It’s a feeling you might be familiar with: being “booked tight.” It’s a weirdly complicated thing to experience.
Because, yes, if you’re looking enough to truly enjoy what you’re doing, it can be a deeply fulfilling experience. Like you’re doing exactly what you should be doing with your time—using all of it to its fullest potential, because we should live every moment as if it’s our last, blah, blah. You know the platitudes. And on the other end of the spectrum, if you hate the things you’re spending your time doing, the whole thing feels closer to torture.
But weirdly, no matter if you’re enjoying your life or hating every moment of it, one thing stays consistent: we never feel like we have enough time. We rush through traffic or frantically push through crowds of people just to make it to that meeting barely in time. Or, we’re somehow minutes late to everything we try to do. And, worst and most consistently of all, when we sit down to try to get some work done, we feel so squeezed tight and rushed that it feels like putting out quality work is impossible.
We humans are frustratingly poor at understanding time. We frequently misjudge how long a task will take, or, if you wanna get all dramatic about it, where we stand in the larger context of our lives.
And all of that, understandably, leads to anxiety.
It’s a regular enough occurence in a large enough sample of people that it’s been given an appropriate name: time anxiety.
Here’s what we know about it, and how to face it.
Shame and pain
Time anxiety is similar to another phenomenon you might have heard of: productivity shame, where you feel like you’re always falling short or not making the most of your time.
William Penn once said, “Time is what we want most, but what we use worst.” In today’s productivity-driven but social media-laden world, it feels like the weight of that quote has increased exponentially.
Feeling overwhelmed by schedules and workloads is pretty common, but time anxiety takes it further. It’s not just a momentary spike in stress; it’s an emotional weight that affects productivity, causes procrastination, and can even lead to burnout. It’s a feeling that persists. For some, it can feel nearly permanent.
But the thing about time is, unlike many aspects of life, it can’t be controlled. So, how do you move past the anxiety caused by the uncontrollable nature of time and find contentment in your work?
Time anxiety revolves around the nagging feeling of never having enough time and not doing enough with the time available. But understanding why you feel this way involves examining your relationship with time itself.
During childhood, time often doesn’t carry much weight. We fill our days with games and learning, with schedules being somewhat loose. As teenagers, it gains significance with school, hobbies, and the societal pressure of not ‘wasting time’ impacting our future.
Suddenly, as adults, time becomes our most valuable and scarcest resource. Balancing responsibilities like college, work, and family make time management crucial. Paradoxically, the more we fixate on the limited time, the more constrained it seems.
It’s a bit like that phenomenon of the Pink Elephants—try not to think about it, and it becomes the focus. Psychologists call this “ironic process theory”, where attempting to suppress certain thoughts actually brings them to the forefront. Similarly, telling someone to stop worrying about time can paradoxically increase that worry.
So, how do you navigate this persistent feeling of time slipping away? That’s the challenge.
Time anxiety takes different forms
Time anxiety manifests in various ways beyond the stress of a packed schedule. It seeps into our thoughts, behaviors, and habits, and can be categorized into three main types:
Daily time anxiety: That constant feeling of insufficient time in a day, leaving you rushed, stressed, and overwhelmed. The “daily-ness,” the constant-ness of it, is what really hurts the most.
Future time anxiety: The ‘What ifs?’ that dominate your thoughts, paralyzing you with endless considerations of how today’s actions might shape an uncertain future.
Existential time anxiety: The overarching fear of life’s limited timeline—no matter how fast you push forward, there’s always a final finish line. This is the one that keeps you up at night the most.
It’s such a weird situation we’ve found ourselves in: our modern yearning for spending our time as meaningfully as possible as often as possible makes that anxiety about the future so much worse every day. The usual advice often revolves around things you can do in the present: drawing up schedules that make things seem less intense, building better habits, eliminating distractions, estimating projects more accurately, and prioritizing important work for daily fulfillment.
Yet, often these strategies, while they may help, fail to address the core issue at hand. Instead, there’s a multi-prong process you can employ to try and break down the issue.
The three pillars
Dealing with time anxiety involves three key pillars: awareness, understanding, and action.
The first step, awareness, is easy these days — because of the product we make.
RescueTime was designed precisely for this purpose—to address a common plight and the routine question: “where did my time go?” It tracks your app and website usage, offering comprehensive reports on your habits. By shedding light on your time allocation, we hope we can help in significantly alleviating time anxiety.
Yet, can excessive scrutiny of your time exacerbate time anxiety? The short answer is yes. Focusing excessively on any aspect of life tends to foster anxiety and stress, and time is no exception. But being oblivious to how you spend your time can be equally stressful and often serves as a root cause of time anxiety. Picture it like someone on a diet aiming to lose weight. Obsessing over every calorie and carb is stressful and unsustainable, but completely disregarding the dietary process won’t yield desired results — or really any results at all. It’s about striking a balance between awareness and action to maintain a fulfilling life.
So what you really need is a clean, efficient balance. That’s where understanding comes in. An undramatic, clear-eyed reflection of what the data has shown you; a scrupulous self-review into what it tells you about where you’re at.
When does that time anxiety rear its head the most? After you’ve spent a whole afternoon watching Netflix? As you’re settling in to bed, thinking about the next day and realizing how terrifyingly jam-packed with tasks it is? Or maybe you let that moment of realization wait until the next morning. (Both are still pretty painful.)
Use that information. Make a plan to do something about it.
Then comes action: doing something, anything, that will move the needle towards a healthier relationship with your time. And to do that, we have a few options to choose from:
To overcome time anxiety and foster a sense of contentment in your days, here are several strategies to consider:
The five strategies
Acknowledge your relationship with time: Start by acknowledging the impact time holds in your life. Recognize that time exists, can’t be halted, and that your sphere of control revolves around future actions. This seemingly simple step can powerfully quell anxiety and set the stage for progress.
Define ‘time well spent’: Time anxiety often stems from a perceived mismanagement of time. Reflect on what constitutes a fulfilling day for you. Consider tasks that induce a state of flow at work and activities that genuinely bring you joy outside of it.
Understand the planning fallacy: Strive for realism in planning. Studies consistently show that most individuals only have around 2.5 hours of truly productive time daily, despite assuming they have much more. Acknowledging these limitations and planning accordingly is crucial.
Allocate space for meaningful activities: Time anxiety can feel overwhelming, but waiting for motivation to strike isn’t the solution. Psychology suggests that action precedes motivation. Deliberately carve out time for activities that matter to you, fitting them into your daily routine.
Practice being a ‘Satisficer’ instead of a ‘Maximizer’: The pursuit of perfection often intensifies time anxiety. Consider making choices based on your current criteria rather than striving for the ideal decision. Research indicates that excessive pursuit of perfection may lead to poorer choices and heightened stress.
In essence, time keeps moving forward, and fretting over its passage often does more harm than good. As Maria Edgeworth wisely noted, “If we take care of the moments, the years will take care of themselves.” Realism about time constraints, recognizing what brings fulfillment, and taking action based on that awareness are key to navigating time anxiety.
You are more than your mind. You are more than your perception of the world around you, and more than your perception of the constraints and time-limits that feel like they’re closing in on you.
Be aware of the patterns your mind likes to follow—the ways it specifically makes you feel stressed and worried.
Because you have plenty of time. You just have to realize it first.