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What is time blindness? A psychologist explains if the controversial condition is real

Time blindness is common in people who have ADHD but that's not always the case.
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/ Source: TODAY

Time has evaded us all at one point or another. You might have overestimated how long dinner would take to cook, realized you’d planned to return a phone call hours ago or found yourself heading out the door 20 minutes later than you intended.

But if you find these occurrences are more frequent than not, you might be dealing with something more serious called time blindness.

The phenomenon has gone viral on social media, especially TikTok, with mixed responses. Some people take it seriously, going as far as asking for accommodations from their workplace, while others have said it's just an excuse for not respecting other people's time.

But what do experts say? Is it true that some people just can't help being late? Are there ways to fix time blindness? How can you tell if you have it? Here's what to know.

What is time blindness?

“Time blindness has two core components,” Renae Beaumont, Ph.D., psychologist at Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian, tells “One is difficulty sensing how much time has passed, so that sense of losing track of time. And the second is estimating how long it takes to complete a task.”

People who suffer from time blindness might find themselves allocating a few hours to a task only to find it takes them the entire day. And even if they’ve done this task before, they’ll incorrectly predict how much time their obligations require on a regular basis.

Is time blindness real?

Yes, Beaumont says. While it’s not a formal diagnosis, time blindness is a condition in which someone will struggle to organize and perceive time and it can be impairing, she adds. Someone who’s regularly late or running behind can appear to be unreliable or lazy, but that’s the not necessarily the case.

How do I know if I have time blindness?

If you occasionally lose track of time, you don't necessarily have time blindness. There are specific criteria that fall under time blindness and certain groups of people who are more prone to it than others.

If you find you’re constantly missing deadlines — for example, regularly picking up your child up from school late or doing something else while you run a bath only to find it overflowing again — you might be time blind. The key distinction is whether you’re regularly incorrect about how long tasks, including those you’ve done before, will take you.

Time blindness and ADHD

Time blindness and losing track of time is more common in individuals with ADHD, Beaumont explains.

That's because people with attention deficit disorders tend to become hyper-focused on tasks that interest them and lose track of time. Despite setting goals and aiming to be on time for things that matter to them, they’ll inevitably shift their focus and won’t recall that initial obligation until it’s too late. If you’re skeptical, know that this is all backed by science.

“(There’s a difference in) the brain functioning of individuals who experience time blindness,” says Beaumont. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter responsible for focus across the brain. In people with ADHD, research has found the brain is dopamine-deficient, which limits their attention span and increases the likelihood that they’ll lose track of time. But with stimulant ADHD medication, dopamine levels rise and time-processing ability typically improves.

Time blindness is what Beaumont refers to as a secondary symptom of ADHD, meaning it's not directly caused by the disorder but is commonly associated with it. It’s also a secondary symptom of schizophrenia and Parkinson’s disease. But not everyone who has time blindness has ADHD, schizophrenia or Parkinson’s, nor is time blindness a diagnostic criterion for them, Beaumont says.

How to manage time blindness

Time blindness can lead to feelings of “remorse and guilt about the impact it has on others,” Beaumont says. Fortunately, she has some easy tips to mitigate it and help those struggling with it show up for the people they care about and their commitments more regularly.

Set reminders and alarms

“If you know you’ve got an appointment coming up or you’ve got a certain meeting, you’re putting it in your calendar, whether it be a virtual one or your physical planner,” says Beaumont. Then, set another alarm or reminder to ping you a bit beforehand.

But be careful not to set your reminder too far in advance. The goal is to "give yourself a little bit of a buffer in case things don’t go to plan," Beaumont explains, but without leaving so much time that you end up getting distracted between the reminder and your deadline.

Finding your sweet spot will require some trial and error, so to start, Beaumont recommends setting a reminder 15 to 30 minutes before your deadline.

Consider an app blocker

If your phone is responsible for your distraction, download an app blocker designed to help you focus and stick to the task at hand. It can cut you off after you’ve spent too much time on a single app or only allow you to use certain apps at certain times.

Block out your day and track your time

Beaumont is a fan of blocking out your day into 30-minute increments dedicated to various tasks. Spend 25 minutes working on that task and dedicate the last five minutes to taking a break. It’s a time-management method called the Pomodoro Technique.

She recommends logging your blocked schedule in a physical planner rather than in your phone to reduce the likelihood you’ll be distracted.

Write down how long it takes you to complete certain tasks, whether it calls for the full 25 minutes, more than that or less. “(By doing this) you’re developing a bank of evidence or data to help inform your ability to predict how long similar tasks will take in the future,” says Beaumont.

If you find 25 minutes of work with a five-minute break doesn't work for you, feel free to play around with those numbers. For example, shorten your break to three minutes if you find yourself struggling to get back to work when time’s up. Or extend it by a few minutes if you don’t feel that five minutes is long enough for a mental rest.  

Blocking, says Beaumont, can help with feelings of demoralization, too. If you assume a task will take you five minutes and you discover meeting that goal actually took you 45, that can be a gut punch. Rather than allow that to be a reflection of your capabilities, this method calls on you to give yourself grace and adjust your predictions moving forward.

Breaking down larger projects

If you find you’re regularly behind on large projects, Beaumont recommends breaking them down into smaller, more manageable duties. Once you do, “set deadlines for the small sub tasks,” says Beaumont.

This way you’re more likely to reach the final deadline “with a high quality product,” she says.

Get professional help

If you want additional help, consider reaching out to a professional. Time blindness is often linked to ADHD, which can cause many symptoms that may make it difficult to address your time blindness on your own.

Psychologists and psychiatrists who specialize in attention, like Beaumont does, can be a huge help. They’ll often implement cognitive behavioral therapy, which includes problem-solving skills, role playing, coping skills and unlearning certain harmful behaviors, according to the American Psychological Association.

Beaumont is also a big fan of executive functioning coaches. “They focus on helping people around time management, planning, improving productivity,” she says. “They not only give great strategies, but they’re also like accountability buddies, making sure you follow through with these strategies and their implementation.”

And for those diagnosed with ADHD, medication can be a game-changer. “Research shows that it can help address time blindness. Stimulant meds do improve this problem as well,” Beaumont says.

She adds: “It’s all well and good knowing what you should do, but following through with it can be really tough.” So go easy on yourself. Overcoming time blindness takes time and practice.