12/28/2010 09:01 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Slow Down: How to Break Free of 'Time Urgency'

You wouldn't want a car that has only one speed. That wouldn't make much sense. But neither does living like there's only one speed of life -- fifth gear. That's the way we're trained to operate, though -- at a nonstop warp factor 9, dictated by the racetrack habit of time urgency, an obsessive concern with time pressure. If you could change one thing in 2011 that could make your life massively better, opting out of chronic hurry-worry would be hard to top.

Every minute of the day is not an emergency, but when you're in time urgent mode all day, your lizard brain thinks it is. This makes time urgency, as the researchers call this little-noticed affliction, a hidden driver of stress -- and a huge factor in everything from heart attacks, to dodgy attention and decisions, to conflicts in your work and personal life, to no personal life at all.

People who feel chronic time pressure and can't stand waiting are twice as likely to have high blood pressure -- even if you're in your thirties, say researchers at Northwestern University. Stephen Cole of Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School linked people with an insistent sense of time urgency and impatience with a "significant" increased risk of coronary heart disease.

Aided and abetted by instant technology, rushing has become the default pace of life, even if there's no reason for it. It's a stampede that sweeps us along like so many thundering wildebeests on an endless sprint to nowhere in particular. We're simply reacting to the herd, instead of making choices that respond to events in the best way. It's a reflex that hypes us into acting before we think.

Constant hurry-worry mode equates commotion with motion, busy-ness with productivity, hyperventilation with importance. The reality, though, is that time urgency is false urgency. Time urgency fuels rushing, and rushing fuels stress. This is the loop we get caught up in at work, and that we take home with us.

Chronic clock-consciousness makes you want to book up every second with something productive, which squeezes out living time. There's no time for an impromptu conversation with a significant other or friend, or give some new activity a try, because there can't be any deviation from mechanical momentum. When time panic is at the controls, you can never be fully available to anyone or any moment. Type As are particularly wracked by time urgency, which can make relationships very difficult. They're usually on their way somewhere other than where you are most of the time, since it's the clock, not the content of what they're doing, that's the priority.

As I detail in "Don't Miss Your Life," my new book on the power of participant experiences, optimal moments and your best times are a function of being fully engaged in what you're doing, of directing attention to the instant of activation, of your thoughts and deeds being one. Time urgency takes you away from the act of living -- and working -- by making the focus the clock and the finish line, after which there is another finish line, and then another. When you're locked in a reflex scramble to get every moment of your life "done" as quickly as possible, it's easy to wind up missing your life.

It's a speed trap. Nonstop motion makes everything appear urgent when you haven't taken the time to think about what is urgent and what isn't. Time panic triggers the stress response, flooding your body with hormones that increase the bad cholesterol and decrease the good and suppress your immune system. Researchers have found that time urgency sets off an emotional chain reaction that increases the risk of heart attacks -- impatience leads to irritability, which leads to anger, which leads to clogged arteries. Hostility is a known accelerator of cardiovascular problems, not to mention mistaken and rash acts, from sending an e-mail to someone who's not supposed to get it, to crazed moves in traffic.

I had a ringside seat to a classic case of the latter the other day. A major freeway was shut down because of an accident, so the traffic had found its way onto the side streets. Sepulveda Boulevard near LAX was a parking lot of frantic, time-urgent motorists, inching about one-car length every 10 minutes. It was painful. The fight-or-flight fuses were down to the nub. Soon some drivers had hit flight stage. A motorist two cars ahead of me decided to pull into the median and do a U-turn to the empty road going in the other direction. At just that instant a Mercedes SUV came roaring up the median and smacked the other driver broadside, narrowly missing me on the rebound. Under the influence of time urgency, the stress response makes you think it's life or death, and that actually can be the case, if you buy the panic.

The baseline of time urgency is a need to control time, but time urgency winds up controlling you. You stress over the elevator that's taking forever, e-mails that don't have to be returned immediately, or you can't relax in a free moment because you're thinking of all the more productive things you should be doing. Rushing is an altered state very similar to drunkenness. The stress it unleashes constricts your brain to decisions based on raw, irrational emotion. You do things in your rushing mind you never would do in your sane mind, like going ballistic at a 10-item-or-less checkout counter when someone goes over the quota: you're ready to jump that granny with the 15 items.

I've found in my coaching and training work that controlling time urgency is one of the most important single ingredients in reducing stress, improving effectiveness, and opening up life outside the job. To turn down the hurry-worry this year, make an effort to catch yourself when you're defaulting to time panic. Watch for some of the clinical tip-offs that you are on the too-fast track -- eating fast, talking fast, being in a general hurry and excessively aware of time, putting words in other people's mouths and feeling chronically impatient and irritable. Slow down the conversation, chew each bite of food thoroughly. What are the physical signs of time urgency -- racing stomach, tightness in the neck? Take a deep breath. Ask, is it an emergency or is it a speed trap?

Wean yourself off clock-checking. Cut it by 50 percent and then cut it some more. You'll be amazed how little you have to know what time it is. And never check a clock when you're late. You can save a lot of angst with this strategy, since no amount of checking is going to make you earlier.

When the fastest track and field champions win a race, they say they relaxed more than the next person. They weren't tight and constricted by hurry-worry. They were focused on each step, their form, not the finish line. The antidote to chronic time urgency is immersing into the experience of where you are.

Joe Robinson is author of the new book "Don't Miss Your Life," on the science, skills and spirit of full-tilt living. He is founder of Work to Live, and is a work-life balance and stress management trainer and coach.