Overwhelmed woman at her computer

Rx: Halting Time Pressure

This article was adapted from The Healthy Mind, Healthy Body Handbook by David S. Sobel and Robert Ornstein. It may not be reproduced without written permission.

Kathleen is always running late. From the moment she realizes that she has slept through the alarm again, to the moment she collapses into bed at night, she is in a constant struggle with time. “Where’s the blouse that goes with this suit?” “There’s no milk for cereal. Where did I put my keys?”

On the way to work she thinks, “Whew! I just made the bus. Oh, God, poor Steve – he needs my report for his project and I haven’t finished it yet. I hope the supervisor doesn’t find out.” At work, she’s ill-prepared for a meeting. A million distractions prevent her from finishing the report. It’s time to pick up her daughter at day care. She’s relieved that the fund raising committee isn’t meeting this week, but annoyed she’ll miss out on another evening with her family because she has to work. After finishing the report at midnight, Kathleen has just enough energy to look around her house (in dire need of cleaning) and wonder “Where does the time go?”

Kathleen suffers from time stress, which undermines the quality of her life and her sense of well-being. For most of us, the modern-day world seems to be spinning faster and faster. Computers, faxes, pagers, car phones and automated tellers, far from saving time, seem to add pressure.

According to a Harris survey, in 1990, the average American had 37% less leisure time than in 1973. “Leisure” time is crammed full of activities, commitments, and responsibilities. Even our children feel the pressure of a chock-full day: school, music lessons, soccer practice, and homework.

For many of us, the frantic pace is self-inflicted; we are too busy because we choose to be so. Being busy may be a sign of importance or self-worth. Some people are “rushaholics,” depending on hectic activity to get going in much the same way others need nicotine or caffeine.

Rushing triggers the release of stress hormones which stimulate neurochemicals such as adrenaline to keep the body on perpetual alert. When we try to relax, uncomfortable feelings and emotions surface, so we get busy again and stuff the feelings back down.

Health Effects

Time pressure can have powerful effects on the body. Our brain regards clocks, deadlines, and interrupted schedules as a threat, and calls up the “fight or flight” stress response. The incessant struggle to do more and more in less and less time also makes us more likely to respond with toxic anger to anyone or anything slowing us down.

We feel we’re not accomplishing what we should and self esteem plummets. We feel exhausted and overwhelmed all the time, denying ourselves the satisfaction of a job well done. Personal relationships suffer. We don’t have time for the real conversations and intimacy that help buffer stress and increase our resistance to disease.

Because of the added tension and worry about getting things done, we may lose sleep. We slip into bad habits, eating too much or too little or relying on junk food. We avoid exercise, light up a cigarette or turn to alcohol, caffeine, or pills to rev up or calm down.

It may take a serious illness before we realize that time is our most precious asset. Fortunately, there are less drastic ways.

It’s not just the Gandhis of the world who can escape time pressure. Even in our speeded-up culture, we can all think of someone who is relatively unbothered and unhurried, someone who faces similar demands as we do but is more productive, unhassled, somehow in sync with the flow of time. With a little practice, you too can enjoy the healthful benefits of learning to “go with the flow.”

“If you are sitting on a hot stove, a minute seems like an hour, but if you are doing something pleasurable, an hour can seem like a minute.” – Albert Einstein

The Experience of Time

Until quite recently, humans followed a natural, organic pattern, alternating periods of harder and easier work, usually in sync with the seasons. The way we break up time into units is arbitrary. In some cultures there is no word for minute or even hour. The shortest unit of time may be the time it takes for a certain food to cook.

As we don’t have sensory receptors for time like we do for sight and sound, we can’t experience time directly. Instead, our sense of time comes from how we interpret what happens to us. Time can be relative, as Einstein observed.

Because our experience of time is largely created in our brains, it’s not surprising that the way we think about time determines the way we experience it. We’re waiting in line and time drags. While dancing in the moonlight, driving on a twisty road or listening to favorite music, time seems to expand, the experience feels timeless. The trick, as Gandhi said, is to be “always on vacation” where nothing hurries us, but a lot happens.

A Healthy Approach to Time Management

Trying to control time by strict scheduling is like trying to control what we eat by strict dieting. We become so obsessed with it that it becomes more – not less – important in our lives. If we relax our grip and stop seeing time as an enemy to be beaten into submission, time relaxes its grip on us.
Learning some specific time management skills can help. Even more important is learning to focus on the “big picture,” becoming more aware of how we experience time, how we feel about it, learning to stay focused on what really matters. Rather than squeezing more activities into your day, you’ll probably end up cutting things out. This approach encourages you to continually evaluate what you’re doing, and to ask the essential question: Am I doing what I really need to be doing to achieve a satisfying and productive life?

