Beat Your Time Anxiety


In 2012, the Spanish government changed the way its citizens used time. It passed a new law allowing stores of more than 300 square meters to open for 25 percent longer each week. The aim was to boost consumer spending by encouraging stores to sell during the afternoon break between 2pm and 4pm.

The government was trying to kill off the siesta.

Four years later, it added the final blow, making 6pm the official end of the workday instead of 7pm—and ending what remained of the snoozy two-hour lunch break.

The traditional Spanish afternoon nap was already an endangered species. The siesta had developed to enable agricultural workers to leave the fields during the hottest hours of the day so that they could come back to work in the late afternoon refreshed and ready to continue. Today, only about 4 percent of Spanish workers work in agriculture, and for office workers, ditching their keyboards for a couple of hours to return home for a big lunch and a long nap is unthinkable.

To most places outside Spain or Mexico, though, the very idea of a siesta is unthinkable. The middle of the afternoon is the middle of the day, a time for working and productivity. When emails continue to come in and managers expect answers thumbed out on mobile phones long after the official workday has ended, lunch is something to be wolfed down at the office desk before a dive back into the spreadsheets and the presentation software.

And even that quick sandwich can feel like a luxury. In 2011, polls found that a third of employees felt pressured by their managers to work through their lunch breaks. A similar number chose to eat lunch at their desks rather than take the time to socialize and get out of their office. Two-thirds said they took less than an hour off, and as many as half reported that their workload prevented them from taking any lunch break at all.

To take that time off would be to damage their productivity. It would reduce their output and lower the amount of work they’re able to generate each week and each month. It would put them further behind and add to the pressure they already feel. We might once have attributed the urge to always produce part of the “Protestant work ethic” but China’s 996 work culture, which expects employees to work from 9am to 9pm six days a week, is even more savage. Hustle and grind is now a global phenomenon and the result is time anxiety. We load ourselves up with work then struggle to get it all done in the time available, and we feel that we’re failures when we don’t succeed. There never seems to be enough time in the day.

Too Little Time and Too Little Meaning

After Anne-Laure Cunff landed her dream job at Google, she worried that her colleagues would believe that she didn’t really belong. Self-doubt pushed her to work hard in order to to prove herself and avoid being found out. “I said yes to everything,” she said. “To keep up with all my commitments, I was barely sleeping, and started drinking coffee for the first time in my life. I was delivering on time, but this frantic pace was taking a toll on my mental health. Simply put, I was working too much.”

It wasn’t long before she was experiencing burnout, an occupational phenomenon that the World Health Organization characterizes as feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy. Rates of burnout vary across industries and is hard to define and difficult to measure. Some studies though have put the rates of burnout among physicians at over 80 percent. That’s a lot of doctors seeing too many patients in too little time but they’re not alone. The sense that the day’s to-do list is longer than the day is common. But there’s a different type of time anxiety that’s bigger, broader, and even more worrying

Writing in Psychology Today, Dr. Alex Lickerman once described how he always worried about being late. “To arrive at the appointed time without arriving at the appointed place isn’t just distasteful to me—it’s anxiety-producing,” he said. “Even when being late brings about no adverse consequences whatsoever.”

He concluded that his time anxiety wasn’t about the rudeness of being late itself. (He was anxious even when he was late for events that he had scheduled only for himself.) It was about the value that he was putting into his time. “If at the end of my life I don’t feel that I spent the better part of it making some kind of contribution,” he wrote, “I worry my life will feel like a wasted opportunity.”

That’s a very different kind of time anxiety. For Anne-Laure Cunff, the deadline that she was struggling to meet came at the end of a workday that was filled with more tasks than she could complete. For Alex Lickerman, the deadline was the end of his life and he had to use the limited years he had wisely.

So time anxiety can have two causes. The first is the everyday, short-term anxiety that we feel when the day is ended and we haven’t completed everything we’d hoped to achieve. We wonder how that  failure will impact others, and we fear how that impact will come back and harm us. Ultimately though this kind of time anxiety is about volume: can we complete the work we’ve set in the time we have to complete it?

The other cause is more existential, and it’s about value: does the work performed over a lifetime make for a life that was worth living?

In theory, the first kind of time anxiety should reduce the effects of the second. If time anxiety forces us to squeeze more work into a day, then at the end of a life, we should find that we’ve generated more output of value. But that assumes that the work we do each day has the value we want to produce.

“In the short term, time anxiety can make us more productive,” agrees Anne-Laure Cunff. “But towards which goals? We may dismiss important, fun, creative activities because we think it’s too late to have a meaningful impact. We may start optimizing our time in a way that prevents us from experiencing some of the most interesting experiences of our lives. Long-term, we may look back and regret not experimenting more; not doing stuff just for the sake of it.”

The two kinds of time anxiety are related. It’s not enough to complete the day’s to-do list. A lifetime of to-do lists also have to add up to a meaningful life.

Curing Your Time Anxiety

So how do we overcome both kinds of time anxiety?

For Anne-Laure Cunff’s workplace burnout, the solution was relatively simple. She had a manager she felt close to. Cunff told her what she was going through, and found that her manager was incredibly understanding. They sat down and reviewed all of Cunff’s projects together, assessing which aligned with the core business objectives, and which would be better managed by someone else. “There were things that were so new to me that they were taking me hours, whereas someone who had been at Google for years could do it with their eyes closed,” Cunff said. “She taught me that work is all about finding the right people for the right tasks, not about trying to do as much work as possible yourself.”

One way to cope with time anxiety then is through prioritization and delegation. When you have too much work for the time available, drop those tasks that you don’t really need to do. We often say “yes” to work that really demands a “no,” and we often find ourselves struggling with tasks that don’t really move us forward. The build-up of time anxiety is an opportunity to take another look at what you’re doing and decide whether you’re the best person to do it. If you have enough work and someone else can perform your tasks better than you can, then passing them on will be good for everyone.

It’s also an opportunity though to decide whether what you have to do is really what you want to do. Dr. Lickerman concluded by suggesting that people who suffer from time anxiety ask themselves if their real anxiety isn’t really about the meaning of their life and what they’re doing with it. “If it turns out you’re worried that what you’re doing isn’t meaningful enough, then figure out what is meaningful enough and start doing that.” And if you think your work is meaningful then understand that you still don’t need to do it all the time.

Anne-Laure Cunff went through a similar process, deciding eventually that marketing digital health products for Google wasn’t the best use of her time. She’s now an entrepreneur, running Ness Labs, which helps makers lead happier and healthier lives, and she’s studying neuroscience at King’s College, London.

Overcoming time anxiety, she says, is all about switching focus from outcomes to output. “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 us happy can be anxiety-inducing. Define what “time well spent” means to you, and make space for these moments.”

Fulfilling activities could be as simple as painting with your child, cooking dinner with your partner, or going to the park with a good book. If it works for you, it’s a good use of your time.

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