Time Anxiety

clocks

Photo: Rob and Stephanie Levy

Of all the things there are to be anxious about—of all the things I’ve ever been anxious about—time, in one way or another, has probably been the most pervasive. To start with, I hate being late. Whether to a party (who comes on time to a party?), a movie, or even something I’ve planned to do by myself, to arrive at the appointed time without arriving at the appointed place isn’t just distasteful to me—it’s anxiety-producing. Even when being late brings about no adverse consequences whatsoever.

Why is this? Until recently, I’d never bothered to ask. But then my wife pointed out to me one day how agitated I’d become when it became clear we’d be late taking our son to a play date with one of his friends, and I realized not only how anxious being late made me, but also how out of proportion that anxiety had become.

It made me think of how I used to feel during Winter and Spring breaks during college. I’d always looked forward to them eagerly but then found myself feeling a mild degree of dread as I lived through them. The source of this feeling? I’d always wanted to be a writer but had no time to write while in school, so I’d always plan to write while on vacation. But I never did, either because other activities got in the way or because I wasn’t ever able to figure out what exactly I wanted to write. Which, sadly, often made my vacations feel to me like wasted time.

More recently, I’ve noticed myself sometimes feeling mildly anxious as activities wind down because of some mild apprehension that I won’t be able to get the next activity started on time. Which, of course, interferes with my ability to enjoy the end of my activities.

A few moments of reflection after my wife pointed out how extreme my time anxiety had become quickly made clear to me that it stemmed not just from my fear of death (that is, of running out of time), but also from my fear of wasting my life. My anxiety about time, it turns out, is really anxiety about meaning. That is, I worry constantly that I’m spending my time on things that are meaningless. Or, perhaps I should say, not meaningful enough.

It would be fair to say I’m obsessed with meaning. It’s not that I believe some outside force exists that has assigned a purpose to my life that I’ve yet to discover. It’s that I recognize my well-being is largely determined by the importance of the value I feel I’m creating with my life. I want—I need—what I do with my life to matter. To whom? To anyone. In fact, to as many anyones as possible.

This is what my time anxiety is really about. At some level, being late always triggers this question: 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? Certainly I can’t be concerned with creating value for others all the time. But if at the end of my life I don’t feel that I spent the better part of it making some kind of contribution, I worry my life will feel like a wasted opportunity. So much suffering exists in the world. To me nothing seems a more important goal—more weighty a goal—than trying to reduce it.

That particular goal may not be what seems most important to you. And that’s fine. But if you also suffer from time anxiety, I’d encourage you to stop and ask yourself if you aren’t really more anxious about what your life means. About what you’re doing with it. And 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. Or if the contribution you’ve decided to spend your life making already does feel like the most meaningful contribution you could make and like me you’re anxious because you’re not always spending your time making it, remind yourself, as I did, that you don’t need to focus every minute of your life on value creation for value creation to have been what your life was all about.

Next Week: How To End A Friendship

17 comments to Time Anxiety

  • Chris

    Alex, your explanation is too neat for me. Anxiety is a wild and shaggy thing, with a life of its own, resistant to being tamed by explanation.

    For me, time urgency is all around in our culture. It is a hurry-hurry, rush and dash life that defines our western civilization. We are at the mercy of this norm. Driving on a freeway is fraught because of the mad-dashing, for example.

    I somehow thought you would say that this is another area for letting go, a Buddhist principle. Let go of the inner and outer pressures to get there and do “it” quickly.

    Further, I thought you would say, if we have learned to let go of anything in any area of our lives, we can take similar baby steps to let go of the time anxiety.

    Having presented my counter-argument, I do not deny that your explanation of time anxiety is an honest picture of yourself. Just sayin’—it is a little different for me.

  • Sandra

    Alex, that is an interesting explanation of how it is for you. I, too, suffer from “time anxiety,” I believe in part because I spent so many years being a slave to the clock. It became a habit. “Do it on time” “can’t be late” deadlines. And like you, I can’t stand to be late. If I am anything, I am going to be early, because “late” makes me all kinds of anxious.

    I don’t think, for me, it has to do with my feeling of how I spend my time or any idea of wasting the time I have, or meaningful pursuits. I think—for me—it’s more about not being in the present moment enough.

    A dear friend of mine is a life-long yoga teacher and one time I asked her if driving in the city traffic, rush hour, bothered her. She looked at me funny and said, “No…but, see, if you are in the present moment, then that’s where you are. There is no where else you need to be, so no need for anxiety over traffic.” I think, for me, the concept is applicable as well, to time—if I am in the present moment there is no need to be anxious over being on time—there is no “late” and no “early” there is just “now.”

