No one told me what to do or where to be! I could work in my bed, go to the grocery store in the middle of the day, and my clients were none the wiser. Even though I was a freelancer, I was constantly looking over my shoulder and expecting to be reprimanded by someone.
But my elation wore away when I realized I wasn’t quite alone at home: my anxiety was there, too.
Now, I’m an anxious person, even in the best of times. But these days, it seems like we’re all anxious. And anxiety is another ingredient — like Zoom calls, overloaded wifi or howling children or pets — that needs to be factored into your days, your productivity and your time management.
Some days my anxiety drives me to perform at an Olympic level, with no task undone and no email unanswered even if I have to work until midnight. That is overwork — a common way that many of us anxious people deal with our feelings — and I’ll return to it later.
Other days, anxiety creates a background buzz in the form of intrusive thoughts and fears about the future. It can also make us distracted and unable to focus, so another common way of dealing with anxiety is avoidance (more later on this one too). For example, while I was writing this piece, I baked banana bread, made a half-hearted attempt at the exercise bike, fed the cats their pre-lunch snack, and wandered around my house looking for things that needed my attention.
Working from home can be wonderful, but when you’re anxious, it can be difficult to concentrate and stay on task. How do you stay accountable to yourself and get work done without driving yourself to exhaustion?
Here are some tips based on what I have learned from 15 years of managing my anxiety while also working from home:
I know I’m not the only one whose heart rate accelerates when I see a new email in my inbox (or a Slack message). It could be a client, a staffer, my accountant or my mother. My anxiety drives me to want to quickly fix what they’re writing me about so I’ll feel better. But before I do, I often spend time worrying and trying to suss out the “true” meaning of their message (a fool’s errand, since emotional nuance is lost in almost any digital communication). Then I’ll force myself to respond no matter what — even if I’m finally eating lunch at 3PM or doing time-sensitive work.
Don’t blame yourself for leaping to reply to every message — much of modern knowledge work is built on this Pavlovian system of instant feedback and urgent response. With so many of us working from home and without the normal in-person interaction, this past year we’ve gotten trained to crave the feedback of a “ping” or a visual notification.
To start to de-program ourselves from the need to always be on, we need to practice being disconnected for small amounts of time. Begin with a time limit. Pick an after-hours moment when you don’t need to be online, and then turn off or hide your devices for an hour. Gradually work towards doing this during a workday. For that, select an hour when you can purposefully avoid checking updates (set up an “away” or “in a meeting” notification so people won’t wonder why you’re not getting back to them).
See how you feel when you can take a break from checking. When I avoid my phone for an hour, I notice that my neck is looser and so are my shoulders! Immediate benefit.
When work isn’t a place you leave at the end of the day, it can be incredibly difficult to stop. And let’s face it, when the option is to keep working and feel in control or spend more time on the sofa doom-scrolling or with whining kids, overworking might seem even more attractive. But learning to stop work is a discipline that creates good habits and a necessary step to keeping your energy tank filled.
I am an accomplished professional, but unconsciously I still want someone to tell me, “You did a good job today — you’re done.” Well, you need to learn to give yourself that permission.
Psychologist Alice Boyes changed my life when she suggested setting concrete limits around the amount of time I spend on the tasks that make me anxious and tend to overdo. Such shortcuts and hacks that help calm anxiety are called heuristics.
Here’s how you could come up with a heuristic to set boundaries on your work hours. At the beginning of your day (or the day before), create a reasonable to-do list. The key word is reasonable — no writing up a list based upon an imaginary 240-hour day — and based on experience, you’ll probably know how long most of your tasks will take. And if you have to guess time for any, guess upwards. Structure your day based around this list, and when you’re finished, close your computer. You did good.
The flip side of overwork is avoidance — avoiding deadlines and tasks because you’re anxious. Everyone has their greatest hits of coping mechanisms, from trying to worry the fear away to working it away to diving into a bag of cheese doodles. Our brain does this because it’s trying to help us avoid our bad feelings. To understand the motivations and causes behind your anxiety, it helps to take a pause to feel your feelings and monitor how you react to those feelings.
Start by looking at what’s making you anxious right now and how the anxiety is making you react. Here’s an example from my life. Thinking about money makes me anxious. When the economic news is frightening, I might act out when I’m faced with a work task that has anything to do with money. So if I need to prepare a financial report for my small business, I assume it’s going to reveal negative results, which sends me into a spiral of fear. Cognitive behavioral therapists call this kind of reaction an anxious automatic thought. Consequently, instead of facing the spreadsheet and doing my work, I might avoid it entirely. I might eat that bag of cheese doodles or buy something online that makes me feel good. I’m reacting to my anxiety.
