How I diagnose (and treat!) time anxiety in my clients

Let me tell you three scenarios I hear fairly often in my coaching work with clients. See if any of them are at all familiar to you.

Scenario #1

Weekends and days-off are difficult for her, mostly because when she sets out to do one thing (e.g. dig into that novel that’s been sitting on her bedside table, the bookmark still stuck somewhere in Chapter 2, despite its being quite compelling so far), she quickly convinces herself that there’s something else she could or should be doing (e.g. organizing the pantry, weeding the garden beds, finally switching over the clothes from one season to another, catching up on email replies)… And before she knows it, the whole day has passed and she hasn’t thoroughly taken advantage of or even enjoyed a single minute of it. That particular lose-lose never ceases to sting.

Scenario #2

Rushing around is the normal state of affairs for her. Frequently she has her heart in her throat as she drives from one appointment to the other, because she’s late once again and no amount of scheduling seems to circumvent that. Her lateness makes her the butt of jokes among her long-suffering friends and irritates her punctual partner to no end. She’s convinced all would be well if only she had just a little more time in the day. (Or one less thing on her to-do list. Frankly, she’d take either.) Again and again, she convinces herself that she can fit in just one more thing before she has to 1. climb into the shower, 2. leave the house and start driving, or 3. get into bed and still have a solid night’s sleep. It never works. That one-more-thing always pushes her over the edge, into late territory. She half-believes the solution’s hiding somewhere in a new planner or system...and half-believes it’s hopeless. Do other people fight the clock this much?

Scenario #3

She often feels as though the years are just flying by—or she fears they are. She’s worried she’ll look up one day and realize the good part of her life is pretty much over. Most women have kids at her age; she’s barely dating. She can’t remember a single, distinct Thanksgiving because, during the actual holiday, she finds herself distracted by that thing her mom’s cousin said to her last year (and on avoiding said cousin throughout the afternoon) and on how many emails will be waiting for her when she gets back to the desk job she can’t stand, that she forgets to anchor herself in the particulars of the event, the special day she’s inhabiting right now. It passes—and she knows (painfully) it was the only one of its exact kind that will ever exist in history.

Believe it or not, these different conundrums my clients face are very related—they all point to what I call time anxiety: a pervasive state of nervousness or unease as it applies to time (both the big construct, capital-T ‘Time’ and the ticking clock on the wall, measurement of moments ‘time’).

Maybe you, too, suffer from time anxiety. Maybe the scenarios above are all too familiar—and it never occurred to you that they could change, that things could be different, that a solution could be hiding in plain sight.

Let’s take a closer look and consider a way forward for each.

Scenario #1

What are the symptoms?

Existential angst about the time you have here on earth. Frequently, you feel worried that what you’re doing isn’t The Right Thing and how you’re spending your time isn’t The Right Way.

What’s at the root of this problem?

A lack of clarity—around what your priority is and what’s deserving of your time; how satisfied you are with your current use of time and what approach to living might lead to more satisfaction

What’s the solution?

Locate the clarity that's already there, within you. I promise you, you have it. You know what you’d do if you had just one more year on this earth, but you’re allowing that existential angst about your bigger purpose to take up valuable real estate in your brain and crowd out your inner knowing; it’s also stalling out your potential to take decisive action. Ask yourself: “What's most important to me today (or this week/month/year)? What do I want and/or need to give my attention to right now, in service to that (and what actually has my attention right now)?”

Scenario #2

What are the symptoms?

Panic, urgency, and scarcity around time. You feel as though there isn’t enough time to do everything that needs doing. You tend to be overwhelmed and feel unprepared. Your chronic lateness and rushing around are the biggest indicators of your tendency to simultaneously underestimate and overestimate time.

What’s at the root of this problem?

A lack of planning—when it comes to how much time you have and how much time various activities and enterprises require; matching your stated priorities to your available time slots; determining how you want to feel before, during, and after any given activity, and ensuring you leave the space to create that experience for yourself

What’s the solution?

Work backwards. Start looking at time as though it’s a relationship with a person who has clear and unflinching boundaries; you know exactly where you stand with it. Ready or not, the appointment time will appear on the clock, so why not anticipate the arrival of that hour by determining 1. what you need to do in preparation, 2. how long it typically takes you to do those things, and 3. how much latitude you might want to build into your timetable in case of traffic, a run in your pantyhose, or a moment to catch your breath. This is the symptom we all tend to attack first—and usually with new devices, apps, and systems—believing our main problem is a logistical one. And it might be! However, any planning solution that’s more complicated than simply working backwards from the time you need to be someplace or the deadline when something’s due? Probably unnecessary if your symptom is chronic lateness and/or rushing.

Scenario #3

What are the symptoms?

A feeling of time speeding by with nothing to hold on to. You tend to feel empty after holidays or big events, like you weren’t even there. Frequently, your mind wanders to the past or the future, and you often miss substantial chunks of time in the present moment because of this. You still believe multitasking is possible.

What’s at the root of this problem?

A lack of presence—in that you fail to bring both your mind and your body together...and keep them together...for any considerable length of time

What’s the solution?

Give yourself an awareness tune-up. Throughout the day, ask yourself: "Am I all here?" Check in to see if the mind and body are in the same place. Ironically, being 'all here' actually opens up many opportunities for creative ideas and solutions to come into being. You can be 'all here' while you’re taking a shower (in other words, not forcing yourself to work on a particular thought while you’re washing up for the day) and still wind up simultaneously toweling off and taking frantic notes. Change the expectation you have of yourself to do more than one thing at a time—and observe how miraculous the bio-computer in your head really is!

Do you have time anxiety? How does it tend to show up for you? Share with us in the comments, and let's see if we can come up with a workable solution to get you moving forward and feeling good.