The Productivity Paradox: How to Be Highly Productive Without Being Overwhelmed by Anxiety

Everyone has unique needs, wants, dreams, and desires, which is to say, we all want to realize our potential and live the life we imagine. For example, I want to reach a wider audience with my writing, build stronger relationships with my partner and her kids, and live overseas someday.

But obstacles stand in our way. To realize our dreams, we need to put in the effort.

If we’re too ambitious, we can feel overwhelmed and anxious, worrying about how we’ll get everything done. If we’re not ambitious enough, we can become underwhelmed and anxious, even depressed, fearing we may not live up to our potential.

Couple this with a culture that equates work with social status and self-worth, and it’s easy to see why so many are preoccupied with getting things done. When dreams, social standing, and personal value tie into output, we think working harder is the only solution.

Productivity anxiety is crushing, and it affects everyone.

Laine Fullerton of A Girl in Progress sums up this phenomenon brilliantly: Productivity anxiety is “a feeling that you are never doing enough. No matter how many hours you work or how much you get done, you never truly feel satisfied with your achievements because there is always more to do.”

The problem is not how much we’re doing but our feverish relationship with getting things done. Since work is good for us, we think more is better and don’t know when to stop.

So what do we do?

Work Life Harmony Is Nuanced

It is imperative that we find the middle ground between living and working, being and doing.

The conversation around work tends to be black-and-white—you either work to live or live to work. Yet complex topics like these are seldom straightforward.

If you work to live, you may care for your current needs while neglecting your longer-term desires. And if you live to work, you may take care of your longer-term desires while neglecting your everyday needs.

I was in the “work to live” camp, but now I see value in both. Let me explainIn my 20s, I hated work ad fantasized about financial freedom and early retirement. My jobs were misaligned and unfulfilling because I didn’t know who I was, what I wanted, or what I valued.

Today, I work on things that are interesting and that I'm good at. Work now feels less like work and more like an opportunity to realize my potential while helping people along the way. Of course, there are times I don’t want to work. But I understand the work I do is intrinsically satisfying and enables good things in my life, including, if nothing else, appreciating and savoring non-working time.

I also believe it’s natural for work and life to be out of balance sometimes because life is continually changing. There are days I work late into the evening in order to send my weekly newsletter on time. Or times when I work every day for weeks because I’m excited about a new project.

One of my teachers, Gil Fronsdal, once commented that he sacrifices some mindfulness for essential projects like writing a book. Hearing this from a well-known meditation teacher was eye-opening.

Productivity Paradox: Harnessing the Power of Anxiety Without Becoming Anxious

Anxiety gets a bad rap. You would, too, if you were the number one source of emotional illness worldwide. A third of Americans will suffer some form of anxiety, including productivity anxiety, in their lifetime.

Anxiety is a complex emotion whose causes include past experiences such as abuse or neglect, such adverse circumstances as money problems or being out of work, health problems like chronic fatigue or diabetes, and even some forms of medication. Challenges like these can affect our quality of life and performance and may require professional help.

Yet not all anxiety is bad. Some stress helps us get things done.

Psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dodson discovered that physiological or mental excitement improves performance up to a point (Yerkes-Dodson law). Beyond that point, however, over-stimulation results in reduced cognitive performance and decreased productivity, as explained in this video from Harvard Business Review.

The takeaway is to have enough arousal to make meaningful progress on your long-term intentions but not so much that it impacts your quality of life or your ability to get things done.

Following are some common signs of productivity anxiety. Can you relate to any of these? I know I can.

Tightness around the eyes, a furrowed brow, clenched jaw, forward head, rigid neck muscles, raised shoulders, holding the breath, shallow breathing, dry mouth, tightness in the belly or abdomen, contraction in the hips, tension in the feet, difficulty falling or staying asleep, pneumonia, even death (what the Japanese call Karoshi, or death by overwork).

Thoughts and related feelings:
I never have enough time to do everything. > overwhelmed, stressed, pressured
All I do is work; I have no work/life balance. > exhausted, burned out, resentful
What will my manager and co-workers think of me if I take time off? > apprehensive, uneasy, worried
I don’t know what to do with myself if I’m not busy. > restless, bored, fidgety
I should be doing more. > guilty, insecure, doubtful
I can never make it through my to-do list because I just can’t get it together. > ashamed, embarrassed, apologetic

Internal pressures like these can give rise to unrelenting expectations and monitoring how well we meet our own standards. Chronic tension, thoughts, and feelings may go unnoticed. But with curiosity, awareness, and self-compassion, we can change our habitual patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving and discover how to relate to work in a new and wiser way.

