I have always struggled with one thought. The kind of recurring thought that never really leaves you: “It’s too late.” Too late to publish a book, too late to start a company, too late to learn a new language. This is called time anxiety. The number of skills I haven’t acquired and the opportunities I didn’t take because of that very thought are, frankly, infuriating. It’s only recently that I have managed to get over that thought, and, while in my case it is still a daily struggle, I wanted to share some of my strategies.
“Men are not prisoners of fate, but only prisoners of their own minds.”Franklin D. Roosevelt.
While death anxiety is the fear of running out of time, time anxiety is the fear of wasting your time. It’s an obsession about spending your time in the most meaningful way possible. And when society tells us—or when we interpret signs from society as saying—that it’s too late to achieve a particular goal, we don’t perceive it as meaningful enough. We need—we demand—that what we do with our lives actually matters.
Time anxiety can take several forms:
- Current time anxiety: the daily feeling of being rushed that makes us feel overwhelmed and panicky. Some people also experience anxiety attacks because of the day-to-day stress caused by this type of time anxiety.
- Future time anxiety: thoughts about what may or may not happen in the future, which are the cause of worry and “what if” types of internal questions.
- Existential time anxiety: the sense of lost time slipping away and never to return, which many people experience in a more acute way when thinking about death.
Dr. Alex Lickerman, the author of The Undefeated Mind: On the Science of Constructing an Indestructible Self, says that time anxiety stems from some of the following questions: “Am I creating the greatest amount of value with my life that I can? Will I feel, when it comes my time to die, that I spent too much of my time frivolously?”
Time anxiety does not necessarily mean that you believe in an outside force that has assigned a purpose to your life, and that you are yet to discover. It just means that your well-being is determined to a large extent by the importance of the value you feel you are creating with your life.
But, paradoxically, this over-optimisation may prevent us from creating the most value with our lives. We limit ourselves by always calculating the best potential outcome through our personal perception of possible. Beating time anxiety means shifting our focus from outcomes to output so we can spend our energy on things we can actually control.
Beating time anxiety: from outcomes to output
According to Tanya J. Peterson, the author of The Mindfulness Journal for Anxiety, it’s important to accept a few truths to be able to feel in control of your daily time and your lifetime. First, time exists and we can’t change that. Time will move forward, and so will we. Accepting these simple yet daunting truths is the first step in reducing time anxiety. Next, you can start implementing some strategies.
“And if we continue asking why, like the child we once were, trying to excavate down to our most rudimentary ambition—a time-worn exercise—we’ll eventually find all reasons lead to the same place, to the one core reason for living we’d sought all along, the core reason against which we measure the value of everything we do: to be happy.”Dr. Alex Lickerman, Clinical Psychologist.
While purpose in life is an important factor in the psychology of happiness, spending too much mental energy on finding it rather than doing things that make use happy can be anxiety-inducing. Here are three steps you can take to reduce time anxiety while still finding meaning in your day-to-day life:
- Define what “time well spent” means to you: sit down, and think about what really makes you happy and gets you in the flow, without overthinking about how feasible the final outcome would be. Just think of your output and how it makes you feel to work on producing it. For example, don’t think about happy it would make you to publish a book. Ask yourself if you really enjoy writing. Don’t think about how proud you would be to run a marathon. Question whether you like running. Create a short list of activities you really enjoy and that bring value to yourself or to the world.
- Make space for these moments: this does not mean making time for them. Instead, think of where you will incorporate these moments into your life. Maybe on your way to work. Maybe at home, after the kids are asleep. Or maybe spending time with your kids is the activity you want to make space for. If you happen to have less time than expected, that’s completely fine. It’s more about designing a space dedicated to your “time well spent” activities. As the prolific writer Maria Edgeworth said, “If we take care of the moments, the years will take care of themselves.”
- Cut out time-consuming distractions: the moments we spend mindlessly scrolling on social media or watching random videos do contribute to time anxiety. Do a quick audit of your content consumption patterns and try to cut out the amount of time you spend in an input rather than output mode.
As I said, time anxiety is something I’m still struggling with, and may keep on struggling with for the rest of my life. If that’s something you’re also struggling with, I hope you find these strategies useful.
Anne-Laure Le Cunff
I’m an ex-Googler, entrepreneur, and part-time neuroscience student at King’s College. If you found this article useful, subscribe to my weekly newsletter about productivity, creativity, learning, and designing engaging products.
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