Feeling increasingly under pressure from the clock? That's time anxiety you're facing, and it's having more of an impact on your mental wellbeing than you realise...
My phone reads 4.20pm and I’m 10 minutes early for coffee with an editor I write for. Loitering outside the cafe, I ought to feel smug – having time to spare is a win – but instead I feel a wave of panic.
I think of the invoice I need to chase – could be chasing right now. Then there’s the email I was midway through writing when I left home. These vital minutes that could have been useful have now been rendered redundant. I’m wasting time.
It isn’t just work that reduces my days into productivity chunks. I get up before dawn to fit in a run, a load of washing and a homemade breakfast before sitting down at my desk. If I stay too long at a Saturday party, I’ll berate myself for the sleep I’ll miss ahead of hammering life admin the next day.
Only at times when I’m sick or really hungover do I truly switch off, and it’s a struggle. A recent bout of flu turned into a competitive exercise in watching all the films I’d never got round to. Ticking off The Godfather and Thelma & Louise gave me much joy, but I couldn’t shake the feeling I could have squeezed in American Beauty if I hadn’t kept falling asleep in a fever-induced daze.
What I’m experiencing is ‘time anxiety’ – an obsession with the passage of time, or distress about the constant lack of it. Maybe you’ve felt it yourself when a friend is late to meet you, inevitably eating into crucial to-do list time later. Or perhaps an unexpected queue at the post office not only has your foot tapping, but your palms clammy.
‘The problem isn’t that time is finite,’ says clinical psychologist Dr Kevin Chapman. ‘It’s the perception of time being out of your control that creates a negative relationship.’ You end up stuck in a vicious cycle of anxious thoughts, ruminating over what feels like wasted moments – standing outside a cafe for 10 minutes, for example – to the point that it interferes with your ability to go about your normal routine.
‘People who lead very meaning-driven lives tend to struggle with the idea of wasting time, be it theirs or someone else’s,’ says Alex Lickerman, author of The Undefeated Mind. ‘When you base your happiness and success on your ability to be purposeful, to add value in some way, you feel very unsafe just watching the seconds tick by.’
If you feel like time goes at a much faster rate than when it used to stretch out in front of you for what seemed like eternity in childhood (never-ending summer holidays, sigh), it doesn’t. But other things have changed.
By adulthood, the average individual has experienced loss, watched infants grow into young adults seemingly overnight and no longer has school schedules or designated breaks to punctuate their years. The longer you live, the more you come to understand how fleeting and precious time can be, so as responsibilities pile up and you chase new goals in the name of growth, you become more attached to any given minute.
Chief among the main adult time thieves identified by author Claudia Hammond in her book The Art Of Rest are the 2008 financial crash, which led to a smaller workforce taking on a greater workload, and technology, which has blurred the boundaries between business and pleasure.
Factor in, too, the fact that being busy is increasingly being viewed as a badge of honour, and social media streams full of images of other people achieving, and it can leave the average person feeling like they’re expected to do more during the working day, while trying to cram more into their free time, too.
For Fay Mitchell, 31, a primary school teacher from Surrey, time anxiety doesn’t show itself in an overpacked schedule, but – ironically – in time wasted. ‘It’s as if the fear of wasting time is so strong, I end up not doing anything,’ she says.
‘It can feel like I’m immobilised – I’ve got my to-do list and I know how I should best spend my time, but the expectations I’ve set myself are so out of my grasp, I do nothing. It’s like sitting on your bed, wet hair in a towel, watching the minutes tick by and knowing you’re going to be late but doing nothing to start getting ready – it happens a few times a week.’
Dr Lynda Shaw, a psychologist and neuroscientist who specialises in embracing change, believes that the drive to put every second to good use affects those in high-pressure careers, as well as the self-employed who are easily logging 12-hour days. I can relate.
As a freelance writer, time has become money; I’m acutely aware that if I don’t use it well enough, I won’t be able to pay my bills. And if work-life balance feels elusive when you’re freelance, it can become harder still when you throw motherhood into the mix.
‘I wanted to be supermum,’ says Rochelle Rodney-Massop, 26, a single mother of twins living in London, who works part-time in the hospitality industry. ‘Despite falling pregnant aged 21 during my psychology degree, I was convinced I could still intern and raise my kids. But when I landed a job in fashion merchandising after graduating, juggling childcare with long office hours, a lengthy commute and renovating my home felt impossible. There weren’t enough hours in the day, no matter how hard I tried to use my time well.’
