Why Being More Productive Isn’t the Solution to Anxiety

Written by Sarah Engelhart
Maybe you feel anxious because you believe there is more you are supposed to be doing in life: you should exercise more regularly, eat better, make more money, become more organized, have more friends, more followers, a better partner, more stylish clothes, meditate more. You get where I am going with this. We all struggle from time to time with the existential weight of not feeling good enough and buying into the belief that if we could just be or do or have more of something we would finally feel better.

The secret “they” don’t want you to know

The good news is, most of us are already doing plenty. In fact, as a society, we have historically never done more. The average 35-year-old has accomplished things in their lifetime that their great-grandparents could only dream was possible. If each of us were to write down a list of everything we accomplished each day, we would probably feel pretty satisfied with ourselves. So, why do we still need to do more to prove to ourselves (and others) that we are good enough?

When even the most successful people still struggle with feeling anxious, unfulfilled, and insecure, it indicates that the solution to the problem isn’t found in just increasing productivity.

Does it feel good to do satisfying work? Absolutely. But when we realize that no amount of money, followers, acclaim, or prestige will make us happy, it’s time to dig deeper to discover how to find what we are really looking for.

The answer is not in doing more

Frantically running through our day trying to check off as many boxes as we can does not a fulfilled life make. Even if there is some sense of temporary satisfaction in increasing the number of tasks we can get completed in a day, it can easily come at the cost of a sense of enjoying our time and finding lasting contentment, not to mention the slew of physical imbalances that can result from too much stress.

According to a recent study, 93% of Millenials believe that productivity is an essential part of being happy, but only 62% feel productive overall. Pinpointing the source of feeling unproductive might have less to do with quantitative data and more to do with our thoughts and emotions. Of course, there are times when we are distracted, procrastinating or stuck in a rut, but more often than not, it’s a lack of satisfaction that causes us to feel like we aren’t productive enough, not how little we are doing.

The solution to feeling unproductive can be found, in part, through practicing mindfulness and giving ourselves the time to actually feel satisfaction for each of the little things we do each day.

Based on hundreds of studies, it turns out that taking time for a morning routine and daily meditation (instead of immediately checking your texts and emails) boosts your productivity, helps you regulate your mood, makes you less distractible, and leaves you feeling more satisfied with your day overall.

Mindfulness and remembering to celebrate the small things every day can help with feeling more productive and overall wellbeing, but to address the root causes of the subtle, seemingly perpetual sense of inadequacy; we have to dig a little deeper.

Compare and despair

Does having the world (literally) at our fingertips cause us to develop unreasonable expectations for ourselves? In the not so distant past, comparison was limited to the people in our personal network. Now that we have social media, we have the gift of being able to compare ourselves to people anywhere in the world 24/7, with the click of a button.

What’s worse is that we are often comparing the things we intimately know about ourselves (like our biggest failures, and insecurities) with other people’s curated highlight reels.

It’s easy to feel like we come up short when we see other’s accomplishments and compare ourselves to them. It’s easy to want what we think we don’t have and practically kill ourselves in the process of trying to get it. But because we are all so intrinsically valuable in our own ways (talented, creative, innovative, the list goes on…), we inevitably do cool stuff. And that can leave us with moments of feeling high on productivity and a sense of temporary relief from feelings of inadequacy. Unfortunately, the sense of satisfaction we get from attaining our goals doesn’t last for long, and we are back to spending our days chasing a sense of self-esteem through productivity.

If life becomes about riding the wave of dopamine that comes with checking off all our productivity boxes, and every “big win” that comes our way isn’t it just a matter of time before we lose touch with the little things which we would normally find satisfaction in doing?

The chase for likes

In an attempt to make the most of our time, uplevel our lives, and prove ourselves to the world, we miss out on the things that we are most yearning for. We seem to have so many followers/friends yet so few moments of real connection.

One of the biggest costs of our addiction to productivity is missing the experience of authentic connection with the people in our lives.

We race through our days being productive often with only enough time to send a few non-work related texts back and forth to friends, scroll through our social media to catch up on what everyone is up to and maybe call someone on the drive back from work. When we do meet face to face with someone, whether it’s with a stranger sitting next to us or a co-worker or a friend, we are often distracted. We habitually and somewhat numbly turn to our phone looking for the familiar sense of connection we have been longing for, even while sitting next to another living, breathing human being.

“Safety” in seclusion

The superficial “fix” that social media provides is quick and easy. And, like most things that are lacking real substance, it leaves us strangely hollow afterward. In this day and age, an authentic connection requires courage. It’s much easier for the well-curated, 2-D version of myself to interact with yours. In those interactions, I can find some distance from the, at times, unnerving reality of the multilayered dynamics of interacting with a living, breathing human being.

We each show the best parts of ourselves to one another and expect to see only the most appealing parts of others.

When we see something, we don’t like we distance ourselves from that person by judging them. We interact with each other in judgment/superiority or feelings of insecurity/inadequacy. In our futile attempts to be enough, we deny ourselves the raw, messy, invigorating moments of real human connection.

Rediscovering simple joys

As we start to peel back the layers of our own inauthenticities, the judgment of ourselves and others, the false sense of pride and the fear beneath it, we notice our vulnerability. In beginning to be more honest with ourselves and touching that tender place of vulnerability, we start to come alive again. We realize that others are going through the same messy and disarming process and start to have a little more compassion for the girl at the coffee shop whose half-smile alluded to her momentary sense of superiority. Knowing that underneath her evasion of authentic connection, she also has a messy, vulnerable place and has forgotten how to allow herself to just be enough.

One of the easiest ways to connect with others also happens to be one of the most difficult in this day and age. When we take the time to really listen to another person, we are opening a metaphorical door for them to walk through. It requires courage to stand for a moment with another human being and a kind of vulnerability in being seen.

When we give someone the gift of our full presence, it can be instantaneously fulfilling.

To listen in the most authentic way requires something of us. It requires us to accept ourselves and the other person just the way we are without pretending. I mean, we can listen to the other person and secretly judge them, but then that wouldn’t really be listening. The difference between really listening to someone, and just pretending to is that we come out of it changed. And who knows, we might even fall in love with the world (including ourselves) a little bit more in the process.

Be seen and heard for who you truly are.