A woman sat at her desk

Productivity anxiety: how to stop feeling stressed about not doing ‘enough’

Posted by for Mental Health

Do you feel like you need to be doing things all the time, and feel guilty when you aren’t? You could be dealing with productivity anxiety.

We’re a society obsessed with getting things done. From hustle culture to productivity apps and competitive busyness, the ability to juggle a million and one tasks has become as much of a status symbol as a pair of the latest trainers or an aesthetic Instagram account.

And while there’s nothing wrong with ‘getting things done’ – after all, we all have jobs to do – the extent to which productivity is taking over our lives is taking its toll; essentials like sleep and self-care have become yet another task to ‘tick off’ our to-do lists, and taking time off to do absolutely nothing is often met with pangs of guilt for being ‘lazy’ or ‘useless’.

As we try to get used to life after lockdown this pressure to get things done is only getting worse. According to new research from Microsoft Surface, two thirds (63%) of people are now reaching a point of ‘stress overload’ because they’ve got so much to do, with 42% feeling that they’re falling short when it comes to the amount of stuff they get done every day. 

This sense of ‘productivity anxiety’ is worse among women, too: three in five women (59%) feel they are not able to do, be or achieve enough, compared to less than two in five men (37%). So, what’s causing this rise in pressure so many of us are feeling? And what can we do to unplug ourselves from this cycle of stress and anxiety?

While the pandemic has led to many people’s workloads increasing both at home and in a professional context, chartered psychologist Dr Rajvinder Samra believes there’s more to this rise in productivity anxiety than our physical circumstances. “It is not only rising external standards that fuel productivity anxiety,” she explains. “Excessively high or unrelenting standards also provide a foundation for productivity anxiety to grow.” 

Although many people struggled with perfectionism and setting themselves high standards before the pandemic, Dr Samra suggests that the isolation of lockdown and working from home could be leading these expectations to grow out of control. 

“We may be using these high standards to maintain our own sense of self-worth during times of isolation, which then encourages us to keep trying to achieve highly and continuously be productive,” she says. “Perhaps being more isolated and without the social comparisons and usual social norms that previously helped us to achieve balance pre-pandemic has allowed these expectations to grow out of our control.”

As far as the different experiences between men and women go, Dr Samra suggests it could be to do with the disproportionate levels of household and parenting burden many women have felt throughout the pandemic. The fact that women are more likely to be perfectionists than men could also make us more likely to suffer from the pressure of high personal expectations.

If you feel as if you might be experiencing productivity anxiety, you’re probably wondering what you can do to lower your expectations and feel less pressure to achieve more and more. So, to get you started, Stylist asked Dr Samra to share some simple tips to help you forge a healthier relationship with productivity. Here’s what she had to say.  

How to handle productivity anxiety

A woman stressed at her desk
Productivity anxiety: how to stop feeling guilty for not doing ‘enough’

Identify where you are going above and beyond, and think of ways to cut back 

Identifying the ways in which your need to be productive could be making you feel worse is a great place to start.

“Checking and answering emails at unsociable hours, when you don’t really need to, is just tiring and it may be stopping you from recovery and resting and being in a positive mental state for the next day,” Dr Samra explains. 

“Start thinking about how you can get this situation back to a normal or sustainable level for you, what this looks like in reality, and create a stepped-down approach about how to get to this level.”

Use technology to your advantage

While some productivity apps can put pressure on you to achieve, there are ways to use technology that can help you to take the pressure off.

“Use technology positively with tools like do-not-disturb, personal and work settings, calendar blocks and helpful apps,” Dr Samra recommends. “Tech can be used to reconfigure new routines, set new boundaries and truly support productivity.” 

Focus on managing your energy, not just your time 

Do you need to put all your effort into every task on your list, or can you save some of your energy for the areas that you want to see growth?

“After recognising where you can tone down the excessive high standards (because they are a waste of your attention and effort), you can find things where simply doing a decent job is fine for that task,” Dr Samra says. “Divert some of your energy and time to work towards the areas you really want to make progress on over the coming year.” 

Go to the Microsoft News Centre to find out more about reducing productivity anxiety.

Sign up for the latest news and must-read features from Stylist, so you don't miss out on the conversation.

By entering my email I agree to Stylist’s Privacy Policy

Images: Getty

Share this article

Lauren Geall

As Stylist’s digital writer, Lauren Geall writes on topics including mental health, wellbeing and work. She’s also a big fan of houseplants and likes to dabble in film and TV from time-to-time.