January 12, 2024/Mental Health

6 Time Management Tips for People Living With ADHD

Using time management tools, adopting new approaches and allowing for a little grace can help meet deadlines and finish tasks

adult male managing a daily planner

When you say you’ll meet someone at 6 p.m. or have a project wrapped up by Friday, chances are you intend to make good on those promises. But time isn’t always your friend when you have attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

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“People with ADHD pay attention to their surroundings differently from those who don’t have ADHD,” says pediatric behavioral health specialist Michael Manos, PhD, who treats adults and children with ADHD. “This change in perception affects their time management skills.”

If you feel like you’re running out of time to complete tasks, read on for some much-needed tips that can help you get back on track.

How does ADHD in adults affect time management?

ADHD is a lifelong condition. While most people with ADHD receive a diagnosis during childhood, some don’t learn they have ADHD until much later. ADHD in adults can look different than it does in kids. For example, adults with time management issues are more likely to have inattentive ADHD versus the hyperactive or impulsive type that most people associate with squirming children.

Inattentive ADHD and time management

There are two types of “attention”:

  1. Automatic attention: You automatically pay attention to things you find interesting or that bring you joy.
  2. Directed attention: You have to direct your attention to a less attractive task requiring your focus.

“People with ADHD have trouble directing their attention to tasks that don’t immediately engage or interest them,” explains Dr. Manos. “It requires effort.”

Instead of directing your attention to what needs to happen (like getting ready and on the road), you revert to your brain’s default mode: automatic attention. Although you said you’d be at the restaurant at 6 p.m., you're hyperfocused on a TV series, which blinds you to the passing of time.

Although it takes no effort — and is often more fun — to focus on what you love, when this happens frequently, it could throw many of your other important responsibilities, like work projects, home tasks and important meetings or events.

“The inability to engage in directed attention throws people with ADHD off schedule,” says Dr. Manos.

ADHD time management tools and tips

Learning to better manage your time isn’t always easy, and may not come naturally, when you have inattentive ADHD. But these six time management tips can help you succeed.

Seek the help of experts

ADHD medications can strengthen directed attention. But a pill won’t tell you what to do and when. For that, you need to learn new skills — and apply them consistently. Research shows that people with ADHD see the most improvement when they use pharmacotherapy — combining medications with psychotherapy.

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Your primary care provider or psychiatrist can prescribe ADHD medications and help you manage your treatment plan. Your healthcare provider can also partner with your therapist, who can help you make the behavioral changes needed to stay on task.

Give power to your agreements

Dr. Manos recommends viewing tasks as agreements, not as to-dos.

“An incomplete or late task is a broken agreement,” explains Dr. Manos. “And the lives of many adults with ADHD are littered with broken agreements. My goal is to help adults acknowledge their agreements and engage in behaviors that help them fulfill those agreements on time.”

But making an agreement with yourself is rarely motivating — particularly for people with ADHD.

“It’s too easy to break the agreement because you’re only letting yourself down,” Dr. Manos notes.

So, be vocal about your intentions:

  • Share what you plan to do and when with someone who’ll hold you accountable and who you want to please.
  • When you keep your agreement, share that news with your accountability person.

Say ’by when’

An agreement without a deadline might as well not exist for someone with ADHD. You can continue indefinitely when a task doesn’t have an end time.

“Giving a task a ‘by when’ deadline doesn’t come naturally to people with ADHD,” says Dr. Manos. “But it greatly affects whether they keep or break an agreement.”

Saying you’ll do something “by noon on Saturday” gives you a concrete goal. You can then apply other strategies — like setting reminders on your phone — to ensure you can complete the agreement by the promised time.

“With practice and consistency, setting and meeting deadlines can become part of your routine agreements,” encourages Dr. Manos.

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Adopt a ’when/then’ approach

When you’re trying to improve time management skills, an overarching goal is to adopt behaviors that eventually become automatic. One way to get in the habit of paying more attention to tasks and time is by giving yourself something to look forward to when you fulfill an agreement.

Dr. Manos refers to this step as “when/then.” For instance, when you finish your taxes by the agreed-upon date, then you can go out for dinner at your favorite restaurant.

“It’s more of a learned practice over time than a reward system,” he says.

Use time management tools that work for you

People with ADHD (as well as those who don’t) often find that certain tools help them to be more efficient. Tools can also help you move beyond ADHD paralysis that contributes to procrastination.

Time management tools to try include:

  • Daily planners or online calendars.
  • Digital reminder systems.
  • Prioritized and updated “agreement” lists kept on paper or an app.
  • Sticky notes posted on mirrors, refrigerators, car dashboards and computer monitors where you’ll come across them throughout your day.

Show yourself some grace

Understanding why you struggle with time management is a good first step to addressing the issue. It takes practice and time to make meaningful changes that stick.

“I see many people who are down on themselves, even depressed, because they think they’re failing as a grown-up,” says Dr. Manos. “They feel they should be able to manage time and complete tasks without taking extra steps or needing to be held accountable.”

This negative self-talk can end up holding you back, often as an unintentional excuse.

“But there’s a legitimate reason why time management is so challenging when you have ADHD,” he reassures. “People with ADHD benefit when they create a supportive environment that empowers them to take ownership of their time and agreements.”

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