That the clock never stops for mothers makes them particularly vulnerable to experiencing anxiety around time, says Dr Shaw. ‘As well as the usual time pressures, women often take on everyone else’s mental load. Typically, they will absorb the anxieties of children, parents, partners and siblings.’
Living with a permanent sense of urgency can have very real repercussions not just for your quality of life, but for your health, too. For Rochelle, the feeling that her life was out of control tipped over into her work and affected her confidence in her ability to do her job.
I know myself that paralysing waves of anxiety and an inability to sleep soundly are among the things that time anxiety is costing me. As well as losing hours of my life – oh, the irony – ruminating over tasks not yet completed, my own abhorrence for ‘wasting time’ has affected my relationships. I’ve come to resent the spontaneous moments in life – bumping into a friend in the street, a phone call from my grandma – because they set me back in my self-inflicted schedule.
Recently, a friend left me a 10-minute voice note to arrange evening plans. By the time I’d listened to the end, I begrudged her for it. ‘If you’re always thinking about what you need to be doing now, or doing next, or should have done earlier, that’s enough to provoke a harmful response in your body,’ says Dr Chapman.
Indeed, Dr Shaw explains that any kind of anxiety disorder can have an impact on many of the body’s processes by turbocharging your cortisol response. In small doses – think: running for a bus – it keeps you sharp. ‘But in chronic situations – chronic because the levels are too high for too long – it suppresses neurotransmitters, like dopamine and serotonin,’ says Shaw.
A lack of dopamine will ‘leave you feeling unmotivated and unable to anticipate good things. Meanwhile serotonin is crucial for your mood, sleep, appetite and emotions. This can leave you moody and unable to sleep properly, which in turn makes you irritable,’ she adds. Research has also linked chronically high levels of cortisol with a greater risk of depression, as well as high blood pressure and heart disease.
While productivity hacks might feel like an obvious solution, Dr Shaw tells me they aren’t, since it’s anxiety around managing your time that’s triggering these feelings in the first place. Likewise, typical ease-up interventions, like meditation and yoga, aren’t always helpful.
‘When the source of anxiety is that you’re not being productive, focusing on the present – on the moment you’re sitting there, doing nothing – can make you feel meaningless,’ says Lickerman. And the more you fret about time, the more paralysed you’ll feel. Letting go of the idea of ‘wasted time’ is a good place to start, says Hammond.
‘Valuing rest is key. Some people can do nothing and sit on the sofa, others find that makes them fidgety and restless. The essence of rest is finding an activity that stops the day-to-day stuff going around in your head – something that really absorbs you,’ she adds.
That could be reading, gardening, listening to music or – if that sounds too much like hard work – sitting back in your chair and closing your eyes. It counts. ‘Spot unexpected opportunities to rest,’ she adds.
‘If you find yourself in a 10-minute queue at the post office, instead of feeling frustrated, reframe it. When you’re on a train, don’t catch up on emails, stare out the window – you’re already going somewhere, so you’re already achieving something. You don’t have to utilise every single moment.’ I think I’ve just found my new life mantra.
The clock-watcher’s guide to time-wasting
SWAP DREAD FOR AFFIRMATIONS
‘Let go of your obsession with not having enough minutes, hours or days by swapping catastrophic thoughts (“I never have enough time to do X”) with realistic, upbeat affirmations (“I have time for only one thing, but I’ll do it well”),’ says Dr Chapman.
COMMIT TO DOING LESS
‘There’s a tendency to underestimate how long things will take to do – thinking it will take an hour, not two or half a day,’ says Dr Shaw. Instead of writing a list of everything you need to do, pick two or three tasks and just commit to doing those that day. The rest can wait until tomorrow.
TAKE REGULAR BREAKS
‘Block out spaces in your diary to do nothing, even for half an hour,’ advises Dr Shaw, pointing to the work of social psychologist Graham Wallas, who came up with a method for productivity. ‘After identifying a problem, he suggested an incubation period, where you do something totally unrelated and stop thinking about the issue. During these moments, your unconscious mind is given the breathing space to come up with the solution.’ Clever, eh?
SLEEP ON IT
Up all night worrying about time? Dump your thoughts on paper and deal with them in the morning, says Dr Shaw. ‘Then, when you first stir – when you’re not quite awake, but not asleep – your brain is in a light meditative state called alpha frequency. You’ll get the answers to so many questions floating around in your head.’ Going for a walk, staring out of the window, daydreaming and counting your breath can also get you into this state.
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