Do You Always Feel Rushed? Here’s the Antidote

After studying hundreds of people’s schedules, I know a thing or two about what makes someone late.
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After studying hundreds of people’s schedules, I know a thing or two about what makes someone late.
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Everyone has the same number of hours in the day. Yet we don’t all have the same perception of these hours. One Pew Research Center survey found that 40 percent of moms who work full time say they feel “always rushed.” Cutting back on work doesn’t help much; 29 percent of moms who work part-time, and 29 percent of stay-at-home moms likewise feel they are constantly running from thing to thing.

Rushing is generally a miserable experience. One study on time perception found that rushing is associated with a feeling that time (and life) is passing too quickly. It can also inspire some atrocious behavior. 

So is it possible to stop rushing? I believe it is—if you know why it happens. A little strategy, and mindfulness, can go a long way toward solving the problem.

Rushing is largely situational. It tends to happen because we’re running late. That sense of failing to meet a time obligation, whatever it is, creates a panicky feeling that makes people forget their broader obligations to humanity. Plenty of traffic accidents happen because people are rushing. In one famous study of seminary students, when these aspiring ministers were told they were late to give a talk and needed to hurry, only 10 percent stopped to help a man slumped in the hallway. (The study designers certainly had a sense of irony—many of these seminarians were told to prepare a talk on the parable of the Good Samaritan!).

So why are people late? As a comically punctual person myself, I have a knee-jerk assumption about tardiness: the late person values her own time more than other people’s. Of course, since I have studied hundreds of people’s schedules hour by hour, and interviewed them about their time choices, I know this assumption is generally false. 

People who are chronically late are often over-the-top nice. They are simply trying to pack in too many things. That’s why moms often suffer from this problem. They’re trying to empty the dishwasher before going out the door to bring a kid to school on the way to the office. Often, chronically tardy people are people pleasers who will do whatever they are asked, even if it interrupts their own plans. Others are unrealistically optimistic about how long activities will take. They think it takes fifteen minutes to get downtown because it did, once, at 6 a.m. when it was 70 degrees and sunny—but normally there’s more traffic, and shockingly, rain slows things down too.

Being too optimistic and too nice sound like good problems to have, but they ultimately lead to rushing—a not so good trend. Changing such behavior is a process. It is about consciously attempting fewer things in the day. The dishwasher can sit, full. Laundry need not be folded before taking off for soccer practice. It’s also about leaving more space between each individual activity. I think time tracking can help even the most chronically late person get a better sense of life’s actual pacing. You can see that your “hour long” 10 a.m. staff meeting has never ended before 11:15, which is why when you schedule an 11 a.m. call, you’re apologizing for being late again. Better to schedule for 11:30. That pacing gives you fifteen minutes of margin to collect your thoughts and think through the next activity. You dial in calmly. Just like that, you’re not rushing.

That said, even the comically punctual are occasionally late. Maybe there are good reasons (stopping to help someone who’s ill or injured is one). Or sometimes tardiness happens for reasons that are hard to anticipate. I once was rushing to a meeting because my car wouldn’t start in a parking garage, because it turned out one of my kids had turned on a small light in the backseat and—since I hadn’t seen it over several days—it had drained the battery.

In situations like these, the best antidote to rushing is to recognize that it rarely helps the situation. Your being mad will not make a line shorter. Once you’re late, you’re late, so arriving 12 minutes late vs. 14 minutes late doesn’t change anything, but the emotional drama of panicking about it extracts more than 2 minutes of mental anguish. You’re more likely to make mistakes, like missing your exit from the highway.

It’s better to repeat these phrases: I will get there when I get there. I have enough time for the things I need to do. I can slow down. You can also take active steps to improve the situation. You can pull over, make a call and apologize for what’s about to happen, and then continue as before. The upside? Refusing to give into the drama will give you the wherewithal to clean up whatever problem your tardiness causes.

So here's to enjoying our moments, owning our time, and realizing we don't have to rush to accomplish a zillion things in an impossible amount of time. We might notice that life isn't flying by, after all.

Photo Credit: Cathrine Taylor Photography