    Thank you for your article—it prodded me to think about this, my own time anxiety—and to work on my practice of presence.

  • Vic

    I too think a lot about “meaning” and “purpose.” Do our lives have meaning? Do they have purpose? What is the difference? Does either concept have any validity in an atheist context?

    You obviously believe that the meaning of your life is to reduce suffering and increase happiness in the lives of others that you influence. (And I truly believe that you are achieving that goal!) But is that “meaning” something that is built into the universe? Or something that is built into you?</i)

    Vic: I think we evolved to be meaning-seeking and meaning-making creatures. I don’t think meaning is built into the universe. But I also think that the fact that the meaning of my life is self-assigned in no way makes it less valid than if it had been assigned by some outside—even superior—force.

    Alex

  • Mark

    Alex,

    Thank you for the thoughtful post. I, too, suffer from “time anxiety,” but of a different sort. I procrastinate terribly, not giving enough time to projects that seem to matter (such as those having to do with my job) as opposed to those activities that give me pleasure.

    I can’t stand deadlines, even though they give me a guidepost to aim for. There are just too many other things that demand my time. And, as those deadlines get closer, my anxiety ramps up to an almost unbearable level. I’ll finish the dreaded project as I always do, on time—funny that I hate being late, too—and I always finish the task with a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. But I’ll procrastinate on the next project, too. Life is too short for deadlines, I guess.

  • MW

    Thanks for the article! To me it really is the fear of death. My death, the death of someone I love who is far away right now, the death of meaning, too, perhaps. And I wish I knew how to get out of it. Some days, I am serene, believing that there is a reason for everything that happens or does not happen. Other days, I am frantic, thinking of all the projects I wish I had done or could do but had no time, energy, or funds for. I’m still searching for a way out of this anxiety because I know it isn’t doing me good and is in fact paralyzing me. But when you have so many things you want to do (and they’re all equally important) and not enough of you to do all of them, there is a problem.

  • Karen

    Oh Sweet Alex! You are spinning your wheels, here. NOT like you, but I do understand your angst. Geez Louise! Just take a moment and breathe. As the Rolling Stones sing, “Time is on your side.” You, my man, are a major positive influence on all those in your world. If your blog here is any indication of how present you are, then I do think you need to CUT YOURSELF SOME SLACK! Your words have helped me, and probably many others, understand many things. Breathe, be in the moment……I know you are.

  • Indigo Moon

    Ha!I have been thinking about this topic too this week and how it is for you is EXACTLY how it goes for me. The steps you recommend are the same, I’ve taken. Really getting present to what’s important and what that means to me.

  • Barbara

    This resonated with me. I too suffer from time anxiety and I am almost never late as it is intolerable to even consider. I marvel at people who breezily walk in late to meetings without (apparent) anxiety and wonder how they do it. I also share your “need” to do something useful with my time and not mindlessly and selfishly pass through this life. I never connected the two desires but I am going to consider the relationship. I blamed my anxiety on my career as a registered nurse because the TIME that we do medical tasks can be critical and the time they are accomplished is generally noted in writing. Most nurses live in fear of getting behind and not keeping up. Yet we don’t want to be an automaton who just administers medications and treatments but instead we would like to be fully present and available for another person’s suffering. It is a conundrum as we have so much to accomplish in so little time….

  • David Smith D V M

    Too bad. You will never know the “reason” you are here is your great great grandson, who you will never know, finally cures cancer.

  • Chris

    Barbara, “They also serve who only stand and wait.”

    If you are a mother or a teacher or a cat-lover, you know you must wait for the creature to discover, to ask, to come to you. It is the only way to honor their readiness (to walk, to learn, to accept what you have to offer). And another Renaissance man (Wil Shakespeare) said “Readiness is all.”

  • Tara

    Great article, I can totally relate. I have lots of time (and general) anxiety, mostly because at the age of 47 I feel like I still have not discovered the meaning (or any meaning, for that matter) of life, and a purpose for my life in particular. I have to constantly remind myself to Be Here Now, and remember the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel: Just to live is holy, just to be is a blessing. I constantly feel as if I am wasting time and wasting my life because I have no feeling that what I am doing in my job is in any way contributing to the well-being of the world. Then I remind myself that my job is not my only contribution.

  • Alexander N. Brittain

    I too was expecting something in a more Buddhist vein of “letting go” or some such. My first reaction to your description of your “time anxiety” was to chuckle and think about what a waste of time it is to worry about ANYTHING. It may seem “more important” to worry about living a meaningful life (than if you’ll be late for a party), but that’s certainly not true.

