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Thinking About the Past, Present and Future With ADHD

One of the complicated things about life is that we have to deal with the past, present and future – sometimes all at the same time!

Reflecting on the past, experiencing the present, and anticipating the future are distinct mindsets, even though one becomes the other as the future turns into the present, which then recedes into the past.

I’ve realized that to some extent, ADHD probably influences how I approach all three – past, present and future.

TimeIn many cases, I believe it’s fair to say that the past is a distraction. Thinking about the past some is important for processing our experiences, but thinking about the past too much interferes with making the most of what’s ahead of us.

That’s how rumination becomes a problem, where we fall into repetitive, negative patterns of turning something over internally – in this case, something from the past. To the extent that ADHDers lack the executive functioning skills that let us intentionally direct our attention where we want it, I suspect we may have a harder time “snapping out” of repetitive thinking about the past.

Then there’s the present. Or should I say, now there’s the present?

People with ADHD tend to prioritize immediately rewarding activities. In that sense, although living in the present is generally a good thing, you could also say that we’re at risk of giving too much importance to the present.

Another way to put it is that we automatically gravitate toward whatever most immediately captures our interest, which prevents us from thinking through the connection between how what we do in the present is going to impact us in the future. And then, when that future we didn’t plan for becomes the present, the present that we were in becomes a past associated with regrets over what we could have done differently.

That’s not to say people with ADHD don’t think about the future at all. In fact, we often have all sorts of ideas for projects we want to execute in the future. But many of those ideas are somewhat impulsive, spur-of-the-moment, superficial, or simply lacking in the motivation to make them a reality.

When I look at these ways of thinking about the past, present and future, I don’t think they’re always a bad thing. You can learn a lot from reflecting on the past. Prioritizing the present can lead to rewarding, unexpected experiences. And even if most of your impulsive ideas for the future never materialize, it might be worth it if even a couple of them do.

But these tendencies can cause problems too, which is why it’s worth acknowledging them. Even if acknowledging them doesn’t mean we can change them, it might mean we can build more self-awareness and acceptance.

Image: Flickr/ashley.adcox

Thinking About the Past, Present and Future With ADHD

Neil Petersen

Neil Petersen writes regularly on psychology, ADHD and education. In addition to ADHD Millennial, he writes about psychology at Psych Central's AllPsych blog and about ADHD at He can be found on Twitter at @ADaptHD_blog

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APA Reference
Petersen, N. (2020). Thinking About the Past, Present and Future With ADHD. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 26, 2020, from


Last updated: 19 Apr 2020
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