312: Anxiety and Time

This is the Monday Medley, a newsletter that goes out, you guessed it, every Monday. I republish it here for sharing and referencing, but if you'd like to sign up you can do so right here:

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.

Happy Monday!

Last Friday I published an article about Sunflower Land, a new crypto FarmVille-style game. It's been quite fun! And it's nice for more casual gamers.

On to the Medley.

Anxiety and Time

Why is vacation (sometimes) relaxing?

Not working certainly helps. But that’s not enough. Vacation can be exhausting if you try to squeeze too much in, running from place to place on a tight schedule, worried about making the next deadline.

Work on vacation can also be relaxing. Chopping wood for a fire is certainly work, hard work, but it doesn’t create the same kind of anxiety or stress as work back home.

So maybe the question isn’t “why is vacation relaxing” but “why does work cause anxiety?”

I’ve thought about this more in the past year because while it’s been a particularly productive and fruitful year, it’s also been a rather anxious one. I hadn’t noticed latent work-related anxiety much until the last year, and now it feels like something I need to consistently stay on top of.

Some of it is chemical. If I reduce my coffee intake to one or two cups a day, no less than four hours apart, I notice it much less. And it seems that was related to cutting out alcohol. Since I cut out alcohol, I can’t drink as much coffee. But this isn’t a sufficient explanation because on weekends I can drink as much coffee as I want and barely feel the psychological impact. Caffeine is exacerbating anxiety, not causing it.

So what about work causes it to induce anxiety? It clearly has something to do with time. And it may be that your relationship with time creates anxiety, regardless of whether work is involved or not.

You may have had the experience of one meeting ruin your day. Not because of the contents of the meeting itself, but because its existence on your calendar ruined an otherwise free day with full flexibility. It changed your relationship with time for the day. Now everything you do leading up to the meeting has to be planned and ordered in such a way to enable you to show up prompt and prepared. Without the meeting you can have lunch whenever you want. With the meeting lunch needs to be planned.

As soon as we put things on a calendar, we have to be aware of what time it is to make sure we’re conforming to the calendar. The more things on our calendar, the more aware of time we become. Deadlines can have a similar effect. When you know you have a looming deadline, you become hyper aware of how little time you have left to hit that deadline.

This awareness is why setting shorter deadlines helps you get more done, but it also creates more work anxiety. As you see the seconds ticking by you’re assessing whether you’re on or off track. You become hyper aware of how much time you have left.

Anyone who has done a decent amount of running has likely noticed a strange phenomenon. It doesn’t matter how much you train, and how long you run for, the last 5-10% of the run is always the longest and hardest. Even if you’ve ran 26 miles before, when you go for a 5 mile run, that last mile will seem to drag on forever. The early miles will fly by, especially the middle ones. But then at the end, it seems to take forever.

Part of this is likely because as the end approaches, you regain your awareness of time. In the beginning and middle you can zone out, you can be present and mindful, but as the end approaches, you start thinking about the end. You start looking at your watch more and thinking about what you’ll do next.

It’s similar to the experience we have with our work and projects. When the deadline is far away, we’re not so fixated on the clock and we can get into better flow in our work, or at least be less anxious about it. As the final step or deadline approaches, we need to be more fixated on the clock and the anxiety progressively builds.

If you’ve used an ice bath or sauna you’re probably familiar with another version of this. When you focus on the clock in either scenario, it’s more painful and goes slower. When you ignore the clock and focus on the experience, it’s faster and more pleasant.

I’m not sure any experience is enhanced by being fixated on the clock. And it seems a significant amount of anxiety stems from thinking about or being aware of time. So if we want to reduce anxiety, we need to reduce our awareness of and fixation on time. We need to find ways to design our work and life in such a way that we are not slaves to the clock, but can rather pour time into whatever we’re immersed in.

“An infinite player does not begin working for the purpose of filling time with work, but for the purpose of filling work with time. Work is not an infinite player’s way of passing time, but of engendering possibility. Work is a way of moving towards a future which itself has a future.”Finite & Infinite Games

If we want to enjoy work without anxiety, removing the calendar and extending deadlines seems to be a necessary step. There are certainly more, but we’ll explore those another time.

Have a great week,

Enjoyed this? Be sure to subscribe!