Executive Function Deficits: Losing Track of Time

Health Writer

As far back as 1997, a research study showed children with ADHD had difficulty estimating how much time had lapsed since an activity began. Dr. Russell Barkley published a study indicating that problems monitoring time might be a characteristic of ADHD.

In the study, children (both with and without ADHD) were asked to complete a task for 12, 24, 36, 48 and 60 seconds. Some of the time, the children had to reproduce a set amount of time, despite distractions. The children without ADHD, were much more accurate in estimating the amount of time that had passed, even with distractions. The children with ADHD had a more difficult time estimating time and their performance declined even further when distractions were added. Medication, surprisingly, did not improve performance, indicating that problems with managing time may be an integral characteristic of ADHD.

Difficulties managing time or being able to estimate how much time has past is also considered part of executive functioning deficits. This has been shown lately to affect many children and adults with ADHD. Examples of how time distortion or the inability to accurately manage time are:

  • Being chronically late
  • Completing long-term assignments
  • Planning for the future
  • Working within a schedule

Throughout our life, as children in school and adults in work, we need to be able keep track of how much time has passed. We may have important appointments to keep, places to be or work that must be accomplished before a deadline. When unable to accurately determine how much time has passed and how much time we have left, we might always be running late or missing deadlines.

Below are tips to better cope with difficulties managing time:

  • Use a watch with an alarm, a kitchen timer or an alarm on your cell phone to help remind you when you should finish with one activity and begin another. Watches with alarms are great to help children learn strategies to help themselves. For example, a watch can be set for the time your child needs to come inside to complete homework.

  • Free your desk of clutter. Distractions can make it even more difficult to keep track of time and clutter is a distraction.

  • Ask for help. Ask those around you to remind you when it is time to move on to the next task. Keep a list of things that must be done, in priority order, so you don't spend all your time completing one item and forgetting what other tasks are important.

  • Break large projects into smaller tasks and integrate specific milestones into your project to help you see your progress.

  • Set time limits for tasks you may hyperfocus on. Allow yourself only a certain amount of time to work on the activity. Set alarms to let you know when your time is up.

  • Enlist your spouse's help around the house. Develop cues, both verbal and physical, that can help you move to the next activity.

  • Keep a log of how you are spending your time. Every hour, write down what you have done during the hour. This can help you understand how much time things take you to accomplish.

  • Create a schedule for your day. You may need to tweak this for a few days as you figure out how long tasks take you to complete.


"Sense of Time in Children with ADHD", 2004, Dr. David Rabiner, ADHDLibrary.org