How often do you feel like you just don’t have enough time? Despite trying every time management technique and productivity strategy in the book, do you find it impossible to shake the feeling that time is slipping away? This is called time anxiety.
Similar to productivity shame–the feeling that you’ve never done enough–time anxiety is when you feel you never have enough time to meet your goals or that you’re not maximizing the time you do have.
“Time is what we want most, but what we use worst.” — William Penn
In our productivity-obsessed world, it’s common to feel overwhelmed with your schedule and workload from time to time.
But time anxiety is more than just a momentary spike in your workday stress. It’s an emotional specter that haunts your days, causes you to procrastinate on important tasks, and can even lead to burnout.
Unlike other aspects of our lives, time can never be controlled. So how can you move past the anxiety of time’s uncontrollable nature and learn to feel good about yourself and your work?
Why you can’t stop thinking about how little time you have
Time anxiety is the terrible feeling that you never have enough time and aren’t doing enough with the time you do have. But to understand why you feel this way, you first need to understand your relationship with time.
As children, time usually doesn’t mean much to us. Yes, we follow a bit of a schedule. But for the most part, we’re left to fill long, unstructured days with games and learning.
As we become teenagers, however, time starts to gain importance. We have school and sports and hobbies and friends to fill it. Not only that, but we’re often told that “wasting time” now will ruin our future.
Then, suddenly, time becomes our most important and scarce resource. As adults, we have college, work, families, and all other sorts of serious responsibilities that demand our time and attention.
As we get older, time becomes something we not only have to consider but try to control.
But here’s the irony: The more we focus on the limited time we have, the more limiting our time feels.
In other words, the more you worry about time, the more time feels like something you need to worry about.
In this way, time anxiety is a lot like the Pink Rhinoceros problem.
If I ask you not to think about a pink rhino, it’s going to be the first thing that pops into your mind.
Psychologists call this ironic process theory–the process where the deliberate attempt to suppress certain thoughts makes them more likely to surface.
That’s why you can’t tell someone to just stop worrying about time. The more you try to stop time anxiety, the more you’re likely to worry about it.
Three types of time anxiety impact your present, future, and overall happiness
Instead of ignoring time anxiety, you need to understand how it impacts your thoughts, behaviors, and even habits. That’s because time anxiety impacts our thinking beyond just feeling stressed over your daily schedule.
In fact, time anxiety shows itself in multiple ways. Here are a few examples:
- Daily time anxiety: This is the feeling of never having enough time in your day. You feel rushed. Stressed. Overwhelmed.
- Future time anxiety: These are the “What ifs?” that ravage your brain. You feel paralyzed thinking through everything that may or may not happen in the future depending on your actions today.
- Existential time anxiety: This is the overall anxiety of only have a limited time to live your life. No matter how much you race ahead or push forward, there’s only one finish line.
Now more than ever we demand that we make our time meaningful. This translates into anxiety about how we spend our time today, but also about how those actions impact our future.
The common answer is to focus on what you’re doing right now.
Create a schedule that supports all your goals. Build better habits and remove distractions that waste your time. Get better at estimating projects. Prioritize important work, so you feel accomplished at the end of the day.
And while all those strategies work to help you use your time better, they don’t address the underlying issue.
How to deal with time anxiety (once and for all)
Overcoming time anxiety comes down to awareness, understanding, and action.
In this sense, RescueTime was built to help people deal with time anxiety. We saw how our friends and colleagues constantly got to the end of the day and asked “Where did my time go?”
RescueTime observes how you spend time in apps, websites, and projects and gives you in-depth reports on your habits. It helps shine a light on where your time goes, which is a massive help in reducing time anxiety. The RescueTime dashboard shows you how you spend your time in apps, websites, and tools. But can too much observation of where your time goes actually add to your time anxiety?
The short answer is yes. Obsessing over any aspect of your life will lead to anxiety and stress and time is no different.
However, being unaware of where your time is going is just as stressful and can be one of the causes of time anxiety in the first place.
Think of it like the dieter wanting to lose weight. Obsessing over every calorie and carb is stressful and unsustainable. But ignoring what you’re eating won’t bring the results you want. It’s all about finding a balance between awareness and action so you can continue living your life.
