Time Blindness: An ADHD Symptom That Can Harm Your Finances

Having a difficult time perceiving time can lead to impulse buying and other work, life, and money challenges

Many people often associate attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) with apparent symptoms, such as fidgeting, disrupting class, and being disorganized. 

While those symptoms are true of certain aspects of ADHD, the mental disorder has many overlooked symptoms. And those symptoms can wildly affect the lives of people with ADHD.

For me, those lesser-known symptoms include time blindness and impulsive spending, making managing my finances a constant struggle.

Time blindness is an inability to perceive time accurately and can impact many crucial aspects of your life. Here's what you should know about time blindness and how it can affect your life and finances.

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Types of ADHD

First, there's more than one type of ADHD—two or three, depending on how you count—and they exist on a spectrum.

The two main types are hyperactive-impulsive and inattentive. But your symptoms rarely fit neatly into either of those two categories. Many people are diagnosed with what's known as a combined type.

While one person with the neurodevelopmental disorder may exhibit jitters and fidgeting, another person may stare out the window or swing like a pendulum between distraction and hyper-focus.

Some evidence suggests that people with ADHD may have significant problems with their perception of time, which can be as debilitating as other, better-known symptoms.

ADHD May Be Underdiagnosed in Some People

I have ADHD, but while I've known for a long time that my brain functions differently than others, I wasn't diagnosed until age 35.

The underdiagnosis of ADHD is pretty common among other women my age. In fact, research has found that about only 3% of girls were diagnosed with ADHD between 1997 and 1998.

That was about when I realized there had to be a reason I couldn't stop moving in class or remember what the teacher was saying. Meanwhile, healthcare providers diagnosed three times as many boys around the same time.

And while the number of children diagnosed since that time is far higher (11.7% for boys and 8.8% for girls in 2019), there has long been a gap between genders regarding ADHD diagnosis. And that gap remains a part of the diagnostic landscape.

ADHD isn't a disorder relegated to school-age children. The mental disorder continues to impact adults in many ways that can be detrimental to a healthy life and successful career.

ADHD Can Lead to Risky Behavior

Many adults with ADHD have reported having trouble keeping a job or finding themselves in debt.

According to a study published in 2015 in the Lancet, which studied a group of 1.92 million people—32,061 of whom had ADHD—over 32 years, those with ADHD had higher mortality rates than others. Additionally, the researchers concluded that the high mortality rate was caused by the following:

  • Various impulsive behaviors
  • Antisocial behaviors
  • Substance use
  • Inattention
  • Impulsivity
  • Risky behaviors

People with untreated ADHD also may experience an increased risk for conditions such as depression, anxiety, obesity, and diabetes.

You can avoid adverse health outcomes associated with ADHD by getting diagnosed and treated as soon as possible. Some evidence suggests that many people transform some symptoms into highly adaptive traits that allow them to live successful lives.

Difficulty evaluating rewards and consequences leads to many risky behaviors, like time blindness.

What Is Time Blindness?

Time blindness is focusing only on the present.

"ADHD is, at its heart, a blindness to time or [...] to be exact, it is a near-sightedness to the future," explained Russell Barkley, PhD, a researcher specializing in ADHD, at a talk for the Centre for ADHD Awareness Canada (CADDAC) in 2009. "Just as people who are nearsighted can only read things close at hand, people with ADHD can only deal with things near in time."

Ari Tuckman, PsyD, a psychologist based in West Chester, Pa., agreed with Barkley's definition. Tuckman said that ADHD folks' time blindness also contributes to our frequent hyperfocus.

"Good attention regulation is choosing the right thing moment by moment," said Tuckman, describing distractibility as shifting when you should have stuck. "Hyperfocus is the opposite. You stick when you should shift."

All of those aspects of time blindness can lead to the bias of ADHD folks towards debt. For example, they only hyperfocus on the present moment and have an "I'll spend now and pay later" mentality in which "later" never arrives.

What it feels like, to me, is an inability to grasp what time means in a way that translates to successful actions. For example, as I'm writing these words, I know I should stop working in time to send a few emails. But I can't be sure that I will stop or even gauge how long in advance I should do so.

Another typical example is leaving the house. I can't judge how long it will take me to get ready. The best I can do is a ballpark estimate. 

I'm not being obstinate, and time judgment isn't a skill I can learn. Likewise, a color-blind individual can't distinguish between red and green, no matter how hard they try.

What Does Time Blindness Feel Like?