Seeing the Big Picture–Know What’s Important

Every few months – or at least once a year – step back and consider what is really most important to you.

Seek a Balance

In many cases the motivation to overwork comes from a desire to achieve a better lifestyle or to prove one’s self-worth. Ask yourself if it’s worth it. Take a look at your life and see whether you’d lose or gain by buying and consuming less. Cutting back on work may reduce your income, but it can improve your standard of living in other ways. Virtually no one on his or her death bed ever says, “I wish I had spent more time at the office.”

Choose Simplicity

Try to limit the things which unnecessarily complicate your life. It may be difficult to say “no” when life presents us with so many possibilities, roles, and identities. We want to be a good parent, hold down a full-time job, participate in neighborhood and community activities, take classes, go on trips, learn new skills, build new relationships, look for a better house, and cultivate sixteen hobbies. But what’s the cost? In the end, it’s not how much you’ve done or how many experiences you’ve collected that counts, but how well you have lived.

Live in the Moment

There is no moment in time other than the one that is happening right now. Being totally absorbed in what we are doing in the present is an exhilarating experience, one that makes us feel truly alive, positive, and productive. It creates the “timeless” moments during which our tensions, fears, and pressures about time evaporate. To get to this state, you must learn to break the rushing habit.

Establish Your Rhythm

Occasionally throughout the day, step outside your scheduled routine and pay attention to your natural rhythms, your peaks and valleys of energy, alertness, concentration, and creativity. Some people prefer morning; others are night owls. Are you one who gets sleepy at midday? Then take a nap.
Remember, not all days are created equal. Some days you marvel at how productive you are, other days you’ll feel like you’re swimming in molasses. Acknowledge and respect these differences. Don’t blame yourself for not performing like a machine. Vary the tempo of your life. Balance fast-paced, intense activities with more relaxed ones.

Take time out for fun, relaxation, daydreaming, contemplation, family, friends, and hobbies.

Skills for Managing Details–Keep a Time Log

For many of us the days and weeks seem to rush by so fast we don’t really have a sense of how we are spending our time. Keep a log for one or more days. Each hour of the day while you’re awake, take a few seconds to record your activities and the time spent on each. It helps to use an alarm to remind you each hour. Then add up the amount of time spent in various categories such as work, telephone calls, meetings, socializing, eating, cooking, personal hygiene, shopping, commuting, errands, television, hobbies, exercise, reading, child care, etc. Any surprises? Do your time investments reflect your highest priorities and goals?

Set Priorities

Keep a notebook with a running list of anything that requires an action (things to do, errands, etc.) without regard for deadlines or its importance. Then evaluate the importance of items listed in terms of your overall goals. Sometimes you’ll have to set priorities not only on your own individual goals, but also on the goals shared by your family or work group. For each entry, ask, “What would happen if I didn’t do this? Is this task worth the investment of my time? Do I need to do this, or could someone else do it?” Pass off tasks you don’t enjoy, aren’t good at, and don’t need to do yourself.

Learn to Schedule

Understand what specific steps go into a complex task and prioritize them. Give yourself a realistic schedule and add about 25% to your first estimate for interruptions, unscheduled events, and unforeseen problems as buffer for success. The most achievable goals are those that are moderately demanding, realistic, measurable, flexible, and written down.

Combine Tasks

Learn to consolidate your goals and activities. When you pick up dry cleaning, drop off the camera at the repair shop. Instead of taking the car, get some fresh air and exercise by walking or biking. Talk to a friend while going for a walk. Peel apples while watching the news. Keep a list of short, five-minute tasks you can do when you’re waiting or “between things”: Sew on a button, polish your shoes, empty the dishwasher or water a plant. Learn to think of waiting as a gift of time: relax, read, write a letter, or make notes.

Organize Your Space

Overwhelmed by clutter? Purge your surroundings of unnecessary paper. Get rid of things you “might need someday,” “should read,” or are keeping for sentimental reasons.

Arrange the things you save in a more orderly fashion to help you find them faster. Establish a workable filing system.

Let it Ring

Try to arrange your environment to minimize interruptions. Do you need to answer the telephone every time it rings? Make clear requests to co-workers, family members and friends to respect your time, and thank them when they do.

Be Flexible

No matter how organized you are or how well you’ve planned your day, sometimes things just don’t go as expected. Be flexible. This enables you to respond to the moment, and take advantage of a spontaneous turn of events. Being flexible also allows you to use your intuitive sense for when to charge ahead, and when to back off. Don’t let schedules, clocks, and pre-arranged plans overrun your inner sensibilities. Change worries and self-critical thoughts – “I’m never getting anything done; I’m wasting all of my time; there’s never enough time”; to more constructive ones: “Right now I am doing as much as I can; I accomplish the most when I fully concentrate on what I am doing. In fact, I’ve accomplished a lot.”


