me some tools so I stop making life more difficult than it needs to be for me and the people around me.

  12. Tesfay Kinfe says:

    Thank you so much Jacqueline Sinfield. I also say most of the time, ” How did 12 months go while I have done nothing significant in my life?”

  13. Roberto M says:

    I’ve only realized some time perception issues recently, because I’m doing a lot more manual work than I’m used to. I also stopped taking my medication, and the effects of this are usually hard to point out until they’re impossible to ignore. Usually I begin some simple task and when I’m done I realize four hours have passed. People have always thought of me as slow, and now I wonder how this look from the outside. It’s like being in the middle of a time-lapse video.

  14. Alf Vierth says:

    I have no direct “sense” of time but have made it a habit since I was about twenty to check calendars and clocks every five minutes. I allways plan very pessimistically for meetings (if I see that the trip takes twenty minutes I add an extra “safety margin” of about half an hour) which usually makes me half an hour early for most appointments. I have a reputation for being very punctual because of this. I use timers for almost all tasks and keep notes. This has been my only strategy for coping with a world revolving around timekeeping. It wasn’t until I was 43 (five years ago) that I was diagnosed with ADHD but funnily enough I’ve deviced plenty of behavioral therapy strategies of my own long before that. I had to… to survive.

  15. Michele N says:

    I always felt I was in a different time zone to everyone else. I’m slow when finally start doing things and so easily distracted. Time seems to go too fast for me.

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