It’s 3pm and you know that you’ve got an unrealistic amount of tasks left on your to-do list. Feelings of unease and worry start to creep into your mind and body as you try to rationalize how you’ll get all this work done in time. Sound like you?
The first step in combating your time anxiety is learning more about what might be causing it. From there, you can learn how to address it and keep it from dominating your work (and personal) life.
What is time anxiety?
Time anxiety, as the name suggests, are feelings of elevated anxiety, stress and pressure caused by and revolving around the passage of time.
At work, this might manifest as feeling like you’re not spending enough time working on the right things. It can also be the feeling that time is working against you. And so you obsess about whether or not you can get something done on time, to the point that you no longer know where or how to get started with a task.
Telltale signs of time anxiety at work
While the experience of time anxiety is different for everyone, we’ve rounded up some of the common symptoms below. Take a look and see some (or all) of these feel familiar:
- You’re constantly rushing around. You feel like you’re endlessly jumping from one thing to another without being able to so much as take a breath, fuelled by the feeling that you’re never working quickly enough to stay on top of things.
- If you’re not late, you’re worrying about being late. More often than not, you’re that person that’s always last to join a Zoom meeting, flustered and apologizing for being late.
- You stress about missing deadlines. Losing sleep over impending deliverables can be a big red flag that you’re suffering from time anxiety.
- You procrastinate (a lot). Often scramble at the last minute to get projects done? Chances are, laziness isn’t what’s prompting you to avoid starting a task – time anxiety is.
- Your health is suffering. You find yourself lying awake at night tossing and turning over the work tasks running through your brain.
- You’ve developed chronophobia. A strong sense of existential dread around the passing of time.
What causes time anxiety?
Finding the root cause of your time anxiety can help you overcome it. Common situations that might lead to increased anxiety over time at work include:
Poor time management
If you’re not effectively managing your time at work, sooner or later things start to unravel. Many of us struggle with time management and reactive ways of working. Other times, although we know we have to do something and have plenty of time to plan ahead, as deadlines approach, we realize we’re not even close to delivering on time.
The results are often rushed work that doesn’t reflect your real abilities – and a negative impact on your mental well-being. You can’t really feel confident you’re managing your time well unless you know what that looks like.
Failing to prioritize
Time management and prioritization go hand in hand. After all, you can’t manage your time effectively if every task on your do-list list feels like a top priority.
But it’s all too easy to become overwhelmed by a growing to-do list, and projects that make you feel like you’re being pulled in every direction. When we start to feel this way, we often default to working on whatever is most urgent, even if it’s not especially impactful. Poor prioritization means you constantly have trouble delivering tasks on time, leading to more anxiety and stress.
Not protecting your time
We all know how easy it is to go off-task or give into distraction at work. Whether it’s the back-and-forth pings on a Slack channel, meetings that run overly long, or someone asking you to help out with a last-minute request, it feels like there’s always something threatening to interrupt our focus at work.
This is especially true in our always-on work culture, and particularly for those of us who work remotely and feel the need to be part of as many conversations at work as we possibly can. But the knock-on effect of all of these distractions on our productivity (and our sense of anxiety around time) is massive – resulting in us feeling stuck flip-flopping between tasks, never finishing anything and leading to even more anxiety and pressure.
Lack of time spent planning
One of the best antidotes to time anxiety is developing the habit of deciding what to do first, ahead of time. Starting work without a clear plan of what you want to prioritize in the hours ahead is a recipe for a hectic, haphazard day, and means you’re unlikely to shut your laptop at 5pm feeling calm and accomplished.
7 tips for overcoming time anxiety at work
Okay, so the downsides of time anxiety are apparent – but what can we do about it?
There are a variety of strategies to stop time anxiety in its tracks, and the one that works best for you depends on your situation and personality. Below are a few expert-approved strategies you can start using today to curb your anxiety around time and, ultimately, get more done with less stress.
1. Track your time
It’s all well and good to say you’ll deliver something on time, but if you find that tasks, more often than not, take you longer than expected, it might be because you’re just not very good at estimating how long something takes you to begin with. The first way to beat time anxiety is to be more realistic with how much you can do in a day. To do that, you need to figure out where your time is actually going.
