Time is fascinating. It’s a precious commodity that gives life a sense of orientation. It’s the framework in which our lives unfold. It’s a path that fits individual lives into the journey of humanity. But for all its significance, defining time is incredibly difficult — psychologists, physicists, and philosophers all struggle with being able to pinpoint what time is.
Albert Einstein explained time through the theory of relativity. Einstein argued that all time is relative, exemplified by his famous quote: “Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute.” Testament to the magnitude of his intellect and intuition, despite his genius and dedication to physics, Einstein explained relativity by its subjective experience.
All of us are in a relationship with time, as our personal experiences of relativity surface in our lives. Each year, we celebrate (or commiserate) the passing of a new age. Each day, we wake up, go to work, get home, travel, meet friends, go to sleep, all in relation to the time displayed on the clock. But try and describe what an hour feels like, as a direct experience? You’ll find yourself back to Einstein’s description, where no hour feels the same.
How then, do we make sense of the passage of time? Some handle this better than others. Your relationship with time becomes unhealthy when it takes primary focus, and your life is constantly measured against seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, or years. At the extreme, this leads to time anxiety, a persistent fear of the ticking of the clock.
Industrialization and the Birth of Modern Time
To begin, we have to travel back to the industrial revolution. Human thinking is largely internalized by the dominant culture, the messages, thinking patterns, and models of reality. Our ancestors measured time at nature’s pace; the rise and fall of the sun, the movement of the seasons. Industrialization was a significant transition in human history, where the concept of time was transformed, in parallel to the growing sophistication of time measurement.
Time measurements became more precise and standardized. As factories grew and started to focus on efficiency, workers became slaves to time, with their output directly measured against the clock, paving the way for the embodiment of the modern-day mantra, time is money. This way of thinking has evolved and is still prominent in today’s hyper-productive culture, where time has become something to optimize and make the most of.
Time perception plays a crucial role in wellbeing. The field of psychology studies time distortions, and their relationship to mental illness, particularly Parkinson’s disease, ADHD, autism, schizophrenia, and different forms of addiction. On the other side of the spectrum, Time Expansion Experiences (TEE) has been linked with highly positive or life-changing mystical or spiritual experiences — the esteemed ‘being in the now’ experience.
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Modern technology adds a growing sense of urgency, and time-based stress, by making the perception of time even faster. In Homo Distractus, Anastasia Dedyukhina captures this detrimental impact: “Before the tech revolution, our time perception was based on the human speed, a metabolic speed of our bodies, emotions and reflexes. With the tech progress, though, we are forced to function on a tech speed, which contradicts our human rhythms.”
Multiple studies back this up, demonstrating how technology speeds up the perception of time, and decreases our sense of available time. Factor in multiple modern-day factors, from FOMO, to information overload, to instant gratification, and you have a perfect storm for time anxiety. When everything is urgent, and attention is fixated on the clock, it suffocates the fullness, and timeless quality, of each present moment.
The Illusion of Time
Martin Heidegger wrote one of the most integral books of philosophy on the subject, Being and Time. He emphasized that the two are inseparable; that being is time. Without going down a philosophical rabbit hole (the book is notable for its complexity), it’s a reminder that many of us have taken the approach of prioritizing doing at the expense of being. This is echoed by Eckhart Tolle:
“Time isn’t precious at all, because it is an illusion. What you perceive as precious is not time but the one point that is out of time: the Now. That is precious indeed. The more you are focused on time—past and future—the more you miss the Now, the most precious thing there is.”
Intellectually understanding this is different from living it. My own struggle with time anxiety is a daily practice; some days I experience a sense of flow and joy, and I seem to get everything done with great ease. Other days, I’m running behind from the moment I wake up, and the day trudges along as if I’m fighting the clock, and I have to really practice being mindful of my inner time tyrant.
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But there are exercises to help. Being conscious of your relationship with time is a great place to start. Time anxiety is usually linked to projections of the future (anxiety of what’s to come), the present moment (stress around how much time you have), or a more philosophical, existential fear of time running out, captured in the words of Mitch Albom in The Timekeeper:
“As mankind grew obsessed with its hours, the sorrow of lost time became a permanent hole in the human heart. People fretted over missed chances, over inefficient days; they worried constantly about how long they would live, because counting life’s moments had led, inevitably, to counting them down. Soon, in every nation and in every language, time became the most precious commodity.”