If you want to remove time anxiety and feel better about your days, here are a few strategies to try.
1. Acknowledge your relationship with time
It’s probably been a long time since you thought about what time means to you (if ever).
But time anxiety builds when we ignore or try to manipulate the ways that time impacts our day. To start, you need to accept some truths about time:
- Time exists
- You can’t stop time from moving or slow it down
- All you have control over is what you do in the future
This might seem like a silly first step, but acknowledging time’s impact on your life is a powerful way to quell anxiety and start moving forward.
2. Ask what ‘time well spent’ means to you
Time anxiety comes from feeling like you’re not spending your time in the best way possible. But do you really know what the ‘best possible way’ is?
- Start by asking yourself what does a good day look like?
- At work, what sort of tasks get you into a state of flow?
- Outside of work, what hobbies or activities do you enjoy in the moment? Not just because they help you ‘turn off’ your mind?
If it helps to spur ideas, list activities under the categories from Darius Foroux’s ‘Six Spoke’ theory:
- Body: What do you like to do to feel healthy and active?
- Mind: What pushes your mind in a good way?
- Love: Who do you love spending time with?
- Work: What work or tasks make you feel good?
- Money: How do you want to use the money you do have?
- Play: What hobbies or rest activities do you really enjoy?
3. Understand the planning fallacy (and why you have less time than you think)
Listing out lots of activities can lead to more time anxiety if you’re not careful. Instead, the goal here is to be realistic about what you can do with the time you have.
Unfortunately, most of us are pretty bad at planning. We believe that eight hours of work means we have eight hours of time to schedule. However, study after study shows most people have at best 2.5 hours of truly productive time a day.
We’ve written a full guide on the planning fallacy here. However, what it comes down to is that at work, most people spend:
- 15% of their time in meetings
- 25-30% of their computer time on email, chat, and video calls
- 40% of their time multitasking and working a sub-optimal way
And that doesn’t include time spent on breaks (which are a necessity) or on nonwork activities.
The same can probably be said for your time outside of work. You might have five hours between when you get home and when you go to bed, but are you considering things like dishes, shopping, cleaning up, etc.?
This isn’t meant to stress you out further but rather to help you understand that you do have limitations you have to work within. Time can’t be stretched to fill your to-do list.
4. Make space for the things that matter (and just do them)
Time anxiety can feel paralyzing. But the worst thing you can do is sit back and wait for motivation to spend your time in a better way.
Instead, psychologists have found that motivation does not precede action, action precedes motivation.
In other words, to feel motivated and happy, you need to act.
Look at your time well-spent activities and decide how they will fit into your day. This doesn’t necessarily mean scheduling a specific time for them (although many people do this with great success).
Instead, think about how your most meaningful tasks will fit into a real day.
Will you do them in the morning before work? On your commute? After dinner when the kids are in bed? Make space for them and time will sort itself out.
When you come to terms with your limited supply of time, it’s easier to turn off the TV, log off Twitter, and do things that make you feel good.
Thinking through your day like this can also help you cut out the time-wasters and distractions that add to your time anxiety. When you come to terms with your limited supply of time and what truly matters, it’s easier to turn off the TV, log off Twitter, and do things that make you feel good.
5. Practice being a ‘Satisficer’ instead of a ‘Maximiser’
An often overlooked aspect of time anxiety is how we think about the future. Many of us stress out over making the best choice possible. But there is no ‘perfect’ decision.
Psychologists have identified two types of decision-makers:
- Maximizers strive to make a choice that will give them the maximum benefit later on.
- Satisficers make choices according to their set of current criteria and nothing more.
- Trying to maximize your time today, tomorrow, and every day after will only lead to more time anxiety. Instead, look at your time well-spent activities and realistic schedule and decide what fits best now.
(If it helps, studies have found that maximizers actually often make worse choices and suffer stress and anxiety in the process.)
Time keeps on slipping. We’re just along for the ride.
We all want to spend our time in the best way possible. But stressing out over the seconds and minutes we have does us more harm than good.
As writer Maria Edgeworth wrote back in the 1800s:
“If we take care of the moments, the years will take care of themselves.”
Be realistic about your time, know what makes you feel accomplished and the rest will take care of itself.