The Anxiety of Being Productive

During this lockdown, have you seen this tweet copied and pasted onto your timeline from a variety of pseudo-life coaches?

How has it made you feel? Annoyed? Frustrated? Guilty? Like you’re not doing enough? A failure?

Me too.

At the time I’m writing this the UK is now going into our sixth week of lockdown. However, many of us already were working from home, furloughed or made redundant altogether weeks before. As a result, we are being faced with more time than we know what to do with. This is when we begin to feel like spare parts. Then, we feel we need to do more than 110% to prove we are working when we are at home. Adding to this, the motivation gurus creep out the woodwork and begin to guilt us with the concept of “you’re wasting this gift we’ve been given of time.” For some of us, we then feel the need to do a million and one things in order to squeeze this lockdown dry of its apparent advantages.

One avenue people might not consider is the impact of productivity pressure on peoples’ anxieties, particularly those who are ‘clinically anxious‘ i.e. have received some form of a diagnosis or experience overwhelming anxiety within their daily life. I am one of these people, and the constant pressure of feeling like I am not doing enough is one of my many anxieties.

My brain is constantly going at 100mph. Even before lockdown, my brain would be at least three steps ahead of whatever I was currently trying to do. If I try to be spontaneous, my brain becomes a blur and I jump from not fully formed task to not fully formed task. Whether I was doing my undergraduate, my masters, or my current job, I would always be trying to cram in the next thing. If I wasn’t filling up every moment, I felt like I was a failure. Which would bring on my depression. So, I would either burn out and experience anxiety exhaustion, or my self-esteem would plummet and I would be depressed.

Within this lockdown, I do have slightly more time on my hands. I train at home now. I mostly work from home. I am at home. However, I still work a full time job and I still train five times a week. This is the new normal for many of us but it doesn’t stop social media and mainstream media pushing the idea that we should be jumping on this so-called gift of time. There breeds this guilt from motivation gurus that we are lazy and wasting our resources and this precious opportunity. Privileged people are laying it on thick with the message of the lockdown being a blessing.

I don’t know how else to say this, but this lockdown isn’t a blessing. It’s the current solution to a deadly virus which has wiped out more than a quarter of a million of us, and infected over four million.

This guilt and shame is being forced down our throats.

You know, you really should be getting on with that novel. But, make sure you bake that bread first. What about the thirteen books you’re ignoring? You’re only through one chapter of them? But, it’s been an hour, you should be through at least seven books by now. And don’t get me started on that shed you haven’t built yet!

We’re loading our brains with a high volume of tasks, with the false idea that we actually have so much more time. And, even if we don’t have the time, we’re still being pressured into thinking we do. I’ve been surrounded by posts on social media of people smashing through their daily tasks and then heaping a whole lot more work on top of what they have finished and smashing through that too. As I scroll through my different social media feeds, drinking in this information, my anxiety is ramping itself up for a monumental freak out. I can feel the fear of failure stamping its feet, ready to charge, and knock me out with guilt and panic attacks. Just a feeling I love…

During this lockdown, I have become so busy, because it’s how I feel I should be right now. Don’t get me wrong, I love being busy. It keep me distracted, and I like doing things, but I know in myself that my anxiety can run me into the ground with how busy it wants me to be. If I sleep in a bit later than planned, I immediately think I’ve ruined the day and that I have no time to do anything. Instead of just forgiving myself, and picking up the day from there, and agreeing that if I don’t get everything done then I have the next day to do it. I have been talking about how busy I am to a couple of my friends, which I agree is not particularly sensitive of me. In reality, I am not busy because I am on my A-game, but I am trying to be busy because the pressures within the media have wreaked havoc on my anxiety and convinced me that I have time to do a lot. And, I mean, time to do too much.

Anxiety can manifest intense feeling of failure in that if you are not doing what the people you regard as successful and normal are doing then you might as well not be doing anything at all. So, to get rid of those feelings you will do more than you should and can do just to make yourself feel even slightly better. Sometimes we can become so anxious that we end up avoiding things altogether in an attempt to suppress the triggers to our anxiety, which just leads to us feeling more anxious because we are not being as productive as the successful people. We can become so anxious that our brains just shut down in panic, because we immediately expect that we’re not going to live up to the expectations placed upon us by these people we deem as being more successful.

