Now or Not Now: Understanding ‘time blindness’ in students

Dr Ciara O’Farrell is Head of Academic Practice at Trinity College Dublin. In this post she explores ‘time blindness’ and suggests that even a micro change of thinking can go a long way in supporting students affected by time blindness.

Despite almost 20 years in the discipline of Teaching and Learning, I have only recently heard of the concept of time blindness – yet time blindness is as real as colour blindness. We all know that time management is an important skill for students to master in Higher Education. They have to learn to multitask; meet numerous deadlines; follow complex scheduling; navigate transitions; create and follow timelines for projects; plan and execute multiple assessments (often due at the same time); and study for future exams. But ‘managing’ time necessitates ‘understanding’ time and time blindness precludes that understanding. Put simply, you can’t manage what you aren’t aware of.

Time is both a biological and a mental construct and we have probably all experienced time distortion at some stage, such as losing track of it when we are enjoying ourselves or missing an appointment for no obvious reason. Contexts such as sleep deprivation, grief, anxiety or even the recent pandemic lockdowns can also alter our perception of time, though usually temporarily.

Time blindness is a more permanent distortion of time that can profoundly impact the lives of those affected by it, disrupting their very ‘fabric of time.’[1]  For these individuals, time is neither linear nor tangible and, struggling to perceive time outside of the present moment, time becomes either ‘now’ or ‘not now’. Students with time blindness often underestimate the time it takes to get somewhere or do something and have difficulties understanding calendars or allocating time to an exam questions or assignments; conversely, they can ‘hyperfocus’ and get totally lost in time. They typically feel they have an infinite amount of time, until they don’t, so they don’t feel deadlines creeping up on them and regularly miss them. Exams? Sure they’re always an eternity away – until they’re not.

Time blindness often affects individuals with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and a recent study attests that up to 16% of college students worldwide have ADHD.[2]  ADHD is a deficit of the brain’s ‘executive systems’, those neuropsychological processes that enable us to plan, prepare for and reach future goals through managing time, planning, focusing attention, following instructions and regulating our behaviour. Executive Function (EF) stimulates our brains to engage in goal-directed, future-orientated actions but time blindness severely disables this motivation to set and action appropriate goals, causing a significant problem for students at typical college age who are expected to learn independently and practice self-regulation, often for the first time in their lives.

As we reach our 20s, our ‘time horizon’ (or ability to look into the future to plan ahead) extends, but where a neurotypical student of this age is usually able to see and plan a few months ahead, the time horizon of a student with ADHD can be significantly shorter, often extending to just a week or two. Effectively blind to the future and trapped in the ‘now’, these students are likely to be only motivated by short-term goals and deadlines – the further out the event, the harder it is to manage. ADHD expert Russel Barkley recognises the impact of this and says that those affected by time blindness “need to repeatedly practice […] seeing the future, saying the future, feeling the future, and playing with the future so as to effectively ‘plan and go’ toward that future.” However, without a concept of time this is incredibly challenging.

How can Institutions and educators help?

Implementing wholescale Institutional educational strategies often require cultural change, but even a micro change of thinking can have an important impact on our students affected by time blindness. What a paradigm shift to realise that these students aren’t just lazy, unreliable, or inconsiderate to the expectations of others! Where their actions (or inactions) might previously have led us to think they were unmotivated or lacking in will power or self-regulation, instead we can understand why their actions don’t always align to their intentions. We can understand that time blindness is not a behaviour or a choice – it’s a symptom.

Many universities in Ireland offer ‘reasonable accommodations’ to students with ADHD and disability services, such as ours in Trinity, often suggest useful strategies for staff to support students with ADHD.[3] Take assessment: for students with time blindness, managing assessment deadlines is often a significant challenge, yet concurrent assessment deadlines are a common feature of our higher education ‘modularised’ system – like waiting for a bus, there’s nothing for ages and then a convoy of them come at once. Extending deadlines can help students with ADHD but sometimes this just creates a further bottle neck down the road, so extended deadlines tend to work best when combined with strategies to plan and manage time. Staggered deadlines, on the other hand, help all students.

Designing university teaching, learning and assessment that meets the needs of all students is complex, although good design is often universally beneficial. A programme-focused approach to assessment cultivates conditions for effective student learning by attending to issues such as timing, sequence, or amount of assessment. The Trinity Assessment Framework recommends mapping and reviewing assessment practices across a year, subject or programme so that the assessment diet can be viewed as a whole and planned accordingly. This benefits all.

We don’t judge someone with colour blindness as not bothering to differentiate green from blue. They are blind to colour. Similarly, students with time blindness don’t achieve their study goals because they aren’t bothered. They are blind to time. I believe educators like me can help those affected by time blindness by even acknowledging its existence because, like colour blindness, time blindness ‘just is’.

[1] Barkley, R. (2009) Time Blindness. CADDAC Conference. [accessed 15 March 2022]

[2] Mak, A. D. P., et al (2021). ADHD Comorbidity Structure and Impairment: Results of the WHO World Mental Health Surveys International College Student Project (WMH-ICS). Journal of Attention Disorders.