Are you constantly late, despite your best intentions and efforts? Do you find yourself losing track of time on a regular basis? The cause might be a condition known as time blindness — but there are ways to cope, and keep yourself running on schedule.
What is time blindness?
Time blindness doesn’t just mean you’re disorganized. “There are some people whose sense of time is slipperier and fuzzier,” said Ari Tuckman, a psychologist based in Pennsylvania who specialises in ADHD. These people may actually suffer from an inability to properly sense the passing of time.
People with time blindness have a faulty internal clock. Sometimes they underestimate how much time a task will take; other times they overestimate it. People with time blindness are often late, while some overcompensate by being chronically early. Either way, the underlying cause is the same, although the resulting issues may vary.
“In life, timing is everything,” said Stephanie Sarkis, a psychotherapist based in Florida. “When your timing is off, it can be disastrous.” Being chronically late can lead to any number of negative consequences, from missed flights, to ruined relationships, to getting fired from a job. For those who early-arriving over-compensators, the result is wasted time, as well as considerable anxiety about the possibility of being late.
Time blindness can be innate or situational
Time blindness is common symptom associated with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). However, time blindness is not exclusive to people with ADHD. “Some people are generally not good with time, even though they don’t have ADHD,” Tuckman said, noting that human abilities exist on a continuum — some people are naturally really good at estimating time, and some people are really bad, while most are in-between.
Time blindness can also be situational. For example, if you are so relaxed during a vacation that you can’t remember what day of the week it is, that’s a brief, temporary example of time blindness, one that will go away once you return to normal life. Time blindness can also be triggered by stress, anxiety, depression, sleep deprivation, or substance abuse. “Time is a cognitive ability,” Tuckman said. “Anything that impacts your cognitive ability can impact your sense of time.”
Coping strategies to deal with time blindness
The typical advice given to those who need to get somewhere on time — just wake up an hour earlier! — is based on the assumption that a person has the ability to gauge time accurately. For people with time blindness, this advice won’t work. Even when they do their best to estimate how long something might take, their estimates are often wrong, and there’s no set pattern to the extent to which they are wrong. “It’s an incorrect estimate, but sometimes it’s too late and sometimes it’s too early,” Sarkis said. “There’s an inconsistency to it.”
If you think your sense of time is a bit off, whether due to a disorder such as ADHD or because of a situational stressor, there are strategies to help you cope:
Identify the root cause
Getting somewhere on time requires juggling a lot of different components most people don’t need to think about, such as anticipating the necessary preparations, coming up with correct time estimates, and planning for the unexpected (such as heavy traffic or a late bus). People who are chronically late due to time blindness may have trouble with some of these steps, or all of them.
“It’s important to understand exactly why something is happening, so that you know how to target your intervention,” Tuckman said. Some people may be making their time calculations based on best case scenarios only, and not considering the fact there might be rush hour traffic, for example. Other people may forget about all of the preparation necessary to get out the door, while others may struggle with losing essential items like their keys or wallet on a regular basis, prompting a frantic search every time they need to leave. All of these can add up.
“[Identifying] where things are breaking down is the first step, before throwing generic solutions at the problem,” Tuckman said.
Visual cues, such as analogue clocks, can help
One way to keep track of the time is to keep an analogue clock in full view of wherever you are, whether that’s a standalone wall clock or a wristwatch. The advantage of analogue display, as opposed to a digital one, is the hours and minutes hands offer a clear visual of time passing, and how much time is remaining.
For example, if you need to leave at 2:00 PM, and the clock says 1:30, there is a clear visual representation of the 30 minutes that are remaining, whereas a digital clock is a little more abstract. “[Analogue clocks] are more tangible; you can see the progression of time,” Tuckman said.
Generally speaking, such visual cues help make time feel a more concrete.
Find an accountability partner
For truly important deadlines, such as showing up to a job interview on time, having an accountability partner helps. This could be as simple as asking a friend to text you a reminder when you need to start getting ready to leave. “When your friend [texts you], you’re going to look at it, because we always look at text messages,” Sarkis said.
Other examples might be engaging someone to help you with the planning necessary to finish a large project on time, or to offer the occasional reminder about a critical task.
Make a habit of actively managing your time
People with time blindness often struggle with identifying how they spend their time. Whether they are spending more time on social media than they realise, underestimating how much time a task will take, or overlooking specific elements of a task, it all adds up. So Tuckman advises developing an awareness and intentionality about where you spend their time.
“Time management often begins with distraction management, or temptation management,” Tuckman said. Whether that means installing an internet blocker on your computer or actively tracking how much time you spend on specific tasks, it’s important to have an accurate idea of what you are doing and how long it takes. This is useful for anyone with a busy schedule, but it is even more critical for those dealing with time blindness, who may struggle to keep up with everyday tasks.
There is no easy fix for innate time blindness, which requires coping strategies that are all about compensation. For those whose time blindness is due to ADHD, medication can make a big difference, as the condition can be a result of insufficient levels of neurotransmitters such as dopamine and norepinephrine. “This is a neurobiological disorder,” Sarkis said. “You wouldn’t blame someone with diabetes for having issues with insulin.”