The Executive Function Chronicles: Chapter One
Don’t feel like reading? Listen to my podcast episode on time blindness instead.
As a kid I never went anywhere without a watch. I checked the time so much that I would try to guess it before looking. And often, I was right.
was (am) still. always. late. Because telling time is very different from feeling time pass. Telling time is a skill, often taught in early childhood with colorful big-faced felt clocks. Feeling time is internal – an indescribable tick-tick-ticking inside of us.
I want you to think about how often during the day you have to estimate how much time something will take, and how often that estimation impacts what you do next.
6:24 A.M. You don’t hit your snooze button twice even though you’re tired, because you can feel nine minutes have already passed and that means you now have nine minutes less to get ready for work.
3:00 P.M. You’re giving a presentation and you calculate how much information you have with how much time you have in order to regulate your pace, and decide if you allow time for questions, or if you have to cut a section that you determine is lower priority.
9:38 A.M. You have plans to meet your friend for brunch at 10:30 but you wake up late. You call to let her know you’ll have to postpone brunch till a little later; you just need to get ready. She asks, “What time do you think you’ll be able to make it? I’ll make a reservation.” You mentally consider all the steps in your routine, how much time you need for each, as well as how long it will take to drive there accounting for traffic, to figure out your answer.
To the ADHD brain there are two times: now and not now. The “now” is big and all-consuming, and the “not now” is very small in the distance. Because guess what influences the perception of time in our brains? You know this one.
When an activity is enjoyable and our brain wants us to keep it up, it shoots out some dopamine. This slows down our internal clock, which means we feel like time is moving slower and we are more likely to engage in said enjoyable activity longer. When we say “time flies when you’re having fun,” what we actually mean is “Wow, more time passed than I realized because I was having fun.” To those brains with less dopamine, time actually flies. The faster your time goes by, the less time you have. We cannot pace ourselves. We always feel as if time is racing away from us, so we tend to live our lives one frenzy after another. A month into the future and a year into the future feel exactly the same: blurry, not real, yet barreling toward us anyway. As Dr. Russell Barkley eloquently puts it, people with ADHD have a “nearsightedness to time:”
- Make time visible. Literally. Put several large analog clocks (better than digital because you can tangibly see time passing) all over the place. Especially in the bathroom and living areas. Visual timers are also useful tools. Here are some good ones.
- Time yourself performing everyday tasks. It sounds silly, but we frequently underestimate how long it takes us to complete a task. Try going through your routine with a stopwatch and record how long you spend on each step.
- Create a routine, and make it visual. Making everything visual is a definite theme (when we get to working memory, I will go into more depth about why that is). You can make your routine visual in a multitude of ways. It could be an app that will display your routine, or reminds you one step at a time. Maybe it’s going wild with a label maker and numbering everything in your bathroom in the order you need it. Some people even make a list of everything they need to do and post it on their wall. I really love the app little countdown, because you can input what time you need to be done and a list of all the steps in your routine, and it will backtrack to tell you what time you need to start. Sadly, it is only for iOS; I can’t find an equivalent for Android phones. If you do, please share!
What strategies do you use to “feel” time?
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