Time Insensitivity

“Hang on a second! I just have one more thing to do before we leave… besides, we have plenty of time to get there.” 

Responses like that are all too common when ADHD is in play. Quite often, it is already beyond the time you should have left, and it will take longer to get there than you think.

To begin understanding time insensitivity, it is important to understand the three aspects of how it plays out in the brain of ADHD.

First, is the CHRONOLOGICAL issue. The ability to perceive a future event as a specific place in time is not always an ADHD talent. 

The non-ADHD brain anchors future events at specific points in time (eg. staff mtg today @ 2pm, or anniversary on May 14, or medication every night at 10pm). By doing so, the brain understands a list of future events as having blocks of time between each event

ADHD brains tend to perceive time as either “now” or “not now”. All of the “not now” events are lumped together; no blocks of time between them.

When Mommy pokes her head in the bedroom door at 7:30 pm and tells Simeon that he has to be in bed by 8:00 pm, Simeon pleasantly responds, “Okay, Mommy.” 

What Mommy actually meant was, “Simeon, it’s getting very close to your bedtime. You need to put away your toys now, put on your jammies and come downstairs for a snack so that you have time to brush your teeth and hop into bed by 8:00 pm.”  

If Simeon has ADHD, his brain may logically understand what 8:00 pm is, but the block of time between “now” and “then” only registers, “now” and “not now” … his bedtime may as well be 3:00 am, because his brain “sees” 8:00 pm and 3:00 am as the same time… “not now”.

At 7:50 pm, Mommy comes back into the room with a toothbrush and brushes Simeon’s teeth while he struggles to put on his Spiderman pyjamas, holding his favourite X-Man toy, and crying. He wants to know why his little sister got to have a snack and he has to go to bed without.

Mommy explains to him, “Simeon, it’s the same thing every night. You know that you have to put your toys away, put on your jammies, and get a snack so you have time to brush your teeth and hop into bed at 8 o'clock. I even told you when it was time to do all that, and you chose not to… so no snack for you.”

Curiously, Simeon may not have been disobeying his Mommy; he may have simply been waiting until 8:00 pm “felt” closer before he started his bedtime routine … which may have never happened because Simeon is insensitive to where events fit in time. He doesnfeel them gradually getting closer; they sneak up on him and arrive suddenly, unexpectedly (even though he was warned ahead of time).

Chronologically sensing where events fit in relation to each other, and in relation to “now” is a challenge for many with ADHD.


Compounding this first difficulty of properly placing events in time, is a second time insensitivity with ADHD: sensing the AMOUNT OF TIME it takes to complete a task or event.

Anne tells her friend that she will meet her for coffee at the Marmalade Cat in 20 minutes; “...I just have to finish paying some bills online first, then I’ll be on my way.” 

An hour later, Anne’s friend is just about to leave the Marmalade Cat with her double caramel macchiato when Anne pulls up all flustered.

So sorry I am late, the bills took longer than I thought.” Anne is an accountant and seemingly should know how long paying bills online would take. This time she only underestimated by 300%.

Having ADHD can make tasks - even familiar and repetitious tasks - a whole new adventure each time you perform them. You may be confident that you know how long tasks will take, but estimating time turns out to be just a crap shoot.


The third and final aspect of time insensitivity is a little more complex to understand, but once you do, a light bulb may go on.

This part of time insensitivity is revealed more by the ANXIETY it produces in the individual, than the inconvenience it causes to others. Also notable, is that this third time insensitivity is sort of a combination of the previous two challenges.

Here’s an example:

Ken has several events coming up in the next two months: 

  1. calculus exam in 3 days, 
  2. guitar gig in 1 week,
  3. weekend camping trip with the guys in 3 weeks,
  4. history paper due in 5 weeks, and
  5. 3 final exams in weeks 7 & 8.

Occasionally, Ken accidentally glances at this calendar and feels overwhelmed by how much study and preparation he has coming up… sometime. Fortunately, because Ken has ADHD and his brain sees all of these events as “not now”, he has been able to comfortably procrastinate. Soon I will have to start preparing for all of those events, but ‘not now’”, he thinks. Notice that he has lumped all of those events together; he does not feel them as separate events.

A non-ADHD brain feels each events getting closer and closer; it feels them in chronological order, and with space between each event. As each event gets closer and closer, the non-ADHD brain rises to meet the occasion; focus, energy, organization, and motivation all begin to gradually rev up for each event that looms on the horizon. 

An ADHD brain does not feel" them as separate events spaced out over time, and does not feel each event approaching; therefore, it is not rising to meet the occasions as they approach individually

At some point, usually when it is too late to prepare properly, even an ADHD brain senses that it is crunch time. When Ken's friend asks about the calculus exam in three days, it’s not bells and whistles going off in Ken’s mind; it’s bombs and sirens. How can he study for that exam in just three days?

Here’s where it gets interesting… because Ken's brain has simply lumped all of his future events together as “not now” - rather than “feeling" them as individual events with spaces of time between them - when Ken finally starts to feel the pressure of one future event (eg. his impending calculus exam) he doesn’t just feel the pressure of the exam, he feels the pressure of all 5 of his “not now” events at once. The weight of the calculus exam feels like all 5 events combined.

Having that many things to get ready for in just three days would cause anyone a great deal of anxiety. To Ken it feels overwhelming. Now the overwhelming load of 5 events causes him such anxiety that he cannot even focus on the only event that truly requires his attention now, his calculus exam. 

What does Ken do? He fires up his video console and retreats into his favourite distraction. In three days he will have to face the exam completely unprepared, but who cares, three days is “not now”. He is able to relieve the weighty burden by relaxing in his distraction of now.

This aspect of time insensitivity is not often recognized because it is cloaked behind anxiety. If you were to ask Ken why he is so anxious about his calculus exam, he would not be able to tell you that it is because it “feels like all 5 events combined into 1.

      © Dan Duncan 2013                                       part of the