Time Management Problems

TimeI have a good friend, a woman close to my own age, who struggles with time management problems. She usually arrives late for social events and often fails to meet deadlines at work. In her free time, she sets time-related goals for projects that mean a great deal to her and consistently fails to achieve them. In general, I’d say she feels very unhappy about her troubled relation to time.

Many clients I’ve seen over the years have struggled with similar difficulties, most notably with procrastination. I’m sure many readers have difficulties in completing their work on time. Often, an underlying perfectionism lies at the heart of the problem. With a harsh superego finding fault with everything you do, you’re often reluctant even to begin: nothing can ever be good enough. Safer to remain in the realm of infinite potential — that ideal in your head — than to suffer your own scorn and self-criticism for attempting to produce something real and inevitably imperfect.

For many people who struggle with this type of perfectionism, only external pressure (the reality of an impending deadline) enables them to relinquish an imaginary ideal and produce something real. I’m thinking of the writing process, in particular. I’ve know students, freelance writers and reporters who typically dashed off an article or term paper at the very last moment, no longer able to proscrastinate without penalty. This hasty, last-minute approach offers a superego work-around, too: Of course it’s not my best effort because I only threw it together when I ran out of time. If I’d started earlier, I would’ve written something much stronger.

Some people are so crippled by perfectionism that they’re unable to escape the grips of an ideal; proscrastination becomes a total inability to take the first step. Last year, I worked with a young man named Reed who envisioned himself as an entrepreneur along the lines of Steve Jobs or Bill Gates. For months, Reed struggled to come up with a start-up concept, doing endless “research” and setting time-related goals for himself he consistently failed to meet. He abruptly quit therapy without advance notice, in large part because (I believe) he felt unable to confront the depth of his shame. He retreated into his fantasy world of Internet fame and riches rather than continue to face me (and his shame) each week. Many people “fail” in their lives for similar reasons — because they can’t accept how long it takes to accomnplish most things worth doing — often consoling themselves with fantasies of “what might have been.”

(I’m reminded of Lady Catherine de Bourgh from Pride and Prejudice: “There are few people in England, I suppose, who have more true enjoyment of music than myself, or a better natural taste. If I had ever learnt, I should have been a great proficient. And so would Anne, if her health had allowed her to apply.”)

The client I described in this early post about bipolar disorder had a related problem with time: he hated how long it would take to write a novel, unable to produce it little by little over many months; instead, when in a manic state, he felt as if he’d triumphed over time and magically produced his book “all at once.” Over the years, I’ve worked with other clients who also displayed manic bursts of creativity: they’d enter an altered state of mind, almost outside of time, and produce their works of art as if by magic. Omnipotence of thought also plays a role here, of course, and mania has other important features; but each of these clients had a problematic relationship with time, as if they couldn’t accept the limitations it imposed. In one way or another, they all felt an underlying and largely unconscious hatred of authority.

Without a specific deadline, some writers experience a different sort of time management problem: they continue polishing and revising ad infinitem. For them, there’s always more time available to make further changes in order to achieve that perfect book or essay. All serious writers continuously revise their work, of course; in theory, one can forever find more ways to refine one’s prose or sharpen an argument. At some point, however, we have to decide that we’ve devoted enough time to a particular project and that it’s “good enough” as written. Some writers can’t seem to sound the bell, call it a day, put their manuscript to bed.

Recently, I’ve begun working with a young man who has a deeply troubled relationship with time. He sleeps for several days in a row, missing work, cancelling his meetings, or he’ll work throughout the night and sleep during the daytime when he has other commitments he then fails to meet. He routinely reschedules appointments three or four times before keeping them. On an unconscious level, he finds it very difficult to accept the linear nature of time, the inexorable flow of day into night, the immutable 60-minute hour. It’s as if he is constantly defying time, re-writing its rules to suit his own wishes rather than conforming to its inherent restrictions. In fantasy, he resides in a world outside of time, or at least one with a more pliable space-time continuum.

