Why You Lose Track Of Time At The End Of The Year

At the end of the year, life may feel extra chaotic. Given *gestures at everything* — e.g., COVID-19, respiratory syncytial virus, the holiday season, finishing up tasks at work and more — you might feel extra close to (or far away from) your calendar. Perhaps you have to keep checking what day it is, or maybe you found yourself in a rush to buy presents because November and December slipped away from you.

In any case, why can the end of the year mess with even the most organized people? Here are a few explanations for why time feels like a black hole right now:

You’re Overly Busy

First, all the tasks you have are enough to mix up your days and make life feel hectic. Plus, our society’s “hustle culture” — and potentially your sense of FOMO — can exacerbate the pressure you feel to tick off a huge number of items on your to-do list.

“Because the U.S. culture tends to focus on productivity, outcomes and achievements, an individual can find themselves losing track of time — days, weeks, months and years — to try to achieve it all,” said Debra Kawahara, the associate dean of academic affairs at Alliant International University’s California School of Professional Psychology.

“This can become even more pronounced at the end of the year, when the person’s energy and attention are pulled in many different directions from work, home, family, friends, holidays and other activities.”

You’re Feeling The Holiday Pressures

In addition to all that needs to be done, many people feel societal pressure at this time of year. Maybe both your mom and your spouse’s mom want to see you, the kids have holiday events, or your grandma is sick and you need to visit her. Even thinking about all of this can be exhausting, and you wouldn’t be alone in feeling that way.

“I have seen more clients come to me during the holiday and winter seasons due to increased stress,” said Caitlin Opland, a licensed clinical social worker with Thriveworks in Loveland, Colorado, who specializes in stress, anxiety and relationships. She’s heard about pressure related to meal preparation, gift-giving, family obligations, travel, work projects and more.

With all those expectations, you have less mental space to keep up with small details, such as the date. “All of this extra stress causes our brains and body to become overwhelmed and often not think as clearly,” said Jessica Cisneros, the chief clinical officer at the Family Houston nonprofit in Texas. “Tasks start to run together, and we can become more forgetful. Time begins to go by rapidly. And often, tasks are not met with desirable outcomes, leaving us feeling discouraged and hopeless.”

Petko Ninov via Getty Images

Disruptions to a regular routine can throw off your perception of time — but that’s not always a bad thing.

You’re Out Of Your Routine And Feel Uncertain

Your schedule may look a lot different than usual during this time of year. As a result, the day of the week might not be as immediately obvious. (For example, you may not be able to say, “I went to Zumba last night, so today is Tuesday.”)

And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. “Many of our everyday lives are dictated by the life structures imposed on us by work and other commitments,” said Ali Ross, a psychotherapist and spokesperson for the London-based UK Council for Psychotherapy. “Discarding what day or even time of day it is can be a lovely break from this and a sign of ‘switching off.’”

On the more stressful side, you might have thoughts about the coming year in the back of your mind — which bring extra uncertainty and routine-related concerns. “The new year is an ambiguous time with new experiences ahead,” said Miriam Davis, a clinical director at Newport Healthcare in Virginia. “People who struggle with change might find the year’s end overwhelming and scary.” It’s a lot to think about, to say the least.

The Days Are Shorter

It’s hard to ignore the fact the sun basically is nonexistent after 4:30 p.m. in many areas, making the day feel over when it’s not. This can also speed up your sense of time and confuse your calendar.

“Our bodies enjoy the internal clock we have set with the rise and set of the sun. But when this is disrupted during the winter months, we get bogged down and have an innate and primal sense that it is time to settle our minds,” Opland said.

Your Depression Or Grief Is Messing With You

As happy as the holidays can be, they can come with feelings of sadness, too. You might be grieving a family member or struggling with seasonal depression, among other factors that can feel all-encompassing or overwhelming.

“People who struggle with depression can find that their symptoms worsen around the holiday season, which can cause the end of the year to feel like a blur of emotions and lost sense of time,” Davis said.

There are some benefits to letting yourself lose track of time, especially right now.
There are some benefits to letting yourself lose track of time, especially right now.

Is This A Problem To Worry About?

First, it’s great that you’re thinking about this. “If the person is not paying attention, the person may also not be aware of how it is problematic to themselves and/or to others,” Kawahara said, adding that this can further compound your difficulties.

The short answer, though, is it’s generally something to work on — especially if doing so will help you feel better in the long term or resolve any immediate issues. According to Opland and Cisneros, problematic circumstances you might face include falling behind at work, missing meetings, losing sleep, being unable to start or finish tasks, and feeling irritable, anxious or depressed.

However, you may want to be mindful of the positives as well. Losing track of time or changing a routine “takes us out of our ‘everyday’ and offers us a wider life perspective,” Ross said. If you experience a “rude awakening” or “crisis of self” as a result, that could ultimately be a good thing, she added. For example, you may gain a new appreciation for the importance of seeing family and not working too hard.

How To Get Back On Track

If you’d like to avoid the issues that come with losing track of the days — rushing to buy presents, missing deadlines, those kinds of things — what can you do?

Ross said you should consider why staying on track is so important to you (especially if it doesn’t cause you any problems). Does it help you take care of yourself, or would more flexibility be beneficial? If it’s stressing you out, she continued, talking about it with a therapist might help.

If you need to get back on track, Opland suggested setting realistic goals, finding an accountability partner, and giving yourself grace through breathing exercises and positive self-talk.

Cisneros said to try focusing on one task at a time, establishing a routine, realizing not everything will go as planned, and remembering to relax here and there. Kawahara recommended creating a schedule, setting alarms for your to-do items, and creating a timeline for tasks based on how intensive and important they are.

Davis shared some examples of self-care activities, such as going on a “hot girl walk” (yes, even in the cooler weather), taking a hot bath, reading a good book, talking it out and getting enough sleep.

And remember that taking breaks is more beneficial than you may realize — even for your productivity. “Research has shown that productivity declines after a certain point, and a break may actually make someone more productive than if the person works continuously,” Kawahara said.

Ultimately, do your best and practice self-compassion. “This is a hard time of year, and you may be your worst critic,” Opland said. “However, you can also be your greatest strength.”