Unless it has an adverse effect on you or someone else, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with putting something off until later. In fact, sometimes you’re better off doing some things later – or not at all. But other times the “undone” takes on mountainous proportions, increases stress, frustration, and embarrassment, and stands in the way of success. Procrastination can undermine health when we put off quitting smoking, starting an exercise program or buying a fire extinguisher. Most unfortunate, procrastination can rob us of the guilt-free vacation or relaxation time we deserve. So why do we do it? One reason is that we set impossibly high standards. We have to decorate a room perfectly, write a flawless book, or thoroughly master a new software program. So we never begin. Sometimes the task is unpleasant or seems overwhelming. Procrastination is one method of coping – though there are quite often more effective ones. Ultimately, when dealing with procrastination, the only thing that works is to take the bull by the horns.

Examine the Costs and Benefits

Think of some task that you have been putting off and make a quick list of the pros and cons of postponing it. Add up the advantages and disadvantages, and decide whether to do it now, postpone it, or never do it. Don’t try to fool yourself.

Face what you’re avoiding by procrastinating. For example, Finishing your education means you have to get a job. Or leaving your current job may mean dealing with fears of inadequacy. Try to be aware of any underlying issues so you can make a conscious choice to do it now or later.

Change Your Negative Thoughts

Observe your thought pattern as you approach (or avoid) a task. Listen for negative thoughts: “I don’t feel like doing this. I’ll never get that project done. I’m not capable of doing so complex a job. I always miss deadlines anyway. I don’t have the energy to do this.” Substitute more enabling ones: “I don’t have to be in the mood to get started. Once I get started I’ll probably feel more like doing it. I will only work on this for 10 minutes. If a do a little each day, I’ll be able to finish the job. I don’t need to feel fully capable; I’ll learn more about the project as I do it. I will feel much better when it is done.”

Break Big Jobs into Small Steps

If you’re putting something off because it seems overwhelming, break it up into manageable steps and take them one at a time.

Encourage Yourself

Most often, “good enough” is all that’s required. Doing something is better than not doing anything at all. If fear of failure has you paralyzed, be compassionate toward your imperfections by using positive self-talk. “Even if I fail, I’ll survive. If I don’t do a perfect job, that doesn’t make me a bad person. No one is perfect. I’ll do the best I can.”

Ask for Help

Because procrastinators tend to be perfectionists, they feel they must do everything themselves. Don;t fall into this trap. It is not a sign of failure or incompetence to ask for help; it’s a sign of intelligence and good management.

Take a Break

When you run into an obstacle, it’s tempting to get frustrated and abandon hope. Avoid this by taking some time out. Tell yourself it’s just a temporary setback, and that you are not stupid, incompetent, or bound to fail. Set a specific time to come back later with a fresh eye.

Use Your Imagination

Before you begin working on something, visualize yourself going through the steps, making progress, and completing the task. This kind of mental imagery prepares you for the actual activity, and helps you make the transition from thinking about it to doing it.

Evaluate Your Progress Your Progress

About one month after you begin these exercises, ask yourself:

  • Am I accomplishing more?
  • Am I more effective?
  • Do I feel more in control?
  • Am I making progress towards the really important things in my life?
  • Am I happier?

For More Information

Burka, Jane and Lenora Yuen. Procrastination: Why You Do It, What to Do About It. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1983.

Culp, Stephanie. Streamlining Your Life: A 5-Point Plan for Uncomplicated Living. Cincinnati: Writerâs Digest Books, 1991.

Fanning, Tony and Robbie. Get It All Done and Still Be Human: A Personal Time-Management Workshop. Menlo Park, CA: Kali House, 1990.

Fiore, Neil. The Now Habit: A Strategic Program for Overcoming Procrastination and Enjoying Guilt-Free Play. Los Angeles: Jeremy Tarcher, 1989.

Keyes, Ralph. Timelock: How Life Got So Hectic and What You Can Do About It. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.

Hunt, Diana and Pam Hait. The Tao of Time. New York: Fireside, 1990.

Josephs, Ray. How to Gain an Extra Hour Every Day: New Time Strategies That Work. New York: Penguin, 1992.

Winston, Stephanie. Getting Organized: The Easy Way to Put Your Life in Order. New York: Warner Books, 1978.

Excerpted with permission from the Quarterly Newsletter, Mind/Body Health Newsletter. For subscription information visit the Institute for the Study of Human Knowledge website.

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Written by David S. Sobel MD

Explore Wellness in 2021