How To Manage Time Anxiety: Is It Really Too Late?

March 18th, 2021

Ever since I can remember, I have suffered from a little thing I now know as, time anxiety.

I remember time anxiety visiting me during fun-filled school holidays. Urging me to do something useful with my time. Telling me to grab a notebook and write up a book review, while I sit around and talk to my family. Or to brainstorm a chapter of the book I wanted to write. Or to do something, anything, to not waste the time away.

This fear of time running out, being too late to do things or not spending time wisely, has followed me into adulthood.

As an adult, I can now see the importance of rest and slow living. Not micromanaging every minute of my life. But I still sometimes feel the the niggle in the back of my mind, asking me the ever-present question:

Am I wasting my time?

This worry about wasting time or needing to spend it in on something meaningful, often ends up eating up more time, chipping away at energy levels and hindering your ability to focus on tasks.

What does time anxiety look like?

According to Dr Alex Lickerman:

  • you might spend a lot of time checking clocks or planning out routes to not waste time. It provides some relief but the cost of this is, that it affects your ability to be present, and concentrate on what you're doing at the time.

  • You rush from one activity to the next and worry about lost time if you accidentally have a lie in. This can have a significant impact on your mood.

  • You feel uneasy when you don't get around to doing everything you planned. For example, if you've booked a day of holiday, you feel the clock ticking off the hours until you're back at work. You feel pressurised to make use of every moment during your time off.

  • You believe it's too late for certain opportunities. Too late to write a book, start a YouTube channel, make a career change or travel the world. You become fixated on missed opportunities and actually end up failing to see how you can actually achieve those goals.

Dr Lickerman explains that it can stem from an existential fear, of living a life without meaning, triggered by thoughts like "why am I here?" This can then lead to worries about wasting your life and feeling that you aren't doing anything of value.

Managing your time anxiety, can help to delink your wellbeing, from your judgement of how well your time is being spent. Allowing you to be more present and truly enjoy what you're doing, and see opportunities that may not be visible when you're suffering from time anxiety.

How to address time anxiety

Build awareness

Being aware of your time anxiety is the first step to addressing it. Just having the vocabulary to talk about it can help, and experiencing the "ah-ha" moment, when you realise that you have time anxiety.

To build on my awareness, I like to be aware of what triggers my time anxiety.

For example, hustle culture. Growing up in a Capitalist society, you're led to believe that a successful person is someone who is wealthy. From a young age, you see that the qualities that society values are: good grades, financial stability, a strong work ethic.

Toxic hustle culture builds on this, and creates a toxic environment that pressurises people into working constantly. Making them feel they can never say no to an opportunity or that they'll fall behind if they slow down. Posts on social media glamorise the idea of working hard and sleeping later. Hustling and grinding to achieve what you want. With messages like “Don’t stop when you’re tired,” "90% grind, 10% sleep" and "Turn down your feelings, turn up the hustle."

Aidan Harper, who created a European workweek-shrinkage campaign called 4 Day Week, argues that

"This is dehumanizing and toxic. It creates the assumption that the only value we have as human beings is our productivity capability — our ability to work, rather than our humanity,” Nytimes

Putting aside the fact that this is extremely unhealthy, in my opinion, hustle culture amplifies time anxiety. You're constantly left to feel like a failure if you put your health before your work and goals. You're led to believe that you're weak if you value life over hustle. That your self worth is based on how much you work, and what you do for a living.

Being aware of the impact that hustle culture has on me, was the first step to addressing my time anxiety. I no longer follow social media accounts that represent toxic hustle culture and I attract more of what I value. I can now use my time anxiety to motivate myself to work hard towards my goals, in a way that feels healthy to me rather than toxic. I can put my health and my life first, and I'm able to enjoy beautiful simple pleasures rather than missing them in a flurry of busyness.

There may be other things that trigger your time anxiety. Childhood fears, insecurity or even other people influencing you to feel this way. The more awareness you have of the triggers, the better able you are to manage your time anxiety.

Find or create meaning

When you're doing what feels meaningful to you, you're less anxious about time passing. Time anxiety can be triggered from the desire to feel that you're living your best life. Taking action in the areas that are meaningful to you can make you feel like you're working towards this life, and settle the anxiety.

The first step is understanding what you value and what feels meaningful. Then it's about exploring your goals, and brainstorming methods of achieving them. For example, if your job doesn't satisfy you, consider ways to pursue a different career. Or if you want to build a relationship, challenge yourself to meet new people and date more often.

After 12 years in a corporate career, I started to feel anxious in my job and I decided to leave. At the time, I put it down to being in a stressful role, leading a high impact project. But that didn't feel like the complete picture. I'd been in this role for 2 years and lived a pretty good life in that time despite the pressure of the job. My strategies and work life balance worked for the most part, so why the sudden burst of anxiety? It's only now that I realise that it was time anxiety that I was experiencing. I would torture myself with thoughts like "Why am I here?" "What's the point of all this?" "I'm wasting my chance to do something meaningful with my life."

I'd been reflecting and writing about my values, dreams and goals in my bullet journal for years. I'd slowly been researching my options and what it would take to get there. I was also aware that I wanted to follow an unconventional path, for quite some time, so I'd made career and financial decisions, that would give me the financial security to make the change. Not living in the biggest house we could afford. Overpaying our mortgage while I was earning a good salary. These are the decisions I was comfortable making with my husband, because of awareness. So I then made the change. The interesting part is, that time anxiety still follows me. Now in a different form, with the pressure to perform and appease algorithms. To keep up with toxic hustle.

The only way around this has been to continuously assess my values, goals and options and take action towards them. Know what is meaningful to me, create for myself rather than for algorithms and follow my own timeline.

Be mindful and remove distraction

Mindfulness is a mental state achieved by being aware of the present moment while acknowledging thoughts, feelings and sensations without judgement. It sounds simple, but requires quite a bit of practice.

Having the ability to stay focussed on the present instead of thinking about the past or future, can settle your time anxiety. Part of being present is not worrying about the future, which enables you to enjoy the present moment. If we're worrying about future outcomes and unable to be present on the journey, chances are we'll even struggle to appreciate the actual outcomes when they arrive.

It's also about removing distraction. Raise your awareness of time-consuming distractions (e.g. scrolling social media mindlessly) that contribute to your time anxiety. Work on reducing these habits to be present and make space for the activities that make you really feel good.

I have a growing library of resources on Mindfulness here on my blog and on YouTube because I value it so much. To start with, here's a video on mindful productivity and a blog post on how to reduce worrying. In March 2021 I also hosted a challenge called Mindful March, details are here in this post and on instagram.

It's a continuous effort to keep time anxiety under control, and it can almost feel like the work is never over. A bit like cleaning a dirty kitchen, it will get dirty again if you don't stay on top of it. I hope these strategies can help you as much as they've helped me.

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With love,