Time is the Mother of All Stressors

There's a sense of calm in the air the last while, and I've started to wonder if it's because time - the one constant in almost all of our worries and stresses - has lost all meaning

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“Time is the mother of all stressors” – Nassim Nicholas Taleb


Time is beginning to lose all meaning now, if it hadn’t already at some point in the last year. I’m guessing it’s because, unlike the last lockdown, there is no Christmas to look ‘forward’ to (or worry about, depending on your view of Christmas). Either way, it’s a future attachment, and in a sense, Christmas provided just another deadline by which we had to have this, that and the other done, completed, sorted out, figured out, or otherwise accomplished. Just more stress we’d put on ourselves, whether consciously or not.

I’ve found I’m not the only one who’s sensing a calmness since Christmas and the New Year – the major event which seemed to loom over the second lockdown like a strange cloud, both dark and silver at the same time – despite the situation being bleaker and seemingly longer-lasting than ever. But from what I can tell, what’s happened is that the situation has removed our attachment to time.

There’s a strange optimism that comes with having no end point in sight. It sounds counter-intuitive, but what happens then when you’ve no psychological tether to the future? It forces you to become more present. If you’re feeling worried right now, then you know you’re not alone with your worries. But if you’re feeling a sense of calm about the situation since the new year, I’d like to remind you you’re not alone in that either.

Many – if not most – of our worries are time-related: projections of worry or fear about the future, or dwelling too much on the past. Dr. Karl Albrecht outlined four types of stress, one of which is ‘time stress’, but all of which involve worrying about the past or future, either in anticipation of an event, or when in the moment: of the consequences of your actions. This is why time can be considered the mother of all stressors, as quoted from our regular friend Nassim above.

This is why presence is touted by so many nowadays as the cure of all ills. It is, in a sense. Not everything, of course, as the real world must be dealt with when and as it comes, and some foresight or reflection is necessary to do so. But for most things, if we are able to maintain composure when the time comes, then all we need to do is focus on the here and now and it’ll be enough for us to continue safely upon our merry way. And now that so many of our deadlines and ties to the world have been taken away from us, whether it’s weekend drinks or monthly meetups or morning alarm calls or the various random and spontaneous events that frame the passing of normal time for us – we are forced to be present. There are still jobs and zoom appointments of course, but you are not your job, for god’s sake.

What is time?!

Time can be thought of as an expression of the relationship between objects as they orbit around the sun in space. And so time, as far as we’re concerned on the human scale, is a measure of your relationship to an objects around you (space). How far they are from you, and how they will impact your life, can be measured using a combination of time and space.

All of our worries are related to time (which could ultimately be a fear of death, I suppose). It’s not necessarily the object of your worry that’s your problem e.g. doing your Christmas shopping, finishing a presentation for work, writing a weekly newsletter for your readers, going for a job interview, etc. It’s your relationship to the thing as it approaches you in space that’s the problem (You could think of it like how there’s often nothing wrong with that person either, just your relationship to them).

Stress can be caused by not having enough time (though having too much time can worry us too – it’s called boredom). If you remove the time element (thoughts about your relationship to space), you remove your worry. And you can do this either by giving yourself more time (or filling your time in the case of boredom), or by changing your relationship to time somehow.

Everything in psychology is bi-directional: the body affects the mind, and the mind affects the body; the world affects us, and we affect the world – and the chicken and the egg both came first. And so it follows that if you remove the worry, you stop caring about time, and if you remove the time – you stop worrying.

How do you stop worrying about time, I hear you ask? My deadlines are real! I’m such a busy person! Ah yes, but the deadline is one thing, and so is the worry about the deadline. They are both abstract concepts and therefore take up equal amounts of your brain’s processing power and attention. Effectively, you experience concern about how much time you have in the same way you experience time itself. And so, if you remove your worry about time, you increase how much of your attention you can focus on the task at hand, which you experiencing as having double (mightn’t be an exact figure) the time. Magic.

Half the battle is therefore removing time from your thinking. Meditation and mindfulness help with this, by helping you control your attention to the present moment. Practicing doing things in a state of flow also works.

Time and flow

When we experience flow, the distribution of time in our brains flattens out throughout the completion of a task (or the individual actions of a task). One of the recognisable features of flow is how it detaches the individual from their awareness of time. An enjoyable game of football or a conversation may pass by in what feels like minutes, or you might even experience time slowing down (I’m convinced you can see this happening in the third person by watching someone like Messi play football).

Like our relationship to worry, it works both ways: if being in a state of flow detaches you from your experience of time, then if you detach yourself from your awareness of time, you’re more likely to enter a state of flow. Just forgetting about time makes you more present, and therefore makes your actions not just more enjoyable, but you’ll carry them out more skilfully and carefully as well. Think about it like this: if you’re doing something, like tidying the house, or changing the bedsheets, if all you’re thinking about is how you want to finish, or how long it will take, the whole thing is a chore. If you don’t care about time – it becomes a lot easier and more enjoyable to do.

When you remove attachment to time, you are free to be truly present: not quite the same detached observation as in meditation, but engaged entirely with what you’re doing, oblivious to the outside world. I wrote a while ago about how the novelty of travel puts you in a sort of hyper-aware state – everything becomes new and meaningful, and therefore affects us more significantly, when it’s unfamiliar. A similar thing is happening now. Rather than our environment’s doing it to us, we naturally also become more present when we’re uncoupled – to whatever degree – from the conscious passing of time.

Is it a good thing or a bad thing? Well, it can go either way. It depends how much you enjoy freedom. Ultimate freedom is chaos, and few of us are able to navigate it so regularly with ease or comfort. It can be unsettling. But really all that’s happening is we’re all, in more and more ways, being forced to be present.

And so, while the current period is psychologically chaotic, given that we’re without so many of the psychological tethers of reality we normally rely on, the chaos can also be liberating. There is still much to be worried about, but if you’re feeling a sense of calm, know too that you’re not the only one. It comes from the removal of our attachment to ordinary things. An enforced removal (or re-examining) of our relationships to people, routines and things, but the effect is the same.

The prevailing sense of calm

Now the timeline of the situation is now indefinite. And whatever your conscious thoughts on the matter, we experience it somewhat as a relief. There’s no pressure on having to do anything by any date – because as far as we’re being told now, there effectively is no end date. The sub-conscious effect of this communication is we’re being told that how we’re living now is how we’re going to live forever. For some people that will be agony, for many, it’s a relief.

Less deadlines, less commitments, less things to do than ever. It’s not about being anti-social, in many ways it’s simply a measure of how comfortable you are in yourself (which is separate to your external circumstances in any case). And it’s a re-examination of your relationship with time itself, which as I stated earlier, is a measure of your relationship with everything in the world.

When there are no deadlines, then you are freed to return to the present. And in order to do whatever it is you enjoy doing, presence that is far more beneficial to you than discipline.

It really is how all of life should be. Normally however there’s always a deadline – the final one being death.

It’s not just about goals or resolutions or achievements.

Often our worries about lack of time are simply a projection of our worries full stop. We want more time or we want to fill our time or we want to stop time or to go back through time to change something. All psychology works both ways; if you remove your attachment to time, you go a long way to removing the worry.

This sense of calm is neither inherenlty good nor bad - it simply reveals what is really there beneath the usual attachments. Whether you remove the deadline yourself, or it gets removed for you, then you are free to work away at life at your own leisure. And you’d be surprised at what you’ll enjoy – and get done – when time stops being of the essence.

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