It’s better if I can learn to move from reacting on auto-pilot to knowing what sets me off and then managing how I will respond. I can say to myself: “Looking at my company’s finances is going to set me off right now. Maybe I should ask my business partner to do it. Or maybe I should build in a reward if I face the challenge head on? I could let myself have an extra hour of Netflix if I complete the spreadsheet.” I find that most of the time, doing the work doesn’t feel nearly as bad as what my anxiety anticipates.
As you can see from my example above, when you feel anxious, it’s easy to turn a relatively straightforward task into an overwhelming thought exercise that sends your brain into catastrophe mode. When you are mired in anxiety and avoiding your work, the important thing is to do something. Jonathan Baxter, a family therapist, gave me this advice:
“The experience of stress has to do with your body wanting to take action. If there are actions you can take — whether getting some exercise or cleaning the bathroom or teaching your kids something — go ahead and take them. When you take action, give yourself a moment to let yourself feel good about taking a step. Use your mind to give your body the signal that you have agency and are doing what you can. (“There, I did it!”) The goal is to feel active and effective rather than scrambling from one thing to the next.”
I like to take a page from positive psychology and choose a small, meaningful action that will build my motivation for work and to tackle bigger tasks ahead. Have you ever organized a messy spreadsheet and just felt so good? Pick an activity that connects you to your larger purpose and allows you to see yourself as an effective and competent individual, which will ultimately help you move towards doing the thing you’re avoiding.
If tackling work just feels like too much when you’re toiling from home and staring at a messy house or out-of-control kids, pick a non-work action that’s physical and helpful. Since I hunch and clench in my desk chair when I’m stuck, I like to pick a task that gets my body moving and my shoulders open. I might pick a household chore (I like to scrub the bathtub because it’s quick but physically demanding), cook, do some yard work or even run up my stairs a few times. I find that it helps me to get off my screen and into motion.
Notice how you feel after you do your tiny non-work task and whether you’re able to begin the thing you have been avoiding. Then notice: How long can you continue until anxiety hits again? Is there a specific activity that almost always gets you in the mood to tackle a task?
Anxiety feels different for everyone. We all have different triggers, and we all react differently. Money, as I mentioned before, is a big anxiety trap for me. When I get unwelcome financial news, my brain immediately goes to a gloomy place: My business will fail, we will go broke, we will lose everything.
As you continue in your career, it’s crucial that you understand specifically what sets you off and how it affects your workday. Once you understand that, you can try to avoid these triggers and — when you can’t avoid them — use specific strategies or tools that can help you move out of anxiety.
Many people I talk to for my podcast “The Anxious Achiever” tell me that they find making to-do lists and detailed schedules helpful, because they help them cut down on ruminating and overwork. Others know that they need to sweat, get outside or run around with their dog to dissolve that knot of anxiety. I like to cook. When I’m anxious and unfocused, I make giant stockpots of broth or chili. Hey … it works for me.
It’s possible for you to create a remote workday that minimizes your anxiety, creates real connection and engagement with your coworkers, allows you to get your work done, and lets you feel OK about unplugging at night. But like all skills, learning how to manage your workday anxiety takes practice, time, and above all compassion for yourself. We all succumb to the cheese doodles at times, and that’s OK too.
Watch her The Way We Work video here:
Morra Aarons-Mele is a (mostly) happy, successful person. She also identifies as an extremely anxious overachiever. To normalize anxiety and help others manage theirs, Aarons-Mele launched and hosts The Anxious Achiever podcast for HBR Presents, which was a 2020 Webby Awards Honoree and is a top 10 management podcast. She’s passionate about helping people rethink the relationship between their mental health and their leadership. Aarons-Mele is also the founder of the award-winning social impact agency Women Online, which created a database of female influencers, the Mission List. She was named 2020 Entrepreneur of the Year at the Iris Awards, recognizing excellence in digital parenting media. Aarons-Mele is also a prolific writer. Since 2004 she has covered the campaign trail, the White House, the lactation room and the office cubicle. Her book, Hiding in the Bathroom: How To Get Out There (When You’d Rather Stay Home), was published in 2017, and she has written for the New York Times, Entrepreneur, Fast Company, Slate, InStyle, O, the Wall Street Journal, Forbes and the Guardian.
This piece was adapted for TED-Ed from this Ideas article.