“i have this productivity anxiety

that everyone else is working harder than me

and i’m going to be left behind

cause i’m not working fast enough

long enough 

and i’m wasting my time - Rupi Kaur

What Causes Productivity Anxiety and What Can You Do About It

In a Fast New World that celebrates entrepreneurial hustle, sacrificing present well-being for future fulfillment is easy. How do we do the satisfying and freeing things, such as becoming financially independent, writing a book, or raising mature, responsible children, withou making ourselves miserable?

“Choose any American at random," Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America, “and he should be a man of burning desires, enterprising, adventurous, and above all an innovator.”

If we focus too much on the future while neglecting the present, we may realize our dreams but miss the joy of the journey itself. Worse, we may create a life we didn’t even want. So what are we to do?

Answer: you need a strategy allowing you to deliberately “plan your work and work your plan.” A good strategy for dealing with productivity anxiety includes: a) How to make steady progress on the things you care about deeply and b) How to care for your physical, emotional, and spiritual needs along the way.

Developing a specific plan for when, where, and how you will do the essential things will dramatically increase the odds of getting what you want while enjoying the ride. For some, not hating the process would be a great start.

Our ultimate aim is to have a healthy and holistic relationship with and balance between doing and being. That means balancing working with living, or what Jeff Bezos referred to as work/life harmony and Steven Covey referred to as P/PC Balance (Production/Production Capability).

Finding harmony is a process, an ongoing practice of what we do with our intention and attention, not a one-time event.

Part I: Make Progress on the Things That Matter by Removing Obstacles

The first part of our strategy is how to make steady progress on meaningful work. Can we do more within the same time or even less? Following are some common obstacles to getting things done and how to deal with them:

Too much complexity. Complexity is one of the most significant barriers to productivity. Just look at bureaucracies.

The solution is to reduce or remove friction. For example, I used to wait until the last hour to buy birthday cards, which was stressful. Now I purchase cards in bulk, so I’m always prepared for any occasion—graduation, baby shower, wedding, anniversary, Mother’s day, Father’s day—without added stress.  

Want to drink more water? Fill a pitcher of water in the morning and use it to refill your glass throughout the day. Want to get more work done? Remove distractions by preparing the next day’s to-dos the night before, putting your phone in a different room, closing all unused tabs on your browser, avoiding email before noon, and clearing off your desk except for your computer and a pen.

As Einstein remarked, “Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Where can you remove friction between you and your dreams?

“Maybe we are less than our dreams, but that less would make us more than some gods would dream of.” ― Corita Kent

Chaotic work environment. Being disorganized causes us to feel overwhelmed and anxious. When we’re organized, we feel empowered and at ease. While many systems exist for structuring work, I recently started using Tiago Forte’s PARA method. PARA is a way to organize information that stands for Projects—Areas—Resources—Archives so you can get more done.

A streamlined workflow—from capturing ideas and organizing projects to accessing resources and archiving documents—helps me do more with less effort because the path to productivity is more straightforward. Once you start using it, you’ll wonder why you didn’t think of it.

Seeking immediate gratification. I used to delude myself that starting the day with manageable tasks would get them out of the way so I could focus on the things that would move my dreams forward. But more often than not, I got hooked on the easy stuff, which led to easier stuff, preventing me from getting to the things that mattered.

When my mind is most alert in the morning, I work on the most painful projects and save the most straightforward stuff for later (or never). Doing satisfying things offering future fulfillment allows you to feel good about yourself no matter how much else you get done the rest of the day.

Lack of clear boundaries. Without boundaries, we tend to get angry and resentful because we say yes to what we don’t want to do. For example, I used to allow morning meetings, which prevented me from doing deep work. Now I schedule appointments in the afternoon to spend my mornings working on the important stuff.

Another effective boundary is time chunking. Time chunking is when you time-limit tasks. I allow enough time for each job, but not so much that I don’t get to all of them. Putting tasks into a calendar lets me see what is to be done and how much time is available.

Part II: Take Care of Yourself While Taking Care of Your Work

The other half of your productivity anxiety plan looks after your well-being by caring for your physical, mental, and emotional needs. Here are some effective strategies for providing for your wellness while you work.

Strive for excellence, not perfection. As an optimist and recovering perfectionist, I’m continually striving to be excellent, or even impeccable, without being perfectionistic. Perfectionism, fueled by shame, causes us to set unrealistic expectations, setting off a chain reaction of feeling hurried and pressured, missing deadlines, and never feeling like we’re enough.

What would happen if you allowed for good enough instead of “perfect”? Will you, yourself, be good enough?  Dissolving perfectionism requires starting small. For example, if you habitually perfect your emails before sending them, try sending a good enough email and then notice how it feels. You may feel nervous, but what’s the worst that can happen?

When you allow yourself to be imperfect, people will not reject you and will like you more because you are more authentic, relatable, and human. You also permit them to be human too.

