12 Days of ADHD 10: Time
Tuesday 26th October, 2021
October is ADHD Awareness Month. I've decided that I'm going to use that as a writing prompt, and to set myself a challenge. For the next twelve days, I'm going to write something about my experiences learning about ADHD as a very recently diagnosed adult.
Today I'm writing about Time - or, my perception of it as someone with ADHD.
I have a love-hate relationship with time - I simultaneously don't have nearly enough of it, whilst also having waaaay too much of it.
Not enough time
I get by as an adult by only being several minutes late to things. I'm lucky, I've always been one of those people who worries relentlessly about being super late, so when I have appointments, obligations and deadlines that I really have to keep to or I will literally die*, I put a lot of energy into planning my day/week accordingly. It's yet another thing that fatigues my brain.
*Obviously, dramatic embellishment - but that's how it feels - a tendency to catastrophise one's own lateness, even if it's minor.
And I totally get the idea of waiting mode: where you're concerned enough about being on time for one thing, you daren't do anything interesting on either side of it, in case you get carried away and it makes you late!
In the mornings
As a kid and a teenager, I was always leaving my friend hanging around in my house in the morning when he came by to walk to school together. I created lots of silly fights and arguments around me due to Creating Lateness when my family had plans. Part of that is that I've always been a late riser - very possibly I have a Delayed Circadian Rhythm Phase, which subsequently means I naturally start to feel sleepy at like 2AM and am not really ready to be awake until 10AM. So, as a teenager, time was not on my side. I was perennially holding people up, whilst being unprepared and half-asleep still, causing lots of stress, and I only had myself to blame, because I was the only person keeping myself awake at night!
I'm still in that 2AM-10AM cycle. University was fine, although I rarely made it to 9AM lectures and 10AM ones were a gamble. First "real" job, I was constantly told off for my consistent lateness - but I made up for it by staying later in the evenings (which I didn't want to do, but felt an obligation to). I'm really lucky now that I have a great team where I work and we have a great culture that's basically "work when it suits you, just be available for a few core hours". Given the tolerance of my shifted sleep schedule, I've remained in that 2AM-10AM pattern since. I worry that, if I was forced back in to a 9-to-5 routine, I'd rapidly disintegrate from lack of adequate sleep.
I still wish I could be awake and actively doing things earlier - I take melatonin supplements to try and induce sleepiness earlier than my brain naturally does, coupled with promethazine to put myself to sleep in the first place. But regardless of whether I take them, for the first hour after my alarm goes off at the not-so-early time of 9AM, I feel so physically exhausted and groggy that I end up falling asleep some more until 10AM, even though every day I really really want to wake earlier to allow myself more time to get ready for the day ahead.
My phone alarms tell this story in the most visual way:
As winter draws in, I really want to shift it so that I've been for a run or done a workout before our daily meetings at 10:30AM - not just make coffee and blearily start checking my emails twenty minutes before that. But even with taking stimulant medication on that first alarm - I can feel the stimulants starting to kick in within that first hour - it's like I can't physically move right until the last minute when I'll just have enough time to (hopefully) look a little presentable.
Annoyingly, it really is just my brain playing games, because when I have to get up early - like if in a hotel for a conference and everything starts at 9AM - I can do that just fine... Well. At least, I set a dozen alarms starting at 7AM, still have to skip breakfast and appear where I need to be just on time and feeling exhausted and unprepared for most of the day.
Sleep schedule and getting enough sleep is a thing I'll probably be working on for a while. I have blue light filters on all my electronics, blue light filtering glasses, a cold bedroom, a dark bedroom, a really comfy bed, a weighted blanket, lavender air fresheners, promethazine, melatonin and chamomile tea, I don't drink caffeine past midday or drink none at all, I run, I don't usually drink alcohol in the week, I meditate in the evenings... But here I am at close to 2AM, and it is the time of day in which I feel most able to concentrate and do deep work. Both of my dissertations were written predominantly between the hours of 11PM til 6AM. It's annoying, because now is Calm and Productive Time, but I like sunlight and other humans, am no a vampire!
