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Why is there ‘never enough time’ – and how can we cope with time anxiety?

Updated: Sep 1, 2023

“Oh my ears and whiskers! How late it’s getting!” – the White Rabbit, Alice in Wonderland.

Man seated in armchair in the centre of a clock face, pictured from above, working on laptop.

Do you have a to-do list that never gets any shorter? Do you often feel there simply isn’t enough time to do everything you have to do? Time anxiety can cause such overwhelm, that you can find yourself stuck in inertia, unable to do anything at all.

According to a study by the British Psychological Society in 2020, 83% of people in the UK feel they don't have enough time to do everything they need or want to do.

Meetings, planning, emails, bills, domestic life, children and their commitments, your parents’ needs, perhaps and then trying to have some life of your own – how can it all be achieved in the allotted hours?

If you are very conscious to the point of anxiety of time slipping away, what can you do to improve things and take back control?

In this post, I’m going to look at the reasons people suffer from time anxiety and how to improve productivity.

What is time anxiety?

Many people have a continuous feeling of stress about the passing of time. An extreme, irrational variety of this fear is called ‘chronophobia’.

You might already be familiar with anxiety, but what exactly is ‘time anxiety’? Time anxiety is an ongoing feeling of fear and stress about the passing of time. These anxious feelings can range from being intermittently stressed during busy periods, to completely incapacitated by an engulfing fear to the point of not being able to function beyond pulling the duvet over your head.

At work, you may worry about being late to meetings, not meeting deadlines or not being able to prioritise. You may have a sensation of constantly rushing, feeling like a disappointment because you have failed, or feel you might. You might stop taking time off, or taking breaks because you feel you don’t somehow ‘deserve’ them.

You may become easily distracted and unfocused. Worries may lead to irritability and trouble sleeping. All forms of anxiety can lead to physical symptoms such as palpitations, sweating or an unsettled stomach. A study by Champion Health in 2023 found that 58% of employees in the UK experience symptoms of anxiety. This is a significant increase from the 48% of employees who reported experiencing anxiety in the same way in 2021. According to a study by Age UK in 2023, 1 in 5 (20%) of adults in the UK worry about having enough time to look after their parents, children, and the home.

The rise of technology, the fear of missing out (FOMO), the increasing pace of life and the COVID-19 pandemic, where people had suddenly to navigate remote and hybrid working have all contributed to time anxiety.

Time anxiety can be alleviated by some simple systems. Let’s take a look at causes and solutions.

What are the main reasons individuals suffer from time anxiety?

Person checking digital watch.

1. You don’t know where your time is going.

According to a study by the British Psychological Society in 2020, 63% of people in the UK feel they don't know where their time is going. That suggests that they don’t have any means of tracking or managing the time they have. In fact, Acuity Training in 2022 found that only 18% of people in the UK have a dedicated time management system. Without a system, you are not in control of how you spend time.

Tip: What works for you? Look back at what you’ve been doing, what works and what doesn’t? Try dividing time into ‘engrossed’ and ‘detached’ work. Engrossed work relates to intensely focused, creative tasks which require consistent immersion and attention. It takes time to get into ‘the flow’ and if you break off to complete detached tasks, it takes you longer to return to engrossed work. You are therefore less productive. Engrossed work might be writing an article or a report, analysing data, writing a plan, researching the family holiday.

Detached work is work which usually comes in small ‘bites’ but in considerable volume, such as checking emails, making brief calls, running off reports, paying bills. This can be blocked into a separate time from the more engrossing activities.

The payoff of blocking time into different types of activity as well as different activities is to maximise the parts of the mind responsible for each type of task, improving productivity.

Blocking activities by day can work for some people – Monday planning (start of the week; a chance to map out activities), Wednesday – communications, Friday administration (no-one wants a meeting at the end of the week).

Putting short breaks into the day to signal the end of a task can be effective – you’re rewarding yourself for each task, or part of a task, achieved. Reset the timer if you haven’t quite finished and need another time block to complete.

2. You don’t have well-defined priorities

When everything is urgent, nothing is urgent. There is a difference between urgent and important. Urgent tasks need to be done right now. Important tasks have an impact on your long-term goals. They can be deferred.

Tip: The Eisenhower matrix helps you to prioritise. Urgent and important tasks are priority 1. Important but not urgent tasks do not need to be done now, but you should make time to do them. Urgent but not important tasks can be eliminated or delegated. Tasks that are neither important nor urgent should be eliminated.

Faced with competing priorities – start anywhere, somewhere. Do one thing. When you are working on an activity or task, you are, by definition, progressing.

3. You don’t have goals

If you don’t know if you’ve hit your target, or what it is, you may feel like your efforts have no significance or function. This can impact on your motivation and satisfaction levels.

Tip: Take some time to contemplate your goals or aims to introduce determination into your daily life. What does contentment, satisfaction, achievement look like, from your perspective? How will you know when you’re there? Work back through the steps you will need to take and the smaller goals that will help you get there.

4. You’re not protecting your time

You’re now reclaiming time through a combination of three elements:

· understanding where time is going (keep a diary for a while – it doesn’t have to be forever).

· prioritising

· blocking time out

But for these to work, you need to protect your time from interruptions and distractions. We are subject to more and more intrusive diversions and disruptions than ever before. We are online, subject to messages, notifications, calls and emails. In fact, we are constantly ‘on demand’ if not ‘in demand’.

Tip: Muting your phone and closing email when you’re working on important tasks can help.

Learn to say ‘no’ to requests that take up too much time or that do not represent time well spent. People who always say ‘yes’ often become targets for requests as people know you are available to handle their requests and your inbox becomes their outbox.

Time management tools - diary, calendar, cup of tea

Remember, your time is just as important as that of others. If you have important tasks that are not urgent, they can be delegated. Don’t forget to take breaks. In the UK, a study by the CIPD (Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development) found that an employee’s productivity starts to decline after about 52 minutes. So make a cup of tea, walk about, listen to music… Do something to energize your brain every 30-45 minutes.

5. You’re procrastinating

Procrastinating is normal. Chronic procrastination saps your time and leaves you more worried than ever about meeting those goals or getting important jobs done. Putting off tasks can be caused by perfectionism (if you don’t do it, you can’t fail!), distraction (checking your Insta is more fun!), lack of clarity (why am I doing this again?), and lack of self-empowerment (I don’t think I can do this!) The trouble with fear is that the task we’re avoiding becomes larger and more worrying the longer we procrastinate. To face our fear is to kill it.

Tip: Break the task into small chunks, phone a friend and get them to cheer you on, have a brief brisk walk to get the positive body chemistry flowing. Reward yourself when the task is done. Give yourself some positive chat – avoid the triumvirate of ‘must, should, have to’. Tell yourself you want to, would like to, have a plan to get that task completed.

6. You might be trying to manage a mental health or wellbeing challenge

Sometimes other issues can present like time anxiety – Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD), Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and panic disorder are three such issues.

Tip: If you’re struggling despite your best efforts to organise your time and it feels uncontrollable and more than just worrying, it might be time to see a professional. Hypnotherapy can help with anxiety not just with relaxation techniques, but by helping you to challenge your negative thoughts and beliefs and to embed helpful and positive concepts in your thinking, which assist with the coping mechanism.

Calendar reminding us life is short; do stuff that matters.

Managing time anxiety begins by understanding your short and long-term goals and creating a ‘time budget’ as you would with money. How much time is being spent on each task and how much is frittered away? From there you can ensure your efforts contribute to your achievements.

Good time management not only liberates your time but frees your mind from anxiety and worry.

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