Let go of comparing mind. In a world of media, social media, and rising perfectionism, it’s easy to get caught in comparing mind, but comparing ourselves to others takes a devilish toll on our psyche.

“For our crazy American lifestyle to work, everybody needs to feel that they are on their way to fame and fortune. Leisure doesn’t fit with such a notion, so the hours worked have become a competitive index of how important we are in the social hierarchy. We don’t live in luxury, we aren’t celebrities, we can’t measure the bills that we pass, but we can measure the number of hours we work. That’s our score card.” - Anna, congressional manager

One way to curb this tendency is to make a wholesale comparison of your entire life to theirs rather than focusing on the one aspect you envy. For example, would you be willing to trade your whole life for your neighbor’s, including her loveless marriage, estranged son, and plastic surgery that didn’t go so well? In this context, her gorgeous hair or glamorous job may not appeal.

Take frequent breaks. Years ago, I hired someone to build a website for me, who also happened to be my yoga instructor. Peter would get up from his seat every thirty minutes and announce, “Time for a break.” Then he’d stretch and make tea. At first, I thought he was crazy (and lazy). How can you accomplish anything if you take a break every thirty minutes?  

Today, I can’t imagine not taking regular breaks. I work for 30 minutes and then spend five minutes doing exercises and stretches, which is one of the reasons I no longer experience chronic bodily pain.

I also take moments to radically slow down (when I remember), allowing the mind to decompress from all the cognitive work vital to reducing anxiety and improving our quality of life. A workday, and workweek, are less like a sprint and more like a marathon.

Give up anxiety addiction. I’m hooked on anxiety’s false sense of aliveness, a stress addict who gets off on being hyper-vigilant and riding the dopamine superhighway. It can be hard to see how fast I’m moving when I live this way because I have no reference point.

“When bombarded with novel stimuli, the dopamine system maintains the brain on high alert. It is this vigilance that is experienced as an exciting rush, the subjective sense of pleasure that can drive people to accelerate their daily activity to the point of exhaustion.” - Peter C. Whybrow

In the same way that putting a stick vertically into a mountain stream reveals how fast the stream is moving, following the breath in meditation, for example, provides a reference point for how quickly the mind is racing. Can we be alert yet relaxed? Sometimes slowing down helps us speed up.

Here’s what I have found to reduce anxiety and create more ease:

Get sufficient sleep. Even modest reductions in sleep can contribute to anxiety. While we can’t control how much sleep we get, we can maintain the conditions that promote sufficient sleep, which is at least seven hours for me.

Pay attention. Research shows that attention to our actions helps center and focus the mind, reducing anxiety. Cultivating awareness is a daily practice, not a one-time event.

Breathe through your nose. For the past nine months, I’ve been practicing breathing through my nose, day and night. Breathing through the nose offers many benefits, including extracting more oxygen from the air, reducing periodontal disease, and less stress on the body. In my experience, I also feel more grounded, calm, and peaceful, similar to meditation.

“Specifically, slower [nose] breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system, reducing anxiety and signaling the body to calm down,” says Ann Dutton, director of the Yale Stress Center mindfulness education program.

Do one thing at a time. While doing multiple tasks at once can feel enlivening, we all know by now that multitasking is an illusion. Not only is it unproductive, but worse, multitasking generates stress. Doing one task at a time allows the mind to stay focused, which helps minimize stress and anxiety.

Surrender to the outcome. Despite our ambition, even if we commit to working hard on our ideas, we can only control our actions, not the results of our efforts. We either get the contract, or we don’t. People buy our music, or they don’t. We climb the mountain, or we don’t. But chasing goals we hadn’t thought through and buying things we don’t need, and acknowledging that doesn’t mean we don’t try. task is to show up, do the work, and let go, trusting that the universe or God will take care of the rest. How people respond to our offering is not within our control.

"Proficiency and the results of proficiency come only to those who have learned the paradoxical art of doing and not doing, of combining relaxation with activity, of letting go as a person..." - Aldous Huxley

Check out this article for additional tips on managing anxiety, including statements we can say to ourselves to bring about a sense of calm.

Harmonize Doing With Being

In the excitement of striving and the competitive scramble to succeed, the temptation is to speed up and overreach. Such frenetic activity is initially compelling, even intoxicating, but frenzied engagement is unsustainable and ultimately empty.

Finding balance is a matter of personal honesty, and everyone has to figure it out for themselves. But some people have never learned how to shut the thing off. It can be painful to look back and realize we’re hooked.

Are you honest with yourself, how you’re living, and whether you’re engaging the world on your terms and in your own time? Are you mortgaging the present to the future? What is your shut-off system so you can play the game of life without getting hooked?

It may be difficult, but harmony is essential to find meaning and personal fulfillment in our anxious modern world.