At heart, I think most of us hate the passage of time because it leads inevitably toward death. On an unconscious level, “completion” (be it a work of art or some other project) often links up with ideas of death; for this reason, some people (unconsciously) procrastinate in order to forestall their ultimate fate. I recently came upon this quote from Donald Nathanson’s introduction to Affect Imagery Consciousness, Sylvan Tomkins’ masterpiece: “Knowing it was his ‘lifework,’ Tomkins conflated ‘life’ and ‘work,’ reifying the superstitution that its completion would equal death and refusing to release for publication long-completed material.” Nathanson’s prose can sometimes be fussy and unnecessarily cumbersome, but you can see his point.

Time involves irreversible movement along a line, in one direction only, and we all know where it will end. In one way or another, each of us has a complicated, unhappy relationship with time.

By Joseph Burgo

Joe is the author and the owner of AfterPsychotherapy.com, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.


            1. Okay. I had to read back through the thread. I suppose it could be due to envy but I don’t think so. All I can do is try to be as honest as possible with myself and I think mine was an accurate assessment.

  1. I find what you write so thought-provoking and insightful, Joseph. Thank you so much. As someone who struggles to an extreme degree with procrastination, I think many of the points you make here apply to me; the perfectionism, the shame, the hatred of authority and a refusal to accept the passage of time and what that means, in terms of seizing the day. There is something that makes me think of early infancy in your young man who treats times as though it were entirely at his disposal, regardless of the needs of others, like a tiny baby who eats and sleeps without any kind of routine until it is imposed upon him by a parent. My own procrastination feels punishing. However much I may resent the imposer of deadline authority, the person who suffers from so much time-wasting and lack of productivity, stress and underachievement, is me.

  2. Dear Joseph, thank you very much for your posts and your insights, it’s always very interesting to read and think about. Unfortunately your link to ‘hatred of authority’ doesn’t work in this article and I couldn’t find it with the search function either. It is possible to link the article in the comments again? Thank you very much! Be well – Martina

  3. This is a great post. So much so that after years of reading your blog I am finally compelled to comment. It is a frustrating post-you speak of the various ways people struggle to cope with the realities of time, but some people truly excel at managing time and, with great success. This seems like a perfect issue to ‘crowd source.’ I would love to know how people have found tools to manage this very emotional relationship where we play out our own dynamics in ‘real time,’ – not dissimilar from the way we use personal finance to play out our fears, anxieties, etc.

  4. Funny timing to read this. I have just over a week to finish my university 10000words final project of which I have written less than 10%. I have always found myself in this situation, only this time it counts more as it’s the last chance to prove I can do it. At a rational level I understand how the whole process works.

    I find myself in what you were describing on procrastination and perfectionism. I would add to that for me there is a crippling fear of writing, probably because my father was always telling me how he loved reading and what great things he wrote, essays, poems, and then other times he would criticise me for not being able to speak correctly(agreement between nouns and defective plurals) or put things down on paper with an attitude of detaching himself from my mistakes as if something was seriously wrong with me. I guess I’ve been equating inability to write with being stupid. I realise it’s not true and there’s more to life than that, it’s just that I kind of invested my self-worth in this. It starts with magical thinking, omnipotence as you’ve put it. You always think ‘next time I’ll do the work, bit by bit’ but that never happens as you’d have to confront the truth which is that it’s hard work, it takes time and practice, which having delayed on and on will be even harder to get started on, and more importantly that you’re imperfect and have been deluding yourself. This keeps building up as a reminder of failure, so constant deluding and failures to look to the future and anticipate consequences are needed to keep going like that. What is needed to change? Facing reality, lowering of standards (matching goals and ambitions to current aptitudes) which is easier said than done. I would like to write more about this, but for now, I have to go back to my omnipotence as it’s the only thing that’s going to get me through next week.

  5. Don’t know how you manage to hit me with the exact insight I need at the moment to move forward in my recovery process, but you did it again with this post. Thank you for your time and effort in sharing your thoughts.

  6. If perfectionism is the problem, how do people move forward. It’s nice hearing that I have time management problems because I’m afraid to die, because I’m living in my own fantasy world, because I don’t want to take the time and put in the hard-work to accomplish something (even though lazy is not in the DSM IV it’s out there in the real world) but how do you move forward? My therapist and I have had many arguments (me only) on this topic. It’s all fine and dandy that therapy revels all this insight but I’ve found therapy to be useless. Ultimately, my therapist says I have to make the change, I have to do the work she’s only there to listen and provide insight and support. It’s frustrating. If I could sit down and do the work I just would. Why waste time and money on therapy?

