A young woman sort of screeches into my office. She’s a high-performance athlete with a massive social media following and a couple of businesses running on the side.
She sits down, actually, she perches on the edge of my couch like she’s not staying long. She’s a little breathless, she talks rapidly; her eyes dart everywhere, one of her legs jiggles constantly up and down.
She’s here for some help with anxiety and she’s making ME nervous.
I don’t tell her this for I am supposed to be the epitome of calm; a person most qualified to Walk the Talk.
“How can I help you?” I say, as evenly as I can.
“I can’t sit still,” she says, smiling sheepishly. “When I try to rest I freak out that I’m not getting Enough Done. I have to be productive, to ACHIEVE things. If I don’t get lots done, it’s a really bad day for me.”
“You know, I feel down, a bit depressed, my life’s going nowhere, that I’m no good, that I’ll never be anything — ”
Woah. Welcome to Productivity Obsession, a term I just made up because there’s no clinical name for it, although it overlaps the symptomatology for both anxiety and depression.
The physiological symptoms are the same as for various forms of anxiety: racing heart, extreme fatigue, low energy, feeling restless, edgy, rushed and irritable; perhaps butterflies or a feeling of dread when you wake in the morning. You probably have a tendency to overthink, be highly self-critical and feel constantly overwhelmed. Being BUSY is your marker of success, perhaps even of your personal value.
As a psychologist, I’m wary of the hype that says you need to do more to be worth more. Perhaps it’s because I see the fallout of this stress, people of all ages who don’t have the skills to relax (substance-free) and turn down the mental noise. Young high achievers who are afraid to sit still for fear the world will pass them by, they’ll miss an opportunity, they won’t make their mark, they’ll waste their lives. That someone else will get what they want.
The Thing Called Productivity
Productivity, by definition, measures the efficiency of a production process. The ratio of all outputs to all inputs is called Total Productivity. But when it’s applied to human function, it all gets a bit weird.
What? You’re not doing Brain Expansion exercises at 5am? You don’t have a locked down morning routine? You don’t read 135 books a year? You’re not journaling and writing in your Gratitude notebook? You are not open to learning every second of every day? What are you thinking? [Subtext: you loser. Or often it’s more subtle than that: just a whiff that you could (or should) be be doing more than you are, which is designed to make you feel bad and tap that old core belief : you’re NOT GOOD ENOUGH].
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a diehard disciple of good use of time. Of ongoing learning, working hard, cultivating good habits and routines, and of trying to live as well, and meaningfully, as possible.
But the truth is life doesn’t fit inside a purpose-built framework.
For a start, we don’t know how long we’ve got. For most people, it is a longer journey than you think. And it can feel like a freaking eternity if you spend it doing the wrong things with the wrong people. Most of us put more effort into planning our vacations than we do into our lives and relationships — which seems all wrong when Life is the longest trip we’ll ever take. And relationships are the thing that can mess us up most of all.
Instead of packing our days with activity, we need to think carefully about what makes us happy and excited, who we like to spend time with, how to have fulfilling relationships or, what brings us serenity and meaning.
Try this Test
- Spend an hour by yourself, doing nothing much. No screens allowed but you can read, meditate or listen to music.
- Can you make it through the hour without feeling wound up, jittery and as if you’re wasting time? If so, then go to the head of the class — you have a good base for managing your anxiety.
Note: You should be able to do this for several hours but one hour is a tidy start.
- If you can’t do this, hit the pause button. Ask yourself some questions: Is this the way you want to live? How you want to feel? Keyed up? Jumpy? Constantly in need of activity, company, and stimulation.
Exercises for anxiety management
Anxiety literature is awash with the benefits of diaphragmatic breathing. This is where I got my young client (mentioned above) to start. Her breathing was so shallow she couldn’t inhale deeply without coughing.
Take a deep breath in for five counts, hold for 10, breathe out for 20. It is the outward breath that most helps to release tension. Repeat the cycle five times, twice a day and/or whenever you feel tense. It can be difficult at first but persevere —it will give you some ownership over your anxiety.
Consider your lifestyle. Maybe you need to slow down? It’s admirable to get lots of things done, to use your time well. But being able to relax, unwind and calm yourself are essential life skills too. Take time to think about what and who really matters to you, what you would like to have achieved at the end of your life.
Palliative care nurse Bronnie Ware identified the Top Five Regrets of the Dying (2011) as: (1) being true to yourself (rather than doing what others expected of you), (2) not working so hard, (3) having the courage to express feelings, (4) staying in touch with friends and (5) letting yourself be happier.
It’s hardly necessary to point out a person’s Total Productivity ratio never made the cut.