To plan things
Internally, I feel either incredibly prepared for things, or woefully under-prepared. I'm better with hard deadlines - like, a specific date to finish/do something by, a specific time to catch a train or a plane. Those things are concrete and easy to get a grasp on. Longer-term goals are always infinitely far out in the future - "I will definitely think about that later" - until, suddenly, the thing that was months ago is now and all the preparation I planned to do in my head for the majority of that time has not been done whatsoever.
As a concrete example: I wanted to run a marathon this year! My friend picked a date and wrote out a training schedule. I was going to stick by theirs. Then, because we both have motivation issues and different forms of time-blindness (and life got in the way) (and we got injured), the date by which that marathon was going to get ran has already passed us by. It's a long-term goal I really want to do, but is a thing that I will get around to doing later.
Aside from the motivation/procrastination side of things - I think what I miss with long-term goals is that sense of urgency I get when there is a clock counting down to a date that I cannot postpone and I have no choice but to get my shit together and do things.
Unfortunately, the get urgent things done right up until the last minute thing means I end up skipping out on other things I want to do - "I would've had way more time to enjoy relaxing if only I'd done this earlier!"
The sensation of urgency and time slipping away may be yet another facet of ADHD - a 2019 review of research into people with ADHD's perception of time references a number of studies giving evidence that ADHD brains process and perceive time differently from the microscopic level (testing reaction times in milliseconds) all the way up to mapping out our lives. Picking some quotes from that review that mention processing speed:
"Another aspect of time that seems to be impaired in ADHD is processing speed. [...] In a hallmark study from 2006, children and adolescents with ADHD demonstrated significantly slower processing speeds across an extended battery of rapid tasks that required either verbal or motor output. [...] When compared with controls, young people diagnosed with ADHD presenting with predominant symptoms of inattention showed deficits across several processing speed measures, including motor speed output, set shifting speed, and verbal output speed."
That constant sense of urgency probably comes from us being hurried on a lot throughout our formative years - when you're one of the "you're bright, but" kids, it's believed that you should be doing things quicker because you're capable, and you're just not making an effort. So... instead of taking the time you need, you learn how to rush, just enough that you can... fail upwards, I guess?
Something which multiple friends have noticed is that, as an adult, I do lots of things quickly - I walk fast, I eat fast, generally I rush through things at an unnecessary pace. I feel I have to, else I'm too slow, I'll fall behind. It results either/or carelessness and frazzle. For me now, more the frazzle. When younger, more the carelessness - rushing through schoolwork in the last seconds of the lesson. You muddle by without making accommodations for the slower pace you need.
For me, the feeling of not having enough time and also not granting myself enough time is a common enough thread that my therapist has started to highlight it. I'm always a few minutes late to my sessions - when we were only on zoom, I was late. Now I have a commute to get there, same amount of late. I always appear and feel unprepared, like I was rushing to get there on time, without any of the prior self-reflection that would probably benefit talk therapy. It's like I spend my life walking through doors from one dimension into another, with not enough spaces in between for my brain to switch contexts. The main thing we're discovering is that I constantly have this strong craving just to have more time. I want 25 hours in the day, 8 days a week. Perhaps part of that comes down to masking, and the ways in which I'm using mental energy to navigate the world - I need more recovery time than I grant myself?
Too much time
Yet, despite feeling like I'm headless chicken-ing, I have frustratingly long periods of downtime. I get annoyed with myself. I can't enjoy my free time, because there's always something looming, but in order to actually take action, I need that looming deadline. No matter what mind tricks I try, I will expand into the given space. I constantly daydream about the magical weekend I'll have one day where I get what I want to get done on Saturday daytime, leaving no outstanding tasks for me to feel guilty about not doing, and can then actively enjoy reading, playing games, or fucking around doing not much of anything - the wonderful weekend which will leave me feeling rejuvenated. It is a myth. Annoyingly, if I had the external routine of work forced on me on the weekends too, I'd probably get what I wanted to get done.
