Managing “Productivity Anxiety”


“Are my issues too small?” asked James, a recent coaching client.

He was unsure if he was making the most of our session by discussing the household tasks filling up his to-do list.

It didn’t take but a few seconds for him to answer his own question. Despite our seemingly mundane topic, he recognized we were getting to the root of a deeper issue.

Most people struggle to feel satisfied with their productivity on a daily basis.

The overworked employee feels pressure to go above and beyond if they want to advance, always questioning how much more they need to do.

The entrepreneur and freelancer wrestle with “maintaining” vs growing their business.

The unemployed job-seeker is left wondering how a productive day is even possible if they haven’t accomplished landing a job.

Despite how elusive it feels, many of us keep striving for the perfect balance of satisfying accomplishments and the freedom to relax.

The source of “productivity anxiety”

Since fleeing my salaried corporate job four years ago, I quickly learned that the joy of freedom and the privilege to make my own schedule is peppered with tradeoffs. Meeting up with a friend for coffee is easy, but I “get less done.” If I choose to head out on a week-long vacation, I’m forfeiting a week’s worth of income. Unlike a weighted blanket, these types of decisions carry a heaviness that’s much less soothing.

What I’ve discovered in my own experience, and in my sessions with coaching clients, is that underneath the surface of goal-setting, habits, and systems to measure productivity lies a question that can grind away at our well-being if left unaddressed.

That is, “Am I being productive enough?”

This subconscious query creates a prickly anxiety, similar to having one more shot of espresso than our body is accustomed to. It floats like a hidden buoy in our nervous system, never quite letting us sink into a state of deep relaxation.

Trying to increase productivity often falls flat, because, upon closer examination, the cognitive dissonance arises from the idea that our eventual accomplishments will cure this underlying anxiety once and for all.

Who or what am I producing for?

It’s easy to convince ourselves that our drive to be productive is related to our own ambitions. We want to excel at our job, increase our chances of getting a promotion, or grow our business faster.

On a deeper level, though, we might fear being seen as inadequate in our current role, or worry what our friends who are farther along in their career will think. We know our partner is silently wondering what the hell we’re doing with all that time on our hands.

This realization surfaced for Taj, another client and software developer who found his motivation dwindling while trying to focus on the less exciting projects at work. Prior to this, he had been an exceptional student who worked diligently to secure his position at a top tech company. While he had achieved plenty of recognition and prestige along the way, the prominence was starting to fade, along with his desire to produce.

The thing is, we crave being recognized, and rightfully so. We’re human. We can see everyone else’s unique perspectives and gifts, so we want others to see our own.

The problem is, when our desire to be more productive is based on external validation, we’ll never be productive enough. There will always be more to do that could help us attain recognition from our peers, thought leaders, or perhaps, our parents.

Focusing on authentic desires

Upon this realization, we can start to turn inwards, and look at what is most meaningful to us. How do we want to spend our 24 hours? It’s in this pool of desire where our biggest reserve of “productivity fuel” lies.

In ‘The Power of Full Engagement,’ Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz break down the four different sources of personal energy, and make a key distinction between the energy we have and the energy we’re willing to exert:

“The quantity of energy we have to spend at any given moment is a reflection of our physical capacity. Our motivation to spend what we have is largely a spiritual issue.”

Spiritual, in this instance, means living by our deepest values; what is truly most important to us.

What if our productivity was measured in terms of how much we desire to be producing whatever it is we’re working on?

Then, the question might shift from, “Am I being productive enough?” to “Am I working on enough of the things that are meaningful to me?”

To clarify, I’m not suggesting we need to feel ecstatic about the task in front of us. Our change-resistant brains are designed to rationalize our way out of sitting down to write that article or go for a run. The mind is a gatekeeper we must bypass in order to follow through on the things that feed our soul.

I like to think that true productivity is about doing exactly what we want to do, because sometimes we WANT to forgo rest or pleasure to take care of our sick kid, help out a friend, or stay late to deliver what a customer needs.

Therefore, discovering our authentic desire – and the well of spiritual energy within it – is the ultimate productivity hack. It’s how we can start to let go of the idea of being productive, and start producing what’s important.

Looking for a guide to assist you with integrating more of your authentic desires into your work and relationships? Read more about my process and my story.

Note: All client names have been substituted for confidentiality.

Photo by Carl Heyerdahl on Unsplash

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