When you live by a calendar, it’s no big surprise that your relationship with time can get a little complicated.
Time is a limited resource, after all, and neatly dividing the months, weeks, and days into work, time with friends, and other commitments can help you make the most of it.
But looking at a filled planner can leave you with the sense that you just don’t have enough time to get everything done. The pressure to make it to every event on time can lead to time anxiety, which refers to ongoing feelings of uneasiness and even dread around the passage of time.
Time anxiety can show up in a number of ways.
To get some insight on how it often appears in daily life, we reached out to Alex Lickerman, MD, who has spent some time exploring the concept.
You worry about lateness
Time anxiety can lead to a preoccupation with being late, Lickerman explains.
It’s natural to want to arrive on time, since tardiness can have a negative impact on your success at school or work. But stress over potential lateness can leave you constantly on edge.
You might spend a lot of time checking clocks or planning out the best route to your next destination. This might offer some relief, but at a cost: It distracts you and affects your ability to concentrate on what you’re currently doing.
Time anxiety can also affect your mood, according to Lickerman. If you do show up a few minutes late, you might feel irritated or angry, even when your lateness doesn’t matter all that much.
You feel a need to rush
Time anxiety can provoke a desire to rush from one place to the next, often without reason.
If you’ve ever slept longer than intended on a day off, you might have some familiarity with this feeling. When you realize the time, you bolt out of bed, heart pounding, already stressing about lost time and wondering how to catch up — never mind that you don’t actually have to do anything.
You feel uneasy when you don’t get around to everything you had planned to
You could also notice time anxiety showing up in your goals for yourself.
Think back to your last vacation or weekend. You probably felt excited on the days leading up to that period of free time, right? Maybe you made a list of a few tasks to handle at home, or enjoyable activities you were looking forward to.
Once vacation began, anxiety hit. You felt the clock ticking off the hours until you had to get back to work or school, and every moment you spent nottackling your list of plans felt wasted.
Once back home, you don’t even feel satisfied with the things you did manage to do, because there was still so much else you could’ve done.
You believe you’ve missed out on certain opportunities
If your time anxiety relates to big-picture concerns, you might feel like you’ve missed the turnoff for certain paths.
If you haven’t successfully achieved certain milestones that you expected to reach by your current age — like marriage, world travel, or a certain career move — you might begin worrying you’ll never catch up.
The real kicker? This fixation on the passage of time can overwhelm you to the point that you fail to see ways you could actually achieve these goals.
“The key to coping with time anxiety lies in understanding what’s causing it,” Lickerman says.
Here are a few potential explanations of what might be going on below the surface.
Fear of living a life without meaning
Existential dread, which might include thoughts like “Why am I here?” or “What’s the point of life?” can fuel worries about wasting your life or failing to live up to your potential.
You might have a sense your life is meaningless or believe on some level you aren’t doing anything to create value or leave a lasting impact.
These feelings often tie into a need for control. You can control some aspects of life, but you can’t do anything about plenty of others.
Knowing you can’t control certain things — accidents, unforeseen circumstances, or even death — that might affect your ability to pursue meaningful goals can leave you trying to gain greater control in areas where you do have power, like your daily schedule.
A need to please others
A fear of showing up late is one way people-pleasing tendencies can manifest. When you want people to like you, you might do everything possible — including being on time — to leave a positive impression.
But worrying about what you actually do with your time can also relate to people-pleasing behaviors.
You might reason that failing to use your time in certain ways will disappoint your parents, partner, and other loved ones. When you worry your choices will affect their opinion of you, you might get anxious about making the right choices, and fear you’ll run out of time to correct any mistakes.
Underlying anxiety issues
Lickerman explains that time anxiety is often a “standalone problem people without other types of anxiety can experience.” But it can still occur alongside underlying anxiety conditions in some people.
The time you spend with anxious thoughts distracts you from your primary activity, leaving you with the sense that time is slipping away. The more anxious you feel, the worse these feelings can get.
Worrying about others judging or criticizing you can lead you to avoid interactions where you could face embarrassment or rejection. But you still want to participate in social settings and be accepted by others, so you end up worrying you’ve missed out on important events.
The longer you go without attempting to overcome these fears, the more limited your time to address them can seem.
Awareness of what triggers time anxiety can help you find helpful strategies to address it.
Here are a few pointers to get you started.
Find (or create) more meaning in your life
If your life generally feels meaningful, you probably won’t feel so stressed as time passes. Most people want to believe they’re living their best life, and spending time on things that really matter can go a long way toward accomplishing this.
Take some time to explore your goals and potential methods of achieving them:
- If your job doesn’t satisfy you, consider ways to embark on a different career.
- If you want to build a relationship, challenge yourself to go on one date each month.
- Increase your sense of connection to others with acts of kindness, such as volunteering or helping a friend or neighbor out.
Imagine the worst-case scenario
You’re feeling cranky because you’re running 30 minutes late to your friend’s birthday party. The driver ahead of you slows down as the light turns yellow, keeping you from making it through the intersection.
Instead of lecturing yourself for not leaving earlier, take a moment to ask yourself, “So what?” You miss the beginning of the party. It’ll probably last for hours anyway, right?
Interrupting your distress can help you calm down before you get so stressed that you can’t even enjoy the party once you do get there.
Sure, showing up 30 minutes late to a job interview is a bit more serious, but it’s also true that people usually understand emergencies. If you catch yourself worrying, remind yourself that if something does come up to affect your prompt arrival, you can always call and explain.
Work on mindfulness
Cultivating greater mindfulness, or the ability to remain focused on the present, can also help. All you need to do is focus on what you’re doing right now instead of worrying about what’s going to happen later.
Mindfulness may sound simple, but it takes practice for most people.
It’s normal to think about the future, especially when upcoming possibilities can affect life outcomes. Say you feel sad because another year has passed and you’re still single. “Soon I’ll be too old to meet anyone new,” you think. “I’m going to be single forever.”
First of all, you’re never too old to meet someone. As long as you’re alive, there’s still time. Also consider that fixating on these thoughts could prevent you from noticing potential partners you may have already met.
No one knows what the future holds, but enjoying what you have now can better equip you to make the most of it when it arrives.
Talk to a therapist
If time anxiety begins to affect your mood and prevent you from enjoying your usual activities, a therapist can help you examine the reasons behind these feelings and explore ways of working through your fears.
Therapy can have particular benefit if you struggle with existential dread or worries about not living up to your potential. In therapy, you can begin identifying ways to create meaningful change and come to terms with what you can’t control.
Time anxiety that stems from people-pleasing tendencies or social anxiety may be tough to overcome alone, but professional support can help you take the first steps toward navigating these concerns.
Time passes, whether we like it or not.
Wishing for more time or worrying about not using it effectively won’t slow its passage. It’ll only leave you feeling worse. So, don’t spend the last hours of your weekend worrying about the days ahead. Instead, focus on using that time to do exactly what you want to do.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.