If I had a completely self-directed life with no external deadlines, I'd probably not do much of anything. I think the sense of urgency gives me enough of a dopaminergic boost to kick me into action. Honestly, when I'm doing too many things too soon and having lots of "near misses" is when I'm thriving. It's not that I am for lack of ideas, ambition or drive - I just... Don't do stuff on my own deadlines. The reason I'm still writing this blog every evening is because I set myself that rule of once a day, and gave myself external accountability by sharing it with people.
I thought I had a counterpoint to this thinking back on lockdown, but I was one of the fortunate souls who wasn't furloughed and continued working as normal through them all, and we kept our structure - daily meetings at 10:30AM, a list of things to do, lots of other little meetings, lots of work things to get done. The only difference was that I didn't leave my flat, so I gained some extra time to... I'd like to say "do more of what I enjoyed" but in reality, I expanded out into that extra time too - extra time not getting up in the morning, but on the flip-side working when I would've been driving home.
The Ways in Which Time is Different for Me
The fore-mentioned review into how people with ADHD perceive time was/is a fascinating read for me, and I wish I'd had time to read it properly before sitting down to write this, but - irony, despite only doing work and cooking dinner today, I didn't give myself enough time to really plan this post. I just opened up an editor and started typing away. I skim-read the study quickly. I'm going to try and summarize the findings now, though.
- My day is shifted to the right: Delayed Circadian Rhythm Phase.
- I process conversations slower: Like I mentioned in a previous post, I have delays in auditory processing.
- I react slower: I was a clumsy kid, and I'm not great at sports that involve things like catching today. There are plenty of occasions now where I can feel that I'm taking longer to react than I notice other people do.
- My time estimations are impaired: The review references several studies in which children were asked to estimate some passage of time, and the ADHD groups greatly overestimated or underestimated both how much time they predicted something would take, as well as how much time a task had taken. I get that - without a clock visibly available, everything is just now or future.
- I live in the present: Whilst I do reminisce about the past and daydream about the future constantly, I find it reeeally hard to concretely conceptualize the future in order to set myself long-term goals. It's just this curious thing always over the horizon. In order to make sense of future time, I have to be able to visibly see it, like in calendar form, so that it is a tangible thing.
- I get impatient quicker: The review posits that my "inner clock seems to run faster than in normal individuals" and that boring and repetitive tasks are perceived as dragging on much longer than for individuals without ADHD.
- I benefit from medication: This is something I noticed fairly early on with medication: I was checking the time more often, whilst also noticing that I had more time (though not perceiving it going slower), and most importantly for me, I get better at keeping my own deadlines - if I say I'm going to switch tasks at 2PM (like, if I have a video call), on meds, I notice where I'm at at like, 1:50PM, giving me time to casually finish up the previous thing, and give myself a little gap before starting the next thing on time. Off meds, things have a tendency of blurring together.
The Ways in Which It is the Same
Music. Tempo. I can definitely keep a beat just fine. I think playing in a large wind band as a kid helped with my immediate time-keeping. My empirical corpus of evidence for this is: I just did this little test a few times and consistently scored over 800 (my highest was 813, think you can beat me, reader?). I am able to keep a consistent running pace without requiring a constant external beat. So whilst there's these studies showing how reactions are slowed and time is perceived differently for ADHD brains, maybe rhythm is unaffected, and it's rhythm that allows us to get by in our lives - as much as we despise doing it, giving ourselves a good routine allows us to better predict and plan ahead, when all of our routine stuff has a known duration.
I do quite a lot of this:
- Have a Thing to do at 12:00
- Be doing another Thing before then
- Consistently acknowledge the passage of time from 11:00, 11:01, 11:02 ...11:56, 57, 58, 59... 12:00...... 12:01..........
