Updated: Dec 21, 2020
It's one of the most frequently asked questions from my clients and community - "How can I lower my anxiety?" There are so many tools we can use to reduce anxiety, but one of my favorites is to increase productivity.
Think about the times your anxiety typically kicks into overdrive. There is often a looming deadline, a high-visibility meeting (during which you have to present), a long to-do list that keeps carrying over to the next day, or just a thousand-and-one errands to run.
On top of it all, we are all getting very tired of working from our living spaces and feeling like there is simply no separation between work and life. Forget about "balance," we can't even find the line between desk and dinner table.
Work is the cause of so much of our acute anxiety that you are probably wondering why I'm not telling you to start meditating, journaling, taking long baths and balancing your chakras. Instead, I'm out here asking you to work smarter, not harder. Boring! Show me the soy candles and bring me a handful of crystals.
But here's the thing: If we can set ourselves up for a productive day, we have more time for the relaxing stuff. We get less frazzled by new projects and stressors plopped on our plates (because they aren't already overflowing). Pass the meatballs, I'm up for seconds.
So here's what we do, the 8 ways to reduce anxiety by increasing productivity:
1. Sunday Scheduling: At the start of each workweek, set your week up.
Schedule your "me" time first. This means scheduling the workouts, the meditation, the date nights, the drinks with friends - socially distant, or otherwise. It's all the stuff that fills your cup and makes the work even worth it. And yes, I do mean schedule these things before your meetings and errands. This is critical, because it ensures that you value them and will make time to do them. It proves to you that you do value your health - mental and physical.
Once the important fill-the-cup items are in place, move on to important meetings, calls - things you can't change around.
Next up are the blocks of deep focused work or highly important tasks.
The last things you fill in are low hanging fruit and errands - the least urgent but still important things.
Now this is important: Leave room. Things will come up. We know this. So make room for them ahead of time. This way, you won't be thrown off course and have to move a bunch of items to later in the week. We typically put more on our to-do lists than we can reasonably accomplish in the given time frame. It makes us feel so much less anxious when we instead, set realistic goals and are able to knock out all the items we set out to complete. Start with a realistic amount of tasks (and be realistic about how long they will take) that leaves room for a few of those unknowns to be added on. And if they aren't? Bonus - you get more "me" time.
2. Have some routine in your morning: I've really come to resent the term "morning routine." But that's not because I don't like the idea of having structure and time for your mental and physical health to start the day. I love that. But that term is thrown around far too often in ways that make us feel like we are failing if our morning doesn't consist of: a meditation corner, an hour of journaling our thoughts into prose, hot yoga and a french-press-prepared latte, slowly sipped on a balcony facing the ocean.
But actually, your routine doesn’t have to match what anyone else says they do - no matter how many followers they have on Instagram. The point is to simply have a routine. The point is to dedicate that first hour or so of your day to setting yourself up for a calm start and a successful day.
For you, that might mean a workout, making coffee and mapping out your day. For someone else, its meditation and a yoga class. For another it might be coffee and their journal on the balcony. Whatever grounds you and sets you up for the day feeling ready to take it on, is what your routine should include.
Recreate the separation that the commute used to give you. Many of us are still working remotely and that has had its benefits. But it has also removed that line from home to office. It's taken that time many of us had on our commutes to listen to a podcast or music, read a book on the train, or really just get our minds ready to start the day or decompress after it. Take back that time in the morning (that you may have let go in place of extra sleep or extra scrolling) for your mental and physical health. It's your time, use it to fill your cup.
3. Movement to start the day: That can mean a strength workout, a spin class, some light stretching, a morning walk, yoga, or any number of other types of movement. If you prefer "workouts" in the evening, do it then. But I still recommend some type of movement to get the day going. This improves energy and mood, and of course, reduces anxiety.
4. Eat the frog(s): You may have heard this term before. There's even a book about it. There is always a task (or multiple) that is big, daunting, looming. It's the one you really don't want to do, but have to get done. The longer you leave it, the more it looms over you, heavy and dark.
If you put it off, best case: you get it done late in the day and it stressed you out all day in the mean time. Worst case: you still don't finish it and it (plus the anxiety it creates) carries over into the next day. This is why it's so helpful to knock it out first.
It's tempting to start with the easier, lower-hanging fruit so you can feel accomplished in the number of tasks you check off. But what typically happens instead, is you check off those 10 small things, and still feel overwhelmed and unaccomplished because it was all just busy work.
So how do we avoid that? Outline the top 1-3 critical tasks for the day and get them done first. See: Sunday Scheduling. I'm telling you, even if you get only that one thing done, you'll feel better than if you got 10 small things done. You'll reduce the time spent feeling anxious, and that's the goal.
5. Pomodoro Technique: This technique is used to help us keep focused and get more done in a shorter period of time.
It's a 25 minute block of deep focused work (no distractions) followed immediately by a 5 minute break. The cycle repeats as many times as you want, but I'd recommend 2-4 cycles before taking a longer break or moving on to less focused tasks.
This technique accomplishes a few things. It creates urgency within the 25 minutes because we know we have a shorter time to finish what we are working on before we break. It helps us focus by eliminating distractions and the urge to switch between different tasks - which can cause us to lose a few minutes each time we switch back and forth between them. And it forces us to get up and move.
Those 5-minute breaks are meant to be used to get up and get moving, do a few push ups, get some water, take a step outside...etc. These are not "scroll instagram" breaks.
6. Move throughout the day: I said it earlier, and I'll say it again. Movement is key to reducing anxiety (And even to increasing productivity).
One of the issues I see constantly is that we think a 45-60 minute workout in the morning is sufficient movement for the entire day, and we spend the next 10 hours sitting on our bums in front of a computer.
Don't hate the messenger, but if that is your routine, you are not doing enough. Period. I love that you're getting that morning workout in, but it is crucial to continue to move throughout the day.
Go for a walk (or a few), set a timer to do 10 squats every hour, set up a standing desk and switch from sitting to standing every hour, walk to the store instead of driving or taking an Uber, pick a hallway in your home and lunge down it every time you pass it...there are so many ways to work movement into your day, even if you have a sedentary job.
7. Have a specific start and end time: ...And stick to them, as if you are entering and leaving your office.
Remote working strikes again. The lines from home life to work life are even more blurred than ever before. It's up to us to define and maintain those lines in more specific ways. If we know the working hours are from 8:45 AM to 6:00 PM - or whatever the time frame is for you - we are much more likely to focus and be productive during that window, than if our laptop follows us around the home at all hours. Designate one location in the home where you work - and no where else.
8. Remember this is just a job. Most people working in the corporate world who aren't running their own businesses, work for someone else.
As much as that company values you, as much as you might enjoy your work and your coworkers, that company will still ultimately do what is best for their bottom line. If they need to enforce layoffs, if they need to reduce pay, if they need to change operating systems, they will do it. They may be very conscious of how that affects their employees, they may be very sensitive to their employees needs and they may try other avenues before laying anyone off. But ultimately, they will do what is best for them.
You need to do what is best for you. While having an income is part of that, so is your mental and physical health. Remember that, and put your health above any company KPIs.
If you are trying to reduce anxiety, focus on increasing productivity and making (and taking) time for your mental health. It matters more than any corporations bottom line - I promise you that.