Most weeknights, I am working or doing some kind of household chore right up until my head hits the pillow. I rarely watch TV without doing something else — folding laundry, updating my to-do-list, scrolling through the news headlines. And god forbid I find something to do with some “found time,” well, that hour or two will be filled up and then some.
Until recently I never really knew what this was about. Did I just like to be busy? Was I a people-pleaser who just couldn’t say no? Or was it anxiety that forced my mind to be active so that I didn’t dwell on other feelings of discomfort or fear?
Well, it’s probably a little bit of all that, but the thing I recently learned is that the anxiety has a name — Time Anxiety — and, according to Women’s Health, it’s a fixation on the passage of time.
“When you base your happiness and success on your ability to be purposeful, to add value in some way, you feel very unsafe just watching the seconds tick by,” Dr. Alex Lickerman, MD., coauthor of The Ten Worlds: The New Psychology of Happiness, told Women’s Health.
OMG, you guys, I have never felt so seen.
My entire day — from my before-dawn sweat sesh to the last few minutes of housework I get done before crashing in bed — needs to be fully accounted for. My weekends are filled almost before the previous one is over, even when I resolutely tell myself that our family needs some “down time.” I’ll spend all week busting my ass so that I’ll have a few extra hours on Friday to chill — only to fill that time returning emails or organizing my closets. When my kids are unexpectedly out of the house, say at a friend’s house or with their grandparents, I’ll develop a long list of all the things I can get caught up on. But the trouble is, not only do I never complete them, I end up feeling even worse about all the things that I didn’t do. I will feel even further behind than ever.
Sure, I “waste time” here and there, but even that has some hidden purpose. Binge-watching Netflix isn’t to enjoy some entertainment, but so that I’ll know what everyone is talking about when they refer to that new “it” show. Going for a walk is to get exercise. Chatting with a friend is to solve problems or catch up on gossip. There is a purpose, a reason for everything.
And if there isn’t? Well…let’s not even go there.
The funny (or not so funny, actually) thing is that I know that boredom and true free time is good for our kids. We’re constantly kicking them off their screens, and my husband and I actively resist overscheduling them in activities. Boredom is good, we remind them over and over again. And they reap the benefits too. This summer, my sons spent hours riding bikes with their friends, sitting at the top of the parking garage and watching the world go by and getting into their own shenanigans. And they are better off because of it.
Yet the mere thought of being bored, let alone unproductive, for more than a few minutes sends waves of anxiety through my body. Never mind being left alone without my phone on the train or waiting in the doctor’s office when I could be returning emails or working on an upcoming project.
Every minute must be accounted for. Every. Last. Minute.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been acutely aware of the passage of time. One of my biggest fears is that, at the end of my life, I will feel like I didn’t do enough. Like I didn’t contribute enough. Like I didn’t use up every ounce of goodness this life has to offer. After all, as Mary Oliver so eloquently wrote, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
I’m sure not gonna waste it, that’s for sure, has always been my answer.
Except that deep down, I also know that filling up every spare minute with something seemingly productive isn’t really helpful and it certainly isn’t honoring the preciousness of life. Not to mention it kind of makes me feel overwhelmed and guilty.
“The problem isn’t that time is finite,” Kevin Chapman, Ph.D. told Women’s Heath. “It’s the perception of time being out of your control that creates a negative relationship.” So you end up stuck fretting about the minutes you spend waiting in the car for your kid to get out of basketball practice, the time spent enduring a slow internet connection, the hours spent in traffic due to a construction detour. And it fucks up your whole day.
The real ah-ha moment came for me when I realized that I’m really self-sabatoging with my constant busyness and need to fill the void. Because when I’m feeling anxious or have FOND — Fear of Not Doing — I end up putting too much on my plate. Then I feel so overwhelmed, I end up procrastinating on all the things. Wash, rinse, repeat.
There is a way off this train, though. Chapman suggests that you can start by reminding yourself that you can do one thing and you can do it well. He says to “attach a purpose to every activity you are doing, even if it feels like ‘nothing.'”
So if you’re watching TV, enjoy the hell out of it as you recharge your mental batteries. If your making a killer Bolognese sauce, rock that red sauce knowing that you’re feeding your family. If you’re waiting for your tween’s piano lesson to end, let yourself daydream as you mentally plan your next vacation.
I’m not sure if these tricks will work, but honestly, just knowing that I’m not alone in this anxious fretting about wasted time and the never-ending quest to maximize productivity has eased some of my anxiety already.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a window to aimlessly stare out of.