If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of your teen snapping, “Stop nagging me!” or “You’re going to be late!” or if you've watched your teen unravel under the stress of having too much on their plate, you have witnessed “time management anxiety” in action.
In our pressured, distractible, and overstimulating world, completing tasks requires a unique interplay between our rational and emotional minds. From a brain wiring standpoint, time management is innately more difficult for some people than for others. Executive functioning—planning, organizing, and executing tasks in a timely manner—is a developmentally neurological process. However, there is a strong emotional component that complicates the process—anxiety!
Teens are especially challenged when it comes to managing time and anxiety. I’ve mediated countless arguments between parents and teens whose time management anxiety modes clash. If you have conflicts with your teen about time, before you offer them well-intended strategies and swoop in to rescue them, start by validating the underlying anxieties at the source of their time challenges. Research shows that the mere labeling of emotions helps to manage them.
To help you understand the emotional roots of your teen’s time management, I’ve outlined five common time management anxiety modes that I see in my practice.
5 Time Management Anxiety Modes
As a recovering procrastinator, I have a soft spot for students who treat tomorrow like a miraculous cure-all. During adolescence, I mastered the art of dreading and avoiding a task until my internal desperation became too intolerable to bear. If your teen puts things off, they’re probably doing it to avoid feeling inadequate.
While they’re fully aware that they’re delaying, they may not realize that they’re doing it to protect themselves from painful feelings. Procrastination feels bad, but inadequacy and incompetence feel worse. The closer their deadline gets, the more shame they feel.
2. Adrenaline Surfer (Cousin of the Procrastinator)
If your teen always waits until the absolutely very, very last minute to work on things, they may need the physiological and neurological excitement of adrenaline to propel them forward. Like an athlete before a game or a performer before a show, nervous energy motivates them. They may have shame about feeling lazy because they have so much trouble getting things done without external pressure.
3. Early Bird (aka Adrenaline Avoider)
Early Birds complete assignments days before they're due and arrive early for appointments. The adrenaline rush of deadlines and time pressures are unbearable for them. They do everything in their power to avoid them. The mere thought of staying up the night before a deadline, running through the airport to catch a plane, or not being seated well before the bell rings gives them anxiety.
Does your teen underestimate how long tasks will take and then feel surprised by the overwhelm they experience? Do they make statements like, “This wasn’t supposed to take this long!” When your teen feels perpetually stressed because they can’t finish everything on time, they also feel powerless, victimized by their own to-do lists, and the to-do’s other people impose on them. They lack trust in their ability to complete tasks, and in the internal gauge that tells them what is manageable and what’s too much.
If your teen is spending too much time working on projects until they’re “perfect,” they are relying heavily on the approval of others to feel good about themselves. "Enough" is not part of their vocabulary, but “more,” “better,” and “improve” are. They have a hard time knowing when a task is complete.
Driven by fear, they try to preempt criticism by poking holes in their projects before someone else does. Being over-prepared is a way for them to feel in control and manage their anxiety. Like the Early Bird, they don’t work well under pressure.
How to Help Your Teen With Time Management Anxiety
Once you recognize how time management anxiety is manifesting for your teen, you’ll be able to guide them to identify their feelings, which will help them manage their time. Below are some useful questions to ask your teen, depending on their mode:
When you think about what needs to be done, how do you feel? What happens if you imagine yourself excelling at whatever you’re putting off?
2. Adrenaline Surfer
When is the rush you get from deadlines helpful and motivating? When is it too much or paralyzing?
3. Early Bird
What would it feel like to give yourself room to enjoy the process? How could you slow down and still have enough time?
How long did a similar task take last time? How is this similar or different?
How possible do you think it is for a person to be perfect? How do you know when you’ve done enough?
If none of these questions feel like a fit, simply ask, “What are you worried about? What is your greatest fear?” Nonjudgmentally naming it will help them contain, manage, and tolerate it. Most importantly, it will help them know themselves better.