On Time Anxiety

By Stephanie

Do you like to arrive early, or do you often end up being late?  Try asking a group of people and you will probably hear some strong views.  It’s an everyday issue everyone has an opinion on – and many people who pride themselves on their timekeeping hold a very dim view of those who do not. Early birds think latecomers are chaotic and disrespectful. Habitual latecomers think early arrivals are a bit uptight and probably quite dull. But what time you arrive may be based on all manner of anxieties – a fear of getting things wrong, a fear of others’ disapproval, a fear of drawing attention to yourself – and these same fears lead people to be late as well as making them early. You may feel  you can safely fade into the background if you arrive ten minutes before an event starts – but if you’re worried about making small talk with strangers, being a couple of minutes late may seem like the safest option.

My anxiety is about the fear of wasting time. I am always late, usually only by a few minutes, but it can be as many as thirteen – the outer limit of what’s just about acceptable to most people. I might blame traffic or some unexpected last minute demand from the children – but the truth is, I just didn’t leave until the last minute, because I could not bear to be early. To me, five minutes early would be five minutes I didn’t spend usefully. If I need to get somewhere at ten, I will calculate how long the journey will take – let’s say it’s half an hour – so to be perfectly on time I would need to leave home before nine thirty. At twenty-five past nine I will try to find a small task which might take me only five minutes. I do want to arrive on time – but only just on time. And I can always think of some little task to do – hanging out the washing, one more email, watering the plants. Inevitably any little task ends up taking an extra minute or two – so when I leave at just past nine thirty I’m running slightly late, which is a comfortable place for me to be – I will be only a few moments late, but I haven’t wasted any useful time.

Living the dream would be getting a seat on a train with two minutes to spare before departure. Three minutes to spare would mean you’d wasted a minute in unnecessary early arrival. But one minute to spare is not quite enough, as you can never be quite sure when the doors will lock. Two minutes early is hitting the bullseye.

I try to make the most of every minute – to a destructively obsessive extent. I’m well aware that trying to make the most of every minute makes you sour and ruin quite a lot of them. Like overcooking the jam, I overcook the minutes. On holiday I will often spend far too much time poring over maps and guidebooks, planning out exciting trips for any group I’m with, weighing up everyone’s individual needs and wants and trying my best to reach calculated compromises in my own head to produce the perfect plan, my best guess at producing the sweetest afternoon everyone will enjoy. Imagine my consternation when someone counters my perfect plan with a spontaneous idea. Or worse still, doesn’t want to do anything much – in my head, the ultimate sin.

Not doing much – how wrong is it? Well it’s OK if you re-name it. Watching a film with a glass of wine is OK if you call it bonding with the family. Relationships definitely always count as worth investing in, so almost any leisure activity could count as useful if you’re with someone else. And even watching a film alone with that glass of wine isn’t too bad if time has ticked past 9pm, so it’s the end of a long day before you prepare to start another.

What I’d like written on my gravestone is “She tried very hard”.  I don’t mind if people feel I got things wrong in my life – Oh boy, have I got so many things, so many big things, so very wrong! What matters to me is that I tried very hard to get things right. Every decision I’ve made has been weighed up obsessively, and all the pros and cons scanned carefully. Although it hasn’t really helped –  how many other people have started three degrees at different universities, all carefully chosen as useful and meaningful, and got to the end of only one, which has nothing at all to do with the job I do now? So I couldn’t claim trying very hard to do the best you can will always get results – in fact, like overcooking the jam, you can overcook decision making and miss the point where you need to just stop and let things settle.  I know the best things in my life have fallen into my lap like ripe apples fall from trees overhead – my five unplanned children, friends met by chance.

Research says that people who arrive late have often over estimated how much they can achieve in the time they have. And in my excessively careful life planning I think I see the same fault – an over estimation of how many obstacles I can overcome by sheer force of will. Perhaps time anxiety is too much trying to control the world and stamp meaning through it. It misses the point that there’s a lot you can’ t control. Much of life is messy and randomly arranged; it isn’t fair and many things don’t make much sense. I know I have to try harder to see things as they are, and find the good in what just is…here and now. I have to try less hard to control what might happen next, and I have to try to stand firm against that wicked temptation the mind can beckon you towards – the impossible task of reordering what once was and dwelling on what might have been.

If this is a rather convoluted apology for being a few minutes late sometimes, I hope it explains at least that if I’m late it isn’t down to carelessness. On the contrary it’s too much care. If I didn’t try so hard to be bang on time without wasting a minute, I’d have got there. And I’m sure it’s not just me over estimating how much control they can have over time – spare a thought for those of us who try so hard, we stop ourselves getting where we want to.

Image: Gilt-brass cased clock-watch with alarm, sundials and lunar volvelle in the form of a book, Ashmolean Museum (on display), Oxford.