Time: The Fundamental Stressor

Deadlines abound in work and life. Some reasonable, some arbitrary; some set for us, some self-imposed. Regardless of where they came from and how they came to be, they can induce an incredible amount of anxiety.

In fact, time is found at the root of most anxiety. We might attribute stress to a missing skill — something key to some project or task — but given a comfortable amount of time we can often overcome gaps in talent to achieve our goals. The pressure that one might feel to be a sufficiently attentive parent stems from a challenge of balancing our time between family, career, and other responsibilities. Even in something as frightful as death, we can attribute much of its menace to a worry that we won’t have had sufficient time to be with our loved ones or accomplish our goals.

Stress amounts to an unwillingness to compromise with reality. The passage of time is inevitable but we fail to acknowledge that our perception of it is imperfect. We are terrible estimators. We are overly optimistic in our ability to deliver. We discount the impact of risk and volatility. We fall prey to the allure of complexity.

These handicaps all impair our ability to establish realistic expectations. And to live in a world of unrealistic expectations is to live in an world of impossible demands. It is invariably stressful.

So, how do we turn this world on its head? To reduce stress, we must eliminate impossible demands. To eliminate impossible demands we must work to establish realistic expectations.

To do this, we don’t need to become better estimators. We don’t need actuarial superpowers. We just need to plan, communicate, and keep it real.


Step back, take a breath, and make a plan. Having a plan provides you with a concrete path forward. It eliminates ambiguity and minimizes the time that you might otherwise spend hemming and hawing over what to do next.

  • Break your project down into a flat, digestible list.
  • Prioritize the list.
  • Identify a minimum viable deliverable: Beginning with the lowest priority items, strike everything but the bare essentials.
  • Tackle the items in order, beginning with the highest priority item.


Throughout the planning process and while we’re executing our plan it’s essential to communicate.

  • Planning and prioritization can be a daunting task, especially when your project’s requirements are volatile. So, don’t hesitate to seek out help in your planning. Simply gaining validation for a plan can be a significant stress reliever.
  • Advertise your status. Broadcast it early and often. Don’t wait to be asked. Regular and frequent communication leaves no room for uncertainty in your progress. It allows stakeholders to anticipate and adjust accordingly. It also gives them the insight necessary to supplement or support the project as it progresses.

Keep it real

It’s essential to focus on practicality. Remember, that we’re trying to establish realistic expectations.

  • What is the minimum viable deliverable to achieve your goal? Identify it in your planning and mark it as your target.
  • As the saying goes, “perfect is the enemy of the good”. We often wield perfectionism as an excuse in the struggle to deliver. It’s OK to deliver with a few blemishes, particularly when you’re operating in iterative production scenarios. Work with your stakeholders (communicate!) to establish a realistic benchmark for quality.
  • Be honest with yourself. Step back and introspect. Self-awareness is crucial in eliminating stressors. What aspects of a deadline cause you the most stress? Is it a particular unknown? A missing piece of the puzzle? A requirement that’s too ambiguous? When you pinpoint problem areas, focus your planning and communication around mitigating them.

When it comes to stress, your feelings are real but the agitators behind them might not be. If we can just establish realistic expectations, we can ground our burdens. It allows us to take control of a situation and bring balance to something that might otherwise feel insurmountable.

Photo: “Stopwatch” by William Warby / CC BY 2.0


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