Anxiety

3 Productivity Tips for People With Anxiety

Procrastination and perfectionism can reduce productivity for anxious people.

Posted Mar 09, 2021 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan

Nubelson Fernandes/Unsplash
Source: Nubelson Fernandes/Unsplash

When people feel anxious about a task, they tend to take one of two routes. 

When anxious people act in perfectionistic ways, it's because they're trying to avoid any mistakes by working extra hard. When people procrastinate, they're trying to avoid the uncomfortable emotions the task stirs for them.

Bearing these points in mind, here are some productivity tips specifically for anxious people. 

1. Try starting an anxiety-provoking task while you're on a roll with another task.

Starting from zero or a blank page can be anxiety-provoking. One strategy I use is that, when I'm in the swing of one creative task and nearing completion (say three-quarters through it), I will do a little work on my next anxiety-provoking task, usually for only around 10 minutes. For example, if I am nearing the end of writing one article, I will write a few bullet points for my next article. Then I switch back to complete my first task.

Why this works: This tip takes advantage of upswings in your feelings of competence and competence. When you're succeeding at a task that had felt anxiety-inducing at the beginning, dip your toes into another task that's triggering your fears or stress. Once we finish a task, we often feel fatigued, so we take a necessary break. After that break, it's easier to start a new task if you've done even a tiny bit towards it.

2. Utilize the power of looking at a task with fresh eyes.

There are some tasks we feel very invested in. They feel high stakes, often because they are. When we want to knock a task out of the park, that pressure can mean that every time we work on it, we feel an intense sense of pressure. In situations like these, rather than trying to do sustained work on the task for hours, try working on the task for 30-60 minutes, then give it some time, and revisit it with fresh eyes. You might only need a day's break, or you might need a week's break. When you come back to it, you'll have new insights without it feeling fraught or arduous. 

Why this works: We have different creative insights on different days, depending on all sorts of factors, like whatever people and situations we've been recently exposed to. And even when you're not focusing on a task, if you've recently been thinking about it, your mind will continue to work on it unconsciously (this is how we get good ideas in the shower!) Try using these brain strengths to approach tasks, rather than only approaching everything through grit and focus.

3. Utilize systems to increase automaticity. 

Say you get intimidated about cleaning out your garage or your fridge, or organizing your toddler's toys. You put these things off. If every time you clean your garage or your fridge you do it in the exact same way, it will become more of a habitual, automatic process. Your routine will be that you always start with X, then move onto Y, then to Z, and so on.

Why this works: When your brain gets used to doing behaviors in a particular sequence, you will have more of an automatic urge to do whatever comes next in the sequence. It will begin to feel like muscle memory. Note however that you won't experience this until you've repeated the sequence lots of times. If a task isn't particularly frequent (e.g. you only clean out your garage every few months) then it might take several years before your system feels automatic.

The more automatic and habitual a task is the less your emotions and thoughts matter. It'll be easier to do, no matter what mood you're in.

There are lots of strategies for reducing procrastination and perfectionism. Not all of them will suit everybody, but try to find at least three to six go-to's. For more specific ideas, try this or these.