      1. Thanks. You’ve been doing this a long time. You got right to the source of my problems after 8 months of therapy. I have gotten in touch with this anger and I really don’t see the sense in it. It’s a waste of time. I’m going to quit therapy. I don’t see the sense in going there every week just to have someone listen to me complain without me moving forward. I can pick up kickboxing or marathon running for that. I’ve been taking care of myself since I was 16. I’m 23 now. I think therapy is about learning a whole new way to live. Something that you may not have been exposed to. I have been taking responsibility for my life and I’ve been taking care of myself since I was a kid. I can read self-help books, do the work myself and use the money that I’ve been spending on therapy on something more constructive.

  7. After procrastinating for a whole year, I’ve finally taken the first step at completing a long application process toward advancing my professional license. The application process is actually the easiest aspect of this whole process because it only required gathered some paperwork and some signatures. The fear that I might not get hired back in the fall, forced me to finally “get it done”. What gets me stuck many times is the overwhelming feeling of doing something that is going to take a long time and will require commitment and discipline. Also there is this pervasive feeling inside of me that the task is too big, too difficult, an impossible task. It feels like the punishment of an unfair parent. As I was struggling to get this task done, I googled the word procrastination and found this quote “Everything starts with solving a very tiny slice of a problem”. It helped me! This is exactly what teachers do in the classroom when students feel overwhelmed, you break the task into small bits. I guess my inner child feels very intimidated and tries to avoid it as much as she can.

    1. You found some very good advice. I think a lot of the difficulty comes from focusing on the entire challenge rather than on the first step, the ground directly in front of you.

  8. This is frighteningly close to home for me, very much a core of my issues. Can you recommend further reading? I read your book and have been able to reframe alot of my behaviour, but I must admit that I had looked at time management/avoidance as a defence in this manner. Absolutely on the money Joseph. Many thanks again

    1. I don’t have any suggestions for further reading. I’m sure I read something about this long ago but most of what I’m written comes from my own analysis and work with my clients.

  9. I definitely struggle with time management. I am late for something probably once a day. I am extremely disorganized and feel that I have adult ADD, although I have read your articles skeptical toward traditional, take some pills and be on your way treatment of this condition. For now I am just trying to be organized as best I can and quit procrastinating and leave for things extra early, but it never seems to work very well and I feel embarrassed at my lack of willpower. This article definitely gave me some great food for thought as to why I do this, though. I need to re-examine my superego and my feelings toward endings and towards death.

  10. Thank you for this great post, Dr. Burgo! I wish I had read it while I was a college student. Except for the last year, when I was writing my thesis, I would always delay working on my papers because of perfectionism. Never was I able to just start working on them bit by bit like everybody else, always afraid I would not be able to live up to my own standards. When everybody else backpacked through Asia during the summer break, I would always be home with a deadline looming over my head. How I wish I had made better use of my time…..
    Here is something that really helps me nowadays to start the writing process, it is called “The Cult of Done Manifesto”: http://www.brepettis.com/blog/2009/3/3/the-cult-of-done-manifesto.html
    I have printed out the poster and now it is hanging on the wall next to my desk. Especially n0. 2 “Accept that everything is a draft. It helps to get it done.” and no. 8 “Laugh at perfection. It`s boring and keeps you from being done.” I find very helpful.

  11. Another really great post, many thanks. I have a friend who needed thirty years to finish her PhD, as she had equated the completion of the dissertation with the end of her life. Fortunately, she got help and finished – and her life is continuing quite nicely!

    Like other commenters, this post really resonated with me, and I linked its content with Chapter 10 in your book; the ultimate defense against core shame is to give up before even making the attempt–a sort of existential procrastination. As Sarah H. noted above, the cost to the procrastinator is horrific – it costs them their life itself.

  12. This post was the slap in the face I’ve needed to get out of my own perfectionism/shame cycle prompted recently by a bad review at work. Really appreciate your blog….I’m closing in on full licensure and opening my own practice. And for some reason this post reminded me to “Trust the process” and…myself! No more allowing that pesky voice of perfectionism to keep me paralyzed and thus procrastinating!

  13. Wow! Joseph you are so insightful. This post simply nails me and explains my frozen state. I can understand Anon’s frustration with his therapist. I haven’t encountered anyone with your depth and insight….where are they?