- Acknowledge that it's time to do the Thing
- 12:05, start doing the Thing
I feel like I'm one of the lucky ones; I'm suitably self-conscious enough that I'm just consistently slightly late for most things. I have friends for whom time-blindness has been a much greater source of stress for them - crying in a ball stress the night before a university assignment. "I'll be there at 8" invariably means they'll be there at 11. Lots of last-minute panic-packing for trips. But my own time-blindness makes me very empathetic towards them - I get it.
It's hard to describe, because you can literally see the time in front of you but... You just have stuff you need to get done, and it's always taking longer than you anticipated. "Packing my stuff for a camping trip? I'll get it all done in an hour mate" - cue us pitching our tents in the dark, because somehow it took five hours.
So part of time blindness is where executive dysfunction (the "not being able to switch task easily" part of it) conspires to either distract you or put you into a hyper-focus flow state - so you're either late for things because you were doing nothing when you should have been doing something, or you're late because you were so engrossed in doing something, you stop checking the time - until... Shit, two hours have passed!?
The Things I Use to Help
After writing this, I went back and added some links to articles about time blindness and discovered that they had pretty much the same list, paraphrased or with a few more additions here and there. This is just stuff I've found that I do personally...
- Manage expectations - I'm probably gonna be a little late. Don't take it personally. I'm doing the best I can.
- Wristwatch, naturally (when I remember to put the bloody thing on!) - so the time is always readily available in my eyeline.
- Music, which has a steady tempo and known durations of time. Transition between songs is a nice audible cue for the passage of time.
- Calendars, and for work, Gantt Charts - so I can see the passage of time visually. With those, I realise that "2nd November 2021" is in fact not infinitely far into the future, but is Tuesday. My rule of thumb is, it ain't happening if it ain't on the calendar. All my work reminders, volunteering stuff and personal stuff all goes on the same calendar in different colours. I add things to it the moment that I find out about it - no, "I'll add that to the calendar later", because I won't.
- Route planner apps. The really accurate duration estimations for a journey on apps remove a real cognitive load from me. On the occasions I don't look up how to get somewhere, I am so wrong about how long it'll take. I'm usually on time or early when I'm relying on public transport, because the time-keeping is externalised. I just go where it tells me to go at the time it tells me to leave.
- Overestimation - now, I assume that however long something's going to take, I should round it up to the nearest, say, half-hour.
- On days where time-keeping is absolutely crucial (like, getting a train to an airport to catch a flight), on the day(s) beforehand I will write myself a ridiculously finely-grained itinerary, which can be down to the minute - like, I have 3 minutes to brush my teeth, 3 minutes to put my shoes on level of detail, from the moment I'm supposed to wake up. Then, based on those estimations, I do the over-estimating thing so I have a little wiggle-room. The extra wiggle-room means that I am actually on time, rather than late - like, leaving the house just when I needed to be. I feel like a really hopeless adult writing scripts for myself like 7:03 BRUSH TEETH, but it works. This gets referred to by people as task chunking.
- And now, medication! Which seems to aid in giving me more of an intuitive grasp of the passage of time - but doesn't necessarily allow me to switch tasks any easier, so the extra focus it gives me can be a bit of a double-edged sword when it comes to being on time.
Stuff I don't use is stuff like Pomodoro timers (or, kitchen timers), to tell me whenever 20 minutes has passed. That doesn't gel well with what I do for work, generally - you do not want to be ripped out of your deep thinking state by a timer going off periodically. In my case I'll probably just start ignoring it when its novelty runs out after the first few times it rings!
Looking back at this post after writing it, I feel like I've been venting a bit and not solutions-oriented, but honestly I think I've got a pretty good handle on my time-management, and have had for quite a while - aside from being slightly late, I very very rarely do things like miss transport or turn up stupid late for important things. I've found good ways of externalizing my timekeeping and working memory. Where I'd like to improve is longer-term thinking, and having more of a Normal Person sleep cycle. On that note...