June 16, 2020

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Why Do I Feel So Unproductive Right Now?

It is completely normal and okay to not be feeling inspired at the moment, or to be feeling even less inspired than we were before. We have never experienced something of this scale before, and we are all bound to react differently.

How Performance Anxiety May Be Getting in the Way of Your Daily Tasks

Over the past few months, we have all had to make significant adjustments to the way we structure our daily lives, especially in the context of work. Many of us were used to commuting, working in an office space, and interacting with others regularly face-to-face every day. Even if we now have systems in place to work from home, we may still feel like there is something missing or that we are not measuring up to our prior performance.

What’s more, even when we are not working, we are constantly reminded through social media of productive things we could be doing with our time. Now that we have the time, we should be able to do everything we have ever aspired to, right? After all, social media loves to remind us that Shakespeare wrote King Lear in quarantine…

“It is normal to feel pressure to be productive during this time,” says Nicole Brown, an NYC therapist and member of the MyWellbeing community. “We live in a society that expects the most of us and demands the best from us. It is important to remember though, that we are comparing ourselves to a type of productivity that existed in a world without a pandemic; a world we lived in [three] months ago.”

We need to remember to take a step back and be kind to ourselves before comparing our personal situation to that of a sixteenth century bard. It is completely normal and okay to not be feeling inspired at the moment, or to be feeling even less inspired than we were before. We have never experienced something of this scale before, and we are all bound to react differently.

If you are feeling overwhelmed by daily tasks or work that you may have thought of as routine before, performance anxiety might be playing a role in how you are feeling. We are here to help you identify how performance anxiety may be showing up in your daily life, and to share ways to reduce it.

What is performance anxiety?

Performance anxiety is “apprehension and fear of the consequences of being unable to perform  a task or performing it at a level that will raise expectations of even better task achievement,” according to the APA Dictionary of Psychology.

If you have performance anxiety, you may be worried about failing at a task before you even begin working on it, according to Zoe Reyes, an NYC therapist and member of the MyWellbeing community. If you then perform at a lower-than-optimal level, your fears about failing may seem to be confirmed.

Additionally, performance anxiety often applies when we have to give presentations or perform in front of an audience. Even though these tasks are likely not occurring in-person anymore, it is normal to feel the anxiety that surrounds them still. In some cases, we may even feel more anxious, because we have to adjust to new mediums and be wary of potential technical difficulties.

While giving a presentation, for example, performance anxiety may manifest itself as “that sensation of arousal and fear as a result of perceiving [that] we are being scrutinized and judged,” says Elisa Monti, a therapist and MyWellbeing member. “In [the] worst cases, [this] can even result in serious physical and emotional impairment,” like a flight-or-fight response.

The combination of feeling less productive in our daily tasks and more apprehensive about larger-scale tasks can leave us feeling disheartened. However, it is important to understand the many reasons why you may have performance anxiety during this time, and how to best approach it.

Why might I have performance anxiety?

Just like how performance anxiety can manifest itself in many different forms, there are also a variety of reasons why we may be feeling it.

“Performance anxiety is often rooted in fear of failure, of humiliation or rejection, or of not being good enough,” explains Julia King, a therapist who specializes in anxiety and a MyWellbeing community member.

Moreover, “performance is often a substitute for a side of us that has not had a chance to be developed,” says therapist and MyWellbeing member Joanna Kaminski. “We [tend to] put pressure on our performance when the emotional and spiritual side of our lives has not been cultivated,” she explains.

Our performance at work or on work-like tasks seems like a concrete way for us to measure our abilities. However, it is important to remember to separate our self-worth from our performance.

Is performance anxiety the reason for my procrastination?

Because performance anxiety includes a fear of failure, it can make us dread tasks before we even start them. This dread, in turn, can result in us putting tasks off more and more.

King explains that this tendency, resulting from perfectionism, “invites procrastination as a coping strategy [that allows] the uncomfortable fear to be momentarily avoided.”

But this causes a bigger issue: “each time the task is approached, the fear arises, and the desire to avoid arises,” says King.

Is performance anxiety always bad?

Shimmy Feintuch, a therapist and MyWellbeing member, explains that performance anxiety is not always necessarily harmful. “A smaller, manageable amount of anxiety can actually help us stay focused, avoid procrastination, and prepare harder,” he explains.

When our performance anxiety inhibits us from being able to carry out the task at hand, that is when it becomes a problem, says Feintuch.

What steps can I take to reduce performance anxiety?

There are a number of helpful methods to reframe your thinking and habits in order to reduce performance anxiety. Here are some strategies that therapists in the MyWellbeing community recommend:

Be mindful of how you speak to yourself about the task

King recommends questioning the validity of any negative thoughts you may be having about your ability to complete the task you are avoiding. “You will often find that many of these thoughts are just not true,” she says.

Ask yourself if you’re doing too much

Your to-do list should be based on how much is realistic for you to do, rather than how much you want to do, says Feintuch. “Try to be okay with removing things from your to-do list. If there’s something on your list that you’re unlikely to do, keeping it on your list can stress you out, and you’ll be less likely to be productive,” he explains.

“If you’re having trouble crossing things off of your list, create two lists: one list can hold two or three items that you’re going to put most of your energy into today, and the other list can be a ‘if I have time’ or ‘if I am motivated’ list. Keep the second list hidden away until the first is done,” Feintuch recommends.

Make your start as easy as possible by approaching the task imperfectly

Starting the task can be the most difficult part, so make it as easy for yourself as you can. “Interrupt thoughts that anticipate the end of the project and remind yourself of the specific task you've identified for yourself today,” says King.

“For example, you don't need to pass the test today, you simply need to read Chapter One. Or, you don't need to have the final draft of the article written today, you simply need to brainstorm an outline.”

Try setting a timer

King recommends setting a timer for forty-five minutes during which you will work uninterrupted on the task at hand. “You will silence -- and are not permitted to pick up -- your phone [during this time]. You will have gone to the bathroom ahead of time. You will have water at hand. You will have no need to get up or interrupt yourself for the whole forty-five minutes,” she says.

After the forty-five minutes has passed, “you may find you want to continue working, or, if not, you've achieved forty-five minutes of productivity.”

Focus on enjoying the process of the task

King points out that we often procrastinate or avoid doing things we genuinely enjoy because we fear failure. “In this case, [immerse] yourself in how it would feel to be actively engaged in the task, remembering why you want to engage in this task, and where it's completion may lead with regard to goal achievement.”

Practice self-forgiveness

Especially in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic -- and anytime our routines have been disrupted -- “we can legitimately ask ourselves if we should expect the same performance results when we are deprived of the tools and atmosphere to make any performance measure up to more idealistic circumstances,” says Kaminski.

You can try one or many of these approaches to begin tackling your performance anxiety, but it is okay if they are not effective right away or do not work for you.

“Try out different strategies to see what works,” recommends Reyes. “What works for some people might not work for others.”

Most importantly, remember to be kind to yourself and understand that you are operating under non-optimal conditions. Each and every one of us has a different set of circumstances and demands being placed on us at the moment, so it is impossible to effectively compare ourselves to one another.

Rather than emphasizing the importance of the outcome, utilize strategies that make you feel good and help you focus. Recognizing your own capabilities and self-worth is the first step towards developing a better relationship with your work.

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