  14. Thanks for your nteresting post J, Major difficulties with time management [constant lateness, procrastination, forgetting appointments, etc] is often part of the adult ADHD syndrome. The book “ADD Friendly Ways to Organize Your Life” by Kathleen Nadeau can be helpful to a skilled reader, particularly if only one chapter is worked on at a time. Dr Bob

  15. Hi!
    Very insightful article.
    I have been having time management problems lately because I have to face situations where I have to be tough and extremely thoughtful whilenegotiating for a certain financial matter. I m constantly afraid that I might not stand up to the situation properly and also afraid that after “losing” a battle I will be all alone and devastated. So I remain reluctant to move on, for both reasons, seems to me that if the timing were different I would be able to consult proffesionals that arent available now and as I face the deadline I become even more undecisive.

    I must stress out that being isolated from family and friends in trying to figure through hard thought and study about the situation -that has been my way since I was a kid-. As I visualize that I “can get out there with an A+, a perfect grade” at the end, pretending that it was just a piece of cake for me, I am also -rather equally- terrified, for both reasons: Afraid to fail, and afraid that failing might make me look and feel undesired by society.
    (usually I m very prompt in meeting deadlines and getting self control but this time I feel that as hard as I try I will NEVER have a carefree period of time again, since whetever I do to face this situation I will definitely fail, I will be deprised of all my spiritual qualities that connected my with people through this “money concerned” situation and that even if I gain financially I will lose spiritually).

  16. This is very interesting. I also have a troubled relationship with time, although slightly different from the ones you mention: whenever I want to start some task, I feel really bad for not having completed it already (even if this isn’t possible at all). This stresses me out and prevents me from concentrating; instead my thoughts go everywhere except the task at hand. In an attempt to feel better, I try to escape from myself and my criticism by indulging in mindless activities, like surfing the internet. Then I feel bad for not having done anything useful and the cycle starts over again. I am always either completely stressed out to the point where I can’t think straight, or trying to escape this feeling by doing nothing at all and passing my time with mindless activities. At work, I cycle through this several times an hour and it prevents me from getting consistent results. Even on weekends, I wake up with the feeling that I slept too long, and the whole day I feel like I am falling behind, while not doing anything. It really drains my energy, so badly that I sometimes have to spend the entire day on the couch. That’s ironic, because I feel like I *should do* and *should have done* so many things… My big fear is not completion, but to leave something incomplete. Even if it is not exactly like what you discuss here, I believe it also has to do with shame and perfectionism.

      1. I think the fear of leaving something incomplete goes back to the perfectionism. There is the perception that if I leave a programming project incomplete, that another may come in behind me and do a poor job completing the project. Rather than risk contributing to an imperfect result, we prefer either end of the two extremes: either full completion, or not starting at all.

        It’s often distressing to me to find prior work that I have not completed. My reaction to this sometimes is to delete the prior efforts and start over from scratch, because if I’ve abandoned an effort prior to completion, I perceive the possibility of having run into a roadblock at the time that prevented the work from achieving perfection, and thus a new approach is merited.

  17. This is really a wonderful article. I love what you say about procrastination being a kind of excuse for the superego. I’ve found this to be exactly the case with me, though I rarely hear people mentioning this phenomenon. I think largely because I see myself as a kind of intellectual (I’m coming to terms with the fact that I might have something of a complex with this) I dread the fact of writing a sub-par paper, short story, etc. My work is never quite as good as I planned and I tend to put the blame on my “demanding” schedule or even that my laziness got in the way.
    What you say about authority also hits the nail on the head. I think deep down I don’t like to be told what to do, which is why I have so much problem with time. Related to this, I think I somewhat fear time because it leads to a kind of compartmentalization that I find distasteful for the creative process. I foolishly think writing should be beyond quotidian concerns. I wonder if these general attitudes of mine have led me to be fascinated by psychoanalysis but made me resistant to CBT and other more “practical” and structured forms of therapy.

    1. That’s a very interesting speculation there at the end. Psychoanalysis can be fascinating and enlightening and utterly useless if it doesn’t lead you to confront the actual choices you make. Insight is great but in the end, you have to challenge your defenses (major theme of my first book).

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