The practical fallout of time blindness can be disastrous. Individuals with ADHD miss work meetings or office hours with their professors. They may forget to go to the office or are so engrossed in their work that they forget to pick their kids up from school.

Being nearsighted to time means an inability to plan and prepare for all the events that make up adult life—like remembering to go to the supermarket, fill the tank up with gas, or pay the rent.

To someone else, those behaviors may look like disrespect or laziness. But in fact, time blindness is simply a result of less activity in the prefrontal cortex, among other cognitive impairments. The prefrontal cortex is the area of your brain in charge of things like focusing and making decisions.

And the financial consequences of time blindness are far-reaching. According to Tuckman, people with ADHD are more likely to forget to pay a bill on time, which means they may have lower credit scores than others. They may face difficulties getting a suitable mortgage or car loan—or any loan.

Late fees, lowered credit scores, higher interest rates, and the like all fall under what Tuckman called the "ADHD tax." But folks with ADHD also get taxed in less obvious ways.

"Folks with ADHD have more traffic accidents [and] more speeding tickets, so they're perhaps paying more in car insurance," explained Tuckman. 

People with ADHD may also have to spend more on eating out because they lack the executive function to prepare their meals in advance at home.

Those little things add up to a hefty bill if calculated over time. Additionally, impulse buying has the same effects.

Impulse Buying and the 'ADHD Tax'

The impulsivity associated with ADHD comes from the same cognitive impairment that causes nearsightedness to time.

Problematic dopamine production in people with ADHD can have a significant impact. Dopamine is a hormone your body makes that makes you feel happy. 

And disruption of the hormone can lead to substance abuse, gambling, and "antisocial behaviors" such as violent eruptions or simply the inability to sit through a work meeting.

Impulsivity can mean that a person with ADHD can't develop an exercise regimen or a healthy diet, which can help them regulate their neural functioning.

"That's part of the double whammy of ADHD," explained Tuckman. "It's not a problem of knowing. It's a problem of doing—consistently, day after day."

Then, of course, there's impulsive spending. Most people have bought something online that they regret the next day. 

But people with ADHD do that far more and to dire effect. Impulsive spending can lead to crippling debt, bankruptcy, foreclosure, and other financial disasters.

"Due to impulsivity, the person with ADD usually falls into the 'spender' category," Stephanie Moulton Sarkis, PhD and Karl Klein, JD, wrote in their book ADD and Your Money. "This can lead to marital conflicts regarding excessive spending and increasing debt."

In that case, the marital disputes and the debt are forms of the "ADHD tax."

Because we live in the now, it's very hard for ADHD folks not to do something that will give us immediate pleasure.

I live with an iron fist over my wallet because I know what happens when I don't. This rigidity is the "ADHD tax" I pay and can cause marital disputes. 

Even though I think of myself as a "saver," I exist on one side of the same ADHD-symptom coin. The other side is always just around the corner.

The more I learn about my brain and its functions, the more I understand that ADHD is not a childhood disorder—something to treat so that our kids can get their homework in on time. It's a neurological impairment.

Without treatment, adults continue to have a lower quality of life, more daily struggles, and, yes, debilitating debt. That doesn't mean that we are doomed, however.

Having ADHD, even with its time blindness and impulsivity, is also a wonderful part of who I am. ADHD allows me to learn new skills and information rapidly, multitask like mad, and keep up with my toddler while other adults are too exhausted.

Living with ADHD can be a joy and a gift. That said, to fully enjoy the gift—and not entirely tank my bank account—it's also essential to recognize the challenges. Not with judgment but with compassion, curiosity, and pragmatism.

A Quick Review

Contrary to popular belief, ADHD is not a childhood disorder but a life-long condition, leading to lower quality of life and higher mortality if not recognized and treated.

Among the lesser-known ADHD symptoms is time blindness, an impaired ability to see time as anything other than the present moment. Time blindness can make it hard to meet obligations promptly, leading to poorer work and social outcomes. 

Another symptom is impulsivity, which leads to more risk-taking behaviors such as reckless spending.

That said, there are positives to having ADHD that vary among people, including high energy levels and the ability to multi-task efficiently. Many people can use their symptoms to build successful lives. Still, awareness of your ADHD symptoms is key to successfully adapting to them.

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  6. Franke B, Michelini G, Asherson P, et al. Live fast, die young? A review on the developmental trajectories of ADHD across the lifespanEur Neuropsychopharmacol. 2018;28(10):1059-1088. doi:10.1016/j.euroneuro.2018.08.001

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