Three Steps To Tackle Time Management for People with ADHD

One of the mundane parts of life as a parent is setting up carpools for your kids. The the logistics can make you want to poke your own eyes out, but the advantage is that you have one less 30 minute drive from point A to point B.

There is one family with whom we carpool often. We like and trust the parents, the kids get along and do similar activities — win/win. However, the dad is always late. Like, really late. And when he sends a text saying “I’ll be there in 15 minutes,” he often arrives 30 minutes later or more, a sheepish look on his face and a sincere apology on the tip of his tongue.

He is a good person and keeps my kid safe. Why is it so difficult for a gainfully employed, married, 45 year old father of 2 to get anywhere on time? Because he has ADHD.

ADHD is very common — over 6 million children in the US have been diagnosed with it (and think about all the undiagnosed adults that add to that number). At the same time, there is still so much misunderstanding about what it means to have ADHD. There is a stereotype that ADHD means “hyperactive, misbehaving boys.” And of course, there are some children whose ADHD presents with hyperactivity and behavioral inhibition issues. But, the other symptoms — the ones that persist or even worsen into adulthood — are the ones that are the least understood outside of the ADHD community.

Most of those symptoms fall under what experts call Executive Function: the set of skills that help you “get things done” — pay attention and manage time.

A lot goes into Executive Function. In later stories, I can get into more details about Executive Function. There are tons of great books on this topic that I can recommend, and I actually find the whole process to be fascinating. But for today, I want to focus on one major issue for so many ADHD sufferers:


Time management issues can impact people with ADHD on so many levels. Running late, not being able to accurately predict how long your homework will take to complete, or telling your spouse you will be home at 5:30p as you are walking in to a 5p meeting all the way across town.

The inability to keep track of time can impact relationships, self esteem, and anxiety levels. It can be hard to understand for people who do not have ADHD or Executive Function issues. In the age of the bullet journal and the iPhone calendar, many people simply cannot fathom why keeping track of time is so difficult.

Step One: understand the way you, personally, think about time

While this step is not fun or sexy, it is critical for success if you really want to change your relationship with time management. In my experience, many people with ADHD have deeply imbedded feelings of shame about their time management skills. There is guilt around this issue, which can lead to defensiveness. I won’t pretend its easy to take these walls down, but the first thing is to separate the issue of time from your personal self worth. You can be brilliant, a great worker, and a loving parent. Your time management issues exist separately from your personal value.

Additionally, people with ADHD tend to focus their efforts more on reacting to their environment than planning their actions. It is difficult to put their brains on pause. But, if you really want to tackle this issue, you need to take a moment, pause, and consider. What are some concrete examples where you might be able to improve your life if you could better manage your time? Thinking about how you approach your day helps provide some perspective on how you move through time, or even how you value it.

My son has some Executive Function difficulties, and one of the issues he had was getting ready for school on time. He woke up plenty early, and then would dawdle in his room for 20 minutes, looking at comic books or searching for one specific pair of underwear until ultimately, every morning culminated in a lot of yelling and racing around the house looking for lost shoes.

He and I sat down (during a less heated moment), and discussed how rough mornings were for both of us. So in this way, I helped him realize that his time management of this particular issue was something that needed support.

Step Two, more concrete: keep track of time for one specific activity

There are many tools to use for time management: paper planners, apps, digital watches. But you need to figure out what works for you. Start with one issue you are having with time. Like with my son, it was the difficulty in getting ready for school on time. Then break it down like this:

What do I have to do? First, he and I discussed what time he needs to leave the house for school (despite his time management issues, he strongly dislikes being late).

What are all the steps to get there? He and I discussed all the things he needs to do to get ready in the morning — brush his teeth, get dressed, eat breakfast, etc. We broke it down into all of its parts.

How long will each step take? Once we wrote out all of the steps, and we discussed how long each step would take, even providing for a margin of error — allowing him 10 minutes to dawdle in bed before actually having to get up, for example.

The entire discussion took less than 15 minutes.

How do I want to remind myself? I know that for my son, anything electronic is going to be way too distracting for him. So I wrote it all down in a list on a piece of paper, and put it on his bedroom wall, right next to his dresser where he gets dressed. It looks like this:

Fancy colors are optional.

Once we had outlined all of this, he no longer had to put any brain power into time in the morning — he just had to look at his wall. It took him awhile to get the hang of the schedule, but he practiced it, remembered that he needed to refer to it, and now he is almost always ready to go on time.

For him, a paper visual on his wall was the most helpful, and I think most people with ADHD need the simplest plan possible — something with few distractions. Allow yourself to try a few different things — writing it down on a highly visible piece of paper, setting specific alarms in your phone, or on your watch. Don’t try to tackle every issue. And don’t get discouraged if it takes a few times to figure out your own optimal system.

Step Three: Allow yourself to feel proud when you tackle step two, and then repeat

Once you have figured out a system that works for you and managed to tackle one specific time-related issue, allow yourself to feel proud. Many people, especially those with ADHD, feel that they are ‘supposed’ to be good at managing time. So, even if they do get somewhere on time or hit a deadline, they don’t feel good, they just feel as if they “dodged a bullet.”

Time management is not a natural thing for everyone. If you figured out a system that works for you, give yourself positive reinforcement. You are making progress. Try applying your system to one other concrete issue — reaching a work deadline, for example — and go from there.

The ultimate goal is to be able to create a daily and/or weekly schedule using a simple planner. Understand that this is a skill that you will build. Start with the smallest of pieces, be proud of yourself, and expand from there.

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Denver, Colorado, United States

© 2019 Deb Knobelman, PhD.