Recently, I had a day off from work, and I planned to get ahead in a few things, after I had a long lie. I had a charity quiz coming up that I needed to prepare questions for. I was participating in a Q&A for an online support group. I wanted to finish my book that still had 150 pages remaining until the end. I was going to bake some bread. And make some soup. I then decided I needed to tidy up my room and the bathroom. I then decided that I needed to write a blog post. I kept adding things onto my list, but in no real order or with any sense of priority. It was just a list. Therefore, my mind descended into an anxiety blur and I began to panic that I had no time to do anything, so I tried to do everything at once. All while taking a panic attack. Any time I sat down to do one thing and pour my concentration and focus into it I would find my anxiety niggling away at the back of my brain telling me I wasn’t being productive enough because I had other stuff to do. My anxiety would make me feel low and useless because I hadn’t ticked everything off my list already. As a result, I began to experience a rush of panic and confusion because I didn’t know what to do, or where to start. My list, which wasn’t a proper list, was disintegrating in front of my mind’s eye and I could no longer think straight. I felt like lying down under my duvet and waiting for the day to pass. One of my favourite maladaptive pastimes.

My issue with the motivation gurus is their inability to consider the lack of time and resources people have, and the current surroundings i.e. the global pandemic. Adding to this, the information or advice provided is so vague, and leaves you to try to figure out how to fit in writing a novel around looking after four children, or, in my case, a full time job, mental health campaigning and volunteering, and training for a sport. As a result, this vague advice leaves people with anxiety trying to fill in the blanks, and usually not so appropriately. Sometimes, we don’t even attempt to fill in the blanks. Just do it becomes our motto, but we’re less Nike, and more “I’ve no idea what I’m doing but I should have done it by now!” My anxiety can make me very impatient. I like to plan, but I like to get going, and I like to have things completed, so I get frustrated if something is taking me longer than planned, or I have not been able to do it immediately. Purely for the fact that everyone seems to know what to do, so why can’t I?! Sometimes, we become too engrossed with planning because we are too stressed and worried to actually advance because we’re worried that we’ve gone the wrong way about it. I can work well off my initiative, but my anxiety can make me doubt myself often, and I find I am not confident in what I do, particularly when undergoing an anxiety attack or anxious state, so I begin to worry about moving on to the next step in case I am exposed as a failure, and never trusted again.

A brief side note: this is the first time I’ve written about my anxiety and, oh my God, how have I not erupted more often? I am exhausted even thinking about it!

A motivation guru, or these people who want to guilt trip you into thinking you’re unproductive and thus a failure, don’t actually care if you become productive. They care about engagement and that’s it. The busier you are, the more successful they think they are in spreading their ‘message’. They want you to figure out how to do everything all by yourself. Yes, you are in charge of your own journey, but you are not expected to enter clueless and blind-sighted into a situation someone forced you into. We’re undergoing a global pandemic, which is set to see a massive domino effect. People have enough on their plates. They might be trying to find a new job. Or they might have to pick up an extra job. They might be buying groceries or running errands for vulnerable people. They might be looking after their children who are at home from school. They might be also trying to cope with the unfortunate reality of a loved one in hospital in critical or serious condition from Covid-19.

We are trying to survive. We are trying to keep ourselves distracted from the absolute horror and surreality of what is going on. Day to day, I am so overwhelmed by everything. Yet, I am forcing myself to be productive, which sounds like a good thing, but isn’t necessarily, because I am not getting the best results. This only exhausts me more because I feel like a failure with the outcome of my tasks, and then I go in and in and in and in again with the same outcome every time. We don’t need to be doing life-changing things right now. What we’re currently going through is life-changing enough. Focus on what you enjoy. Don’t think you need to be doing three million things at once in order to feel productive according to the standards of someone else with a Twitter account. If you are actually spending your time learning how to knit, or reading all the books you have wanted to read, trying to write a novel… then go for it.

Spend your time on things you are currently doing but don’t become absorbed in this pretence of I have to be productive every waking minute in order to show I am using my lockdown time effectively.

The lockdown wasn’t put in place for you to be productive. The lockdown was put in place, because people are dying and our healthcare systems are become increasingly overwhelmed.

As long as you enjoy what you are doing, and even if you are doing ‘only’ one thing, then go ahead. Rock that one thing as best as you can. Take your time. We have some extra time, but we don’t need to fill it to the brim.

*

If you are experiencing poor mental health, please seek further advice from the following sites.

Beat

Clear Your Head Scotland

Mind

Rethink Mental Illness

Scottish Association for Mental Health (SAMH)

Samaritans

Young Minds

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