Zoë's magical kitchen timer for ADHD time management

Zoë’s magical kitchen timer for ADHD time management (I wish).

I finally bought a kitchen timer to help with time management. When a friend unexpectedly dropped by, I decided to test it out. I let him know that I would only take a 10-minute break, then I’d have to get back to my writing.

We sat at my kitchen table for a cup of Earl Grey. I set the timer for 10 minutes. The soft tic-ticking was pleasant, almost like another friend at the table.

We launched into a lively discussion (my friend and me, not the timer and me) about the relative merits of using a didgeridoo versus a conch shell for an upcoming performance my friend was working on.

The alarm jangled. I jumped. Mid-sentence, my friend and I locked eyes across the table.

It’s okay, I said. I’ll just turn the alarm back 15 minutes.

Moment of truth

I wish I could say I was joking. I wasn’t. It took a moment for what I’d  said to sink in. We both burst out laughing. As for me, I was only laughing on the outside. Inside, I was freaking out.

What the hell was I thinking?

This was the first time I realized just how screwy my relationship with time was.

The truth is, for a split second (or so; I don’t trust my judgment on that for obvious reasons) I actually believed that turning the clock back, was, well, turning back the clock. (Please read that again slowly if you’re dyslexic. I had to read it four times, and I wrote it).

For all intents and purposes, as I watched the dial of the timer turn back, I believed I was getting more time.  No wonder I’d been chronically late before my ADHD diagnosis.

If I thought my brain was horribly damaged after my diagnosis (and I did), what did this tell me?

Fortunately, just as I’d managed to reframe my catastrophizing within a couple of weeks of my ADHD diagnosis (I’ve learned to respect and appreciate my brain, ADHD and all) I soon discovered research that explained how I could have such a bizarre notion of time.

Abandon the mission!

Another shocker was how easily I abandoned my resolve to do better with time management. I’d completely forgotten why I’d bought the timer in the first place. No wonder I’d lost so much productivity over the years: time I’d never, ever get back. I felt sick.

Again, instead of beating myself up for choosing instant gratification (i.e. a pleasant conversation) over going back to work, I understand that the ADHD brain is just built that way. It’s neither a moral shortcoming nor a character flaw. I’m highly motivated and love my work, but, true to my ADHD nature, I tend to get lost in the moment unless I take extreme measures and remain vigilant about my ADHD treatment.

Thus, my purchase of the kitchen timer.

While the kitchen timer strategy initially failed, it gave me an unexpected blessing: an invaluable insight into what I’m actually dealing with.

The science

In light of this bizarre incident, Dr. Russell A. Barkley’s description of the relationship a person with ADHD has with time does not seem so strange. Barkley calls time the ultimate disability for someone with ADHD. He writes,

“…time is the ultimate yet nearly invisible disability afflicting those with ADHD. …how can those individuals be expected to benefit from any corrective or rehabilitative treatments when the very cognitive mechanisms that subserve the use of these treatments – the self­-regulatory or executive functions – are precisely where the damage caused by ADHD lies?” (2011).

Barkley concludes that,

“Understanding time and how one comes to organize behavior within it and toward it, then, is a major key to the mystery of understanding ADHD.”

While it may be key, actually gaining that understanding is incredibly complex. That said, I’m happy to say I’ve mastered the use of a kitchen timer in ADHD time management.

I know I can still do better, and I will. But it would sure help if someone would invent a magical timer that works the way they’re supposed to!


I’ll be exploring time perception and time management more fully in my upcoming book (to be published by New Harbinger Publications, fall 2013), but for those of you who can’t wait that long (how long is it? …don’t ask me), here’s a fascinating research study to tide you over:

Impulsiveness as a timing disturbance: neurocognitive abnormalities in attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder during temporal processes and normalization with methylphenidate by Katya Rubia, Rozmin Halari, Anastasia Christakou, Eric Taylor
Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2009 July 12; 364(1525): 1919–1931. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2009.0014


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