Conducting a time audit for a couple of weeks can help you with this, especially when used in tandem with time-tracking software that automatically records every minute you spend working on tasks. At the end, you should have a much better handle on how long certain types of tasks take you.
As a bonus, your time audit can also help you pinpoint the times of day where you’re feeling most productive – that way, you’ll know when to work on your MITs (Most Important Tasks). This is also a great way to identify timesucks that are triggering your time anxiety.
2. Prioritize your to-do list
In a perfect world, we’d always get to complete everything we wanted every day – but we all know most days don’t shake out that way. When we’re not not intentional about what we’re working on, we’re more likely to fall into common productivity pitfalls that compound our time anxiety – such as focusing only on tasks that have an impending deadline and ignoring the important ones that’ll actually bring value to the business.
That’s why prioritizing the most important things, and doing them first, is key. We recommend creating an Eisenhower matrix to split out your tasks by urgency and importance. Using the 80/20 rule is also a great way to reclaim your focus when you feel like you’re drowning in too many to-dos. Eat the Frog is another particularly effective productivity method to keep you focused on the work that actually brings us closer to your goals.
3. Focus on one thing at a time
Taking things one task at a time is one of the best tips for overcoming time anxiety at work, yet it’s probably one of the hardest to follow. We get it – it’s always tempting to try to cram more and more work into ever increasingly smaller pockets of time. Like answering Slack messages while you’re in the middle of writing a blog post. (Guilty as charged.)
Not only has multitasking been proven not to work – when we slip into trying to multitask, what we’re really doing is simply losing time switching between tasks – talk about time anxiety! And if that’s not enough to convince you to forgo multitasking, then maybe the fact that multitasking produces cortisol (the stress hormone) and adrenaline (our fight-or-flight response mechanism) will.
4. Add in buffer time
Although thorough planning and time management is helpful, it doesn’t always save you from the unexpected: a meeting running long that’s now encroaching on your daily work plan, for example. So, when doing an initial time estimate of how long something is likely to take you, tack on a little extra time. That way, you’ll have some leeway in case you need more time to get your task done.
And if all else fails, you can use this little bit of time to decompress and reset your brain between tasks, ultimately leading to more calm and clarity.
5. Accept that you can’t always do everything
Got more and more anxiety-inducing, unfinished tasks building up on your to-do list, day after day? Many of us struggle with saying no – when someone approaches us with a task, we just can’t seem to resist jumping on board.
We might even have trouble letting others handle a task for us, because we don’t trust them to do it “just right”. But it’s important to avoid overcommitting and consequently putting ourselves in a situation where we’re unable to meet agreed-on deadlines. Never be afraid to turn down, delegate or defer work if you know you’ve already got your hands full.
6. Cut down on distractions
In today’s fast-paced work environment, distractions are the norm rather than the exception – and we’ve all got our own particular productivity traps and procrastination tendencies.
So, put your Slack on do-not-disturb mode. Put your phone in another room. Schedule in blocks of dedicated time for undisrupted work in your calendar. This will help ensure your colleagues are scheduling meetings and communicating with you outside of this protected period.
7. Schedule frequent breaks
These can be short breaks – 10 minutes to go to the kitchen and make a cup of coffee, 15 minutes to get outside and into the sunshine. Where possible, disconnect from any work apps during these breaks to give your mind some time to relax and recharge.
If you can, try introducing more mindfulness into your day – even a quick yoga or meditation session. This can help counteract any stress building up when you’ve got a lot on your plate. It’s also important to prioritize self-care – make sure you’re getting enough sleep, eating well and spending time with family and friends.
The problem with time is that it’s a finite resource. It just keeps slipping away from us. And it seems that no matter what we do, we’ll never have quite enough of it at work. Given this, it’s hardly a surprise that the symptoms of time anxiety can build up and impact your mental well-being, both personally and professionally.
The best way to ensure you’re managing your time anxiety – and not the other way around, is to learn how to manage your time as efficiently as you can. We hope the tips above help you invest your time in the right places so you get more done in a day, with a whole lot less anxiety.