Why you lose track of time at the end of the year

At the end of the year, life can feel extra chaotic. Granted *gestures to everything* – e.g. covid-19, respiratory syncytial virus, the holidays, completing tasks at work, and more—you may feel extra close (or far away) from your calendar. Maybe you have to keep checking what day it is, or maybe you were in a rush to buy gifts because November and December slipped away from you.

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

You are too busy

First, all the tasks you have are enough to mix up your days and make life feel hectic. In addition, society’s “busy culture”—and potentially your sense of FOMO—can amplify the pressure you feel to cross off a large number of items on your to-do list.

“Because American culture tends to focus on productivity, results and achievement, a person can find themselves losing track of time – days, weeks, months and years – trying to achieve everything,” said Debra Kawaharaassociate dean for academic affairs at Alliant International University’s California School of Professional Psychology.

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

You feel the Christmas pressure

In addition to everything that needs to be done, many people feel social 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’ve 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 has heard about pressures related to cooking, gift-giving, family obligations, travel, work projects and more.

With all these expectations, you have less mental space to keep up with small details, such as the date. “All this extra stress causes our brains and bodies to become overwhelmed and often not think as clearly,” said Jessica Cisneros, chief clinical officer at Family Houston nonprofit organization in Texas. “The tasks start to run together, and we can become more forgetful. Time begins to pass quickly. And often tasks are not met with desirable results, which makes us feel discouraged and hopeless.”

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

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 are out of your routine and feel insecure

Your schedule may look a lot different than usual at this time of year. As a result, the day of the week may not be as clear. (For example, you might 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. “Rejecting what day or even time of day it is can be a wonderful break from this and a sign of ‘switching off’.”

On the more stressful side, you may have thoughts about the coming year in the back of your mind – which gives extra uncertainty and routine-related worries. “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 can find the end of the year 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 that the sun basically doesn’t exist after 4:30pm in many areas, making the day feel over when it isn’t. This can also speed up your sense of time and confuse your calendar.

“Our bodies enjoy the internal clock we have set with the rising and setting of the sun. But when this is disrupted in the winter months, we get stuck and have an innate and primal sense that it’s time to settle down, Opland said.

Your depression or grief is messing with you

As happy as the holidays can be, they can also come with feelings of sadness. You can be grieving a family member or suffering from seasonal depressionamong other factors that can feel all-encompassing or overwhelming.

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

There are some benefits to allowing yourself to lose track of time, especially right now.
There are some benefits to allowing yourself to 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 aware, the person may also not be aware of how it is problematic for themselves and/or others,” Kawahara said, adding that this can further compound your difficulties.

However, the short answer is that it is generally something to work on – especially if it will help you feel better in the long term or solve any immediate problems. According to Opland and Cisneros, problematic circumstances you may encounter include falling at work, missing meetings, losing sleep, not being able to start or finish tasks, and feeling irritable, anxious, or depressed.

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

How to get back on track

If you want to avoid the problems that come with losing track of the days—rushing to buy gifts, missing deadlines, that sort of thing—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 can 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 to focus on one task at a time, establish a routine, realize that not everything will go as planned, and remember to relax here and there. Kawahara recommended making a schedule, set alarms for your to-dos, and create 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 cooler weather)take a warm bath, read a good book, speak it out and get enough sleep.

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

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

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