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Fight Or Flight? How To Channel Your Work Anxiety Productively

Work anxiety tips to help productivity

Is this you? It’s 4pm and you know that you’ve got too many projects to complete before the end of the day.

The National Institute of Health approximates that nearly 40 million adults in the US are affected by anxiety. Work culture seems to be especially tough on people. Research from the Anxiety and Depression Society of America claims that 56% of anxiety sufferers deal specifically with performance anxiety at work.

That’s right—there’s a 50-50 chance your never-bats-an-eye boss is feeling the work anxiety crunch too.

Anxiety exists on an emotional spectrum. At one end of the spectrum you have low-level emotional disquiet. For example, you’ve got a big client pitch coming up, or your car is making a strange sound and you don’t have the money to fix whatever is causing it.

At the other end of the anxiety spectrum is an acute white-knuckle panic: There’s literally a bear in your yard, your house is on fire, that sort of thing.

When you experience acute panic, your adrenal glands dump cortisol and adrenaline into our system, causing your blood pressure to surge and your heart to race. This energy surge enables you to (hopefully) escape from the bear's attack. Without this "fight or flight" response mechanism, you would die.

But when your body reacts with ‘bear in yard’ levels of anxiety to "client pitch"-sized problems, anxiety stops being useful.

Work Anxiety vs. Stress

Anxiety isn’t the same as stress, but they are related. Stress is a response to direct external stimuli that goes away when you tackle the problem. But unlike stress, anxiety is impressively self-sufficient. It can happily exist all on its own, like a delicate snowflake of existential dread that won’t melt when the sun comes out.

If you feel intense relief after finishing that client pitch, that’s workplace stress saying goodbye after doing its job. If, however, you feel constant, residual dread when thinking about work, then that’s workplace anxiety stubbornly refusing to take a day off.

Living with a residual feeling of dread takes effort. It’s like having two jobs. And anyone who’s worked two jobs knows that performance and productivity always take a hit.

Nature has programmed us to want to feel productive because it’s been our biological imperative for so long. In early human societies, unproductive people just died. Resource scarcity is an existential threat, and anxiety around it is an evolutionary relic of tougher times. But our nervous systems haven’t figured that out yet.

But when your body reacts with ‘bear in yard’ levels of anxiety to "client pitch"-sized problems, anxiety stops being useful.

The anxiety wears you out, and your productivity drops lower. You punish yourself for your lack of output with an anxious response, then you rinse and repeat.

6 Theories For Overcoming Work Anxiety

Theories to help overcome work anxiety

Here is a roundup of differing ideas about how to channel your anxiety. Find one that works for you:

Don’t Calm Down

You might think the natural response to performance anxiety at work is to take some deep breaths, find a quiet spot, and gather your thoughts.

Alison Wood Brooks of Harvard Business School disagrees. She advocates “anxious reappraisal.” Instead of trying to calm your way out of anxiety, reframe the feelings as excitement and convert performance-related anxiety into goal-busting arousal congruency—a fancy term for channeling that sense of adrenaline that comes from high-anxiety situations into a positive effort, rather than simply trying to “keep calm and carry on” when it doesn’t feel right.

The crucial part is to simply accept you are anxious. It’s easy to waste time and energy trying to fight anxiety on all fronts. So don’t do it.

Curb Analysis Paralysis

Anxious people are all too familiar with the lethargy-inducing hassle that comes with having to make lots of decisions. Combating decision fatigue takes more than just wearing the same outfit every day, like Barack Obama and Mark Zuckerberg do. You have a limited amount of willpower each day, so you need to treat your decision-making moments carefully.

Competing priorities and a lack of goal setting will eventually lead to decision fatigue in your working life. As the Harvard Business Review points out, multi-tasking robs you of clear stopping points. Those are crucial to the anxious person’s sense of accomplishment.

Instead, use your anxiety to access feelings of accomplishment. If you use Trello, rather than creating a card or checklist that reads ‘finish article,’ break it down into micro-tasks.

Trello checklists manage tasks productivelyCommit to writing the first 300 words.

Checking off that item is a win and, psychologically, small achievements lead to bigger ones.

Tim Ferriss recommends going further to manage anxiety-induced low productivity. Set aside three hours to complete one small task, even if that means putting off other urgent tasks. Taking your time to get one thing off your plate is surely better than fumbling through three important tasks and completing none.

Treat Your Productivity Like An Anxiety Barometer

Research conducted at Missouri University of Science and Technology suggests that fluctuations in focus can be an early warning sign of impending anxiety. If you switch between tasks, seek distraction and avoid addressing your goals, it could signal the beginnings of an anxiety episode. 

Closely monitor productivity fluctuations and you’ll essentially have an anxiety early warning system. If you regularly beat yourself up for not doing enough then it’s very easy to miss your daily achievements. Remember that it’s not always about what you didn’t do.

Trello labels to help work anxietyYou can even label your Trello cards to document how tasks make you feel. Record fluctuations in motivation and mood. This will help you spot goal-related triggers and clarify where work-related anxiety comes from.

Is it a specific type of task? Is it a specific client? Is it deadline related? This technique will build a clearer picture of patterns that can trigger feeling overwhelmed. Once you know what moves the anxiety needle up past 11, you can plan your work accordingly.

Go Off The Grid

Nomophobia is the fear of being without a connected device. According to Scientific American, nomophobia arises according to “the degree to which we depend on phones to complete basic tasks and to fulfill important needs such as learning, safety and staying connected to information and to others.”

The need to be constantly connected to information can skew priorities. In a recent study by a London shipping and logistics firm, data scientists analyzed the most common Google searches related to popular tourist destinations around the world. The most common search was ‘Does ______ have WiFi?’ This even applied to searches related to zoos and beauty spots.

Your productivity should not depend on your ability to get online. In fact, by disconnecting, you remove a number of barriers to productivity. You can say goodbye to browser tab overload, for a start. In fact, as Claire Karjalainen points out in this piece about airplane productivity, productive people actively seek out no WiFi zones. Author and founder of HARO Pete Shankman booked a return flight to Tokyo with the sole intent of writing a book distraction free.

Screengrab important information and put any data you need in a text doc, then disconnect from the WiFi and watch your output levels spike.

Demand Feedback

If your anxiety spikes when you’re unclear of your goal, demanding high quality feedback is important. Repeatedly trying to clarify action points can not only hamper productivity, it can make less assertive people feel burdensome to clients.

Research conducted by Approve.io, a rapid feedback tool for freelancers working remotely, revealed that feedback without clear and specific action points can lead to anxiety.

Organizational psychologist Professor Sir Cary Cooper, who contributed to the study, believes meaningful feedback is the key to reducing productivity-related anxiety. He writes,

“The physical isolation freelancers experience from their clients means it’s often a lot harder to get meaningful, actionable feedback on projects. Feedback and requests by email may not be sufficiently clear.

Lack of clarity from clients can lead to stress for the supplier, especially if they’re worried about bothering their client with requests for feedback or elaborations.”

He recommends regularly scheduled face-to-face meetings, in-person or over video, to keep the feedback loop on scheduleand keep that unnecessary anxiety at bay. 

Remember To Go Easy On Yourself

Forgive yourself, if necessary. And remember that productivity doesn’t equal performance.

None of the techniques above will have an impact unless you’re ready to stop punishing yourself today for how your anxiety affects productivity. It’s unlikely you’ll ever completely stop those stomach knots appearing from nowhere, so don’t waste precious energy trying. Instead, use that energy achieve small wins and incremental gains that feed a sense of accomplishment and progress.

Next:  Tales Of Job Burnout: How To Fix The Aftermath Of An Overachiever Attitude