    In any case, such worry is egoistic, and that, more than whether your time (life) is being “wasted” suggests that you’re being guided more by whatever values you grew up with than the Buddhist philosophy you espouse, n’est-ce pas?

    Alexander: Not exactly. Buddhism espouses that happiness is the product of two key things: inner strength and a heart that’s focused on creating value for others (i.e., compassionate action). Whether worry is egoistic or not (and I have to confess I don’t find those kind of labels all that helpful), I know I’m not the only one who feels it because of time (i.e., being late, being limited by time). My purpose here was to offer my thoughts about the underlying cause of an issue I’ve had in hopes of helping others who suffer from time anxiety for similar reasons. As other readers have already pointed out, there are clearly other reasons why one might feel time anxiety. And I’ve already written about letting go at length in my book, The Undefeated Mind, and obviously agree it’s an important concept—just not what I wanted to focus on here.

    Alex

  • I read this a few days ago, and can’t get it out of my head. Then today I got this quote from Camus on my Facebook feed ‘You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life’ and so I had to come back to comment. I know the point you are trying to make is if you have an anxiety look deeply at it, but I am responding to your obsession with meaning.

    I don’t think it is possible or wise to try to live a meaningful life; better to be mindful, equanimous, and do things that you feel are the right thing to do, things you love. It’ll only be afterwards that it can be judged if your life was meaningful. It reminds me of a story my meditation teacher tells about remaining equanimous, while still taking action. Imagine you are thirsty, and so you should try to get water, but if you start reacting and panicking that you don’t have water then you have lost the balance of your mind, you are suffering, and probably your chances of finding water goes down. It is easier for me to understand with thirst that something more abstract like meaning. Also think of people who you would say lived very meaningful lives. Were they driven by “living a meaningful life”? I would bet that no, not one of them ever even had that cross their minds! They just loved something and followed it all the way. I hope you somehow manage to unburden yourself from this.

    Niki: I can’t agree. Certainly obsession with anything can be harmful and cause suffering. And certainly you don’t have to consciously dedicate your life to creating meaning (that is, to helping others in some way). But if you choose to do so, great benefit follows, including resilience (I discuss the evidence for this in the first chapter of my book) and the all-important sense that your life is important (admittedly this isn’t important for everyone, but I do think it is, ultimately, for most). Thank you, though, for your good wishes. I have managed to unburden myself from being obsessed with creating meaning. But it remains one of the most important foci of my life.

    Alex

  • Catherine Heath

    It’s good to see that people are so engaged in such an interesting topic, but I think there a few misunderstandings in the comments on this post. I would like to present what they are.

    First, it was not suggested anywhere in the post that meaning-seeking being the cause of time-anxiety was a universal phenomenon; in fact, it was rightly presented as a subjective, personal experience. You can tell because the author uses the pronoun, “I” and gives anecdotal examples. Therefore the post should not be refuted on the grounds that it is non-universal, and I would even propound a theory of subjective realities.

    Second, people are bandying around the word “meaning” but, ironically enough, ascribing different meanings to it. In this context the author appears to mean “significant,” not holy sanctification by an external deistic being or universe, as some posters appear to suggest.

    Finally, it is certainly not selfish to obsess over meaning, if the way that the meaning is created is through helping others. And it is not selfish to want to better yourself at all, for the benefit of others or not.

    In fact, I found this to be one of the author’s best posts yet, for the deepness of thought it inspired me and clarity it gave into my own life. I, too, had never connected time-anxiety with a desire to create meaning, and it went a long way to explaining the dissatisfaction I often feel even just shortly after achieving a success. This article seemed to have at its core the themes of perspective and prioritision, and I think most people can identify with that.

  • I have learnt from my daughter to “be” rather than be “driven” all the time. There is great contentment in being.

  • Light

    Time keeps on ticking. There is always so much to do that I try to arrive “on time.” If I arrive late according to the one waiting and their perception I do not care. We, as humans cannot control time; it is in perpetual motion. One moment rolls into the next, all having meaning or perhaps not, which in and of itself contains a moment of transformance and meaning, if sought after. Western culture is attached to time, a problem of the 1st world. However without “time” the first world would not breed success and attach meaning and value to the moments that roll into the next moments. I merely write because I am surrounded by an important person who is obsessed with timely manner and wasting the meaning or value of time. This was insightful.

  • A B Priestly

    This is really helpful to me. Thank you. I have the same anxiety problems, and I will try to do as you say and remind myself that “you don’t need to focus every minute of your life on value creation for value creation to have been what your life was all about.” This really helps.

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