How to Recover From Productivity Anxiety


I’m a recovering “doing" addict. Like, addicted to doing stuff. Working and filling my time with anything I deem “productive.” My mind likes to be on constant surveillance to evaluate if what I’m doing at the moment is acceptable. And I’m not allowed to stop the 'doing' or I get a bad case of what I call "productivity anxiety." Maybe you can relate?

From personal observation, I’ve noticed these are the motivations behind my continuous 'doing':

1) If I do or achieve X, I’ll be enough, be loveable, be ok.

Underlying the 'doing' is the need to be ok, be enough, be lovable and loved. I've noticed the things I think I have to do and achieve are all just stuff I made up in my mind and is in our collective minds as a society. And we've then told ourselves we have to do and achieve these things to be ok. Like if I get and good grade or evaluation, a promotion, make X amount of money, look a certain way I will be ok, enough, acceptable. This conditioning starts at a very early age and many will spend their whole lives desperately trying to at some point in the future be enough or painstakingly trying to maintain their external circumstances so that in the eyes of society they think they are ok, a human worthy of existing.

2) I don’t want to feel my feelings.

We don’t want to be with ourselves because we’ve never learned how to process our feelings. We’ve been taught it’s better not to feel them, to be afraid of them and to shut them down. And that nothing good can come from feeling. That it’s not productive. And to express or show them is an embarrassment. Doing stuff and ‘keeping busy’ is an excellent way to distract and keep the mind from acknowledging how we feel. The only problem is that you have to keep up the ‘doing’ for your whole life.

3) I can control the outcome and what happens to me in the world if I do X,Y,Z.

This is an outcome of 1 and 2. We are constantly subconsciously saying to ourselves, I need things to be a certain way for me to be ok. And if they’re not, I will have feelings arise I don’t want to feel. So, I’m going to keep vigilant to do things to try and prevent outcomes that I’m not emotionally equipped to deal with from happening. But this could come from any small thing throughout your day. So, the doing for control is constant.

And one of the feelings we might run from is perhaps a deeper, maybe unconscious, knowing of the fallacy of number 1 above. That all this doing and achievement has actually nothing to do with our worth. But we can’t face that truth because it would throw us into mental chaos. Without believing we have to get up in the morning and prove our worth, what would we do? The identity we’ve built for ourselves and our attachments are questioned. The fear providing the motivation to do and achieve would disappear. Fessing up that it’s all a charade, we would fall apart and be forced to face ourselves and learn who we really are.

But that last part, the falling apart part is a gift really. I’ve done it so I know. The falling apart is the scariest and best thing to have ever happened to me. But falling apart is not an accurate term really. It’s more a letting go of your habitual ways of being that aren’t making you happy, a reconnection with the truth that has always been there, a learning of who you are and deep clarity. Clarity on what was really going on in your past, why you weren’t happy and clarity on what you want for your life now. 

I revert back at a times because of the conditioning of so many years, but here is what I remind myself to bring me back to the truth and free myself from the trap of doing.

How to stop the ‘doing’:

1) We have to love ourselves no matter what the external circumstance.

I am ok no matter what, just as I am. There is absolutely nothing to do or achieve to be enough, worthy, lovable. Try to see how crazy it actually is to think that some circumstance, on which we as a society have arbitrarily attached a meaning to, has to be a certain way for you to be enough. 

2) Feel stuff. Lean into the feelings.

This I have learned from the teacher Kiran Trace. In the moment you feel something, do nothing. Don't resist. We add a lot of suffering through the resistance and the sense that these feelings are bad/too intense and that they shouldn't/can’t happen. Welcome them. Give your feelings space. Emotion is energy in motion. And by accepting what is arising and greeting it with love we can allow it to process through. Touch your pain with love. Touch the bodily sensation with love the way you would hug and kiss the forehead of a baby or pet. Send it love and acceptance. Just as I am ok no matter what, so are my feelings. Allow space to enter the physical sensations, fill in the cracks. The love, acceptance, and space will bring healing and dissipate the pain. This may sound woo-woo, but it works. Love shifts the energy.

The ‘doing’ of the past was motivation by fear. So, what replaces motivation by fear? Motivation by genuine desire and joy. When you sense an activity is not motivated by desire, ask yourself why you’re doing it - to 'achieve' in an attempt to be enough? or to distract from a feeling? Get curious and welcome what arises. There may be some things you can't not do (because life isn't perfect), but as much as possible, move towards that which brings you joy and is motivated by genuine desire.

What about "success” you ask? Well, once you find some clarity, that you don't have to achieve and "be successful" to be ok, how you view and feel about success may shift. The achievement likely wasn't your end goal anyway, but rather feeling happy, good enough, ok once you did it. So this realization changes things. And who is to say if you become conscious of your doing and shift your way of being to motivation by desire and joy, all the success you want won’t happen. Or faster. Maybe even, right now, you’re actually working against yourself. I know we’ve been taught to believe that achievement and success are only available through forcing ourselves and hard work, but maybe that’s not the only way. Maybe there's a backdoor.