Uncovering Beliefs About Time
Each of us has likely internalized beliefs about time. Uncovering your beliefs goes a long way to reducing time anxiety and can give you a greater insight into what form of time anxiety is causing you the most trouble. Within my own journey into time anxiety, beliefs I uncovered included:
My sense of worth is linked to productivity
In the past, I had self-judgment around productivity. Although I’d get a lot done, if I ever felt unproductive, or ‘lazy,’ I’d feel a sense of shame. I’d linked self-worth with productivity, neglecting time for rest and play. The more I separated my worth from productivity, the more my time anxiety eased. Many important and heartfelt activities aren’t ‘productive’ in the conventional sense.
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Being obsessed with productivity renders life a living, breathing to-do list. Doing at the expense of being. The sad reality of this is that it can easily cause you to overlook the things that make life most meaningful. Instead of seeing myself as a productive person, I saw productivity as something I choose to engage in. Knowing when to engage, and when to relax, is part of the practice.
I must make the most of the time I have
Whilst this contains an eternal truth, the way in which you respond makes all the difference. You can approach this belief like a bulldozer, destroying anything that gets in the way of making the most of time, fuelled by a thirst to make the best of every moment. Or, you can approach this with the deeper wisdom that life is to be savored, and time takes care of itself with or without that savoring.
Another way of framing this is that you can approach the inevitably of time running out (which is, after all, linked to a fear of death), from a place of gratitude or desperation. I’ve experienced both; one is spacious and makes time stretch abundantly. The other feels rushed and, ironically, causes me to make less of the time I have.
There’s not enough time to do what I need to do
This is a common complaint. And there are a number of approaches to take. What worked for me was to address the truth of this honestly. Was I being skillful with my time management? Was my expectation around what I needed to do balanced? I uncovered that I’d placed high expectations on what I could do in a single day, week, month, or year — a form of subtle perfectionism.
It’s interesting that a figure of speech is to ‘make time.’ Accepting that you can’t do everything, that you could live a thousand lifetimes and not read all the books, materialize all the ideas, or travel to all corners of the world, comes with a sense of relief. It allows you to let go of excess baggage, say no to things that you’re half-interested in, and make time for what’s most meaningful.
Additional Steps to Ease Time Anxiety
In addition to uncovering unhelpful beliefs, reframe them into something much more rational and balanced. The above three could become ‘I enjoy spells of productivity, but it doesn’t define me,’ ‘I make the most of each moment to the best of my ability,’ and ‘I am skilled at managing my time and fulfilling my most important goals.’
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Reducing time anxiety is liberating. Time appears so uncontrollable, like a fabric of the universe no individual has the power to influence. But the more you understand the internal perception of time, and how to change it, the more you will be awed by your ability to use the fluidity of time in your favor. In addition to uncovering beliefs, below are a few additional steps:
- Separate experience from time. Relativity shows us that time, somehow, wraps itself around experience. Use this to your advantage by shifting your perspective. Rather than look to fit activities into the passing of the clock, allow time to take care of itself, and put all of your focus on one thing at a time.
- Check the time less frequently: I’ve noticed a direct correlation between when I’m most anxious, and when I’m checking the time. If I have somewhere to be, and I’m concerned about running late, I habitually check the time over and over, which only makes me more stressed. Be deliberate with checking the time; use it only to plan, or shift tasks. Then leave it be, maybe setting alarms for important meetings or tasks.
- Take time away from the clock: a fun exercise to play with your perception of time is to spend a day (or even a few hours) without looking at any clock. It’s surprisingly difficult, considering modern technology. You might have to hide your phone, put away your watch, and avoid screens. How does your experience change, without always having a number to compare your experience to? What do you notice about your perception (time of day, etc) and the experience of the passage of time?
- Choose activities that invoke awe, ease, or flow: studies have shown that experiencing both fear and awe slows down the passage of time. The difference with awe, however, is being pulled into the moment in a pleasurable way. Time in nature slows the passage of time, too. Prioritizing activities that invite a sense of flow also has a beneficial impact on time anxiety, because they invite a feeling of transcendence or timelessness.
- Always question urgency: as the old saying goes, less haste, more speed. Be aware of your sense of urgency, and practice cultivating more patience. If you feel that you have to operate in urgency just to get through your day, explore the practical side of your organization; maybe you’re overworked, overcommitted, or cramming too much in. This is where time management is useful.
Practice being present: it’s a cliche, but mindfulness, and focusing on the present, is by far the best way to overcome time anxiety. That doesn’t mean neglecting plans, or obligations. It means being aware of what is directly in front of you, not jumping ahead to the future, or getting stuck in the past.
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