The First Step to Productivity: Tackling Anxiety

Controlling the humming and distracting thoughts that keep you from your work.

This post was selected for inclusion in our Future of Art and Work series in December 2016. The series, sponsored by Microsoft Surface, selects some of our best posts exploring the topics of how art and work will look in the 21st century. This post was originally published in July, 2016.


Conventional wisdom has it that the quality of our work depends upon the degree of focus and concentration given to it. But achieving this  especially in today’s workplace is far from easy. We have to have discipline in our intention, deliberation, and coordination, and we should try to be as free from distraction as possible.

When we talk about distraction, it’s usually in the form of things like noise, workplace commotion, unexpected needs from clients, colleagues, and so on. But there’s a second kind of distraction that requires our attention, and it’s called anxiety.

Cerebral anxiety comes to us when our mind is out of joint, usually because we have brushed some important concern aside. Our mind, which wants us to attend to the matter, will not let us go about other business without allowing the ignored issue its proper due. And in these cases, the mind can be a rather inarticulate organ. It will take your conscience away from your work, raise your heart rate, even boggle your conscience with strange dreams; and the mind will continue to do so until you take the time to address what bothers you. Anxiety, in this sense, may as well be called internal distraction.

And ultimately, if we want to control the anxious commotion in our heads, we have to bring what concerns us out of the periphery and into the light.


Addressing anxieties can be one of the most effective ways to control them. Almost always, careful self-analysis will yield surprising results. Not only are you obligated to name what it is that bothers and gnaws at you, you are obliged to describe how these forces and conditions make you really feel. The essence of this idea is that by dedicating time to understanding your anxieties, you deprive them of the power to distract you from your work in moments when your attention is required elsewhere.

Pierre Khawand is a productivity expert and author of The Perfect 15-Minute Day. He believes it is impossible to perform optimally unless one preserves a calm emotional and cognitive foundation. Sometimes, this means starting one’s day by giving heed to, as Wallace Stevens called them, “the hum of thoughts evaded in the mind.” Khawand recommends a handy reference tool called the “Awareness Wheel” to get started. It looks like this:

Screenshot (5)

In more elaborate terms, the five questions outlined are:

  1. What do I sense about the situation? The point here is to identify the facts.
  1. What do I think about the situation? This has to do with what is going on in our mind such as our interpretations, our assumptions, and our opinions.
  1. How do I feel about the situation? This can range from extreme anger or fear on one end, to joy and happiness on the other end, and all shades in between.
  1. What do I want in this situation? This has to do with reflecting on our purpose and what we want to accomplish.
  1. What do I do in this situation? This has to do with identifying the potential actions and the best possible action.

And as Khawand notes, not only does the naming of names and the posing of questions help us manage our emotional concerns, they can help us understand them more deeply, equipping us to better deal with them now and in the future.


Everyone, even you, has a little voice inside their head that doubts the value and the quality of their work. Even worse, it wants your brain to associate those judgments with your identity and overall worth as a person. Danny Gregory, drawing from the title of his latest book, calls this voice “The Monkey,” and in it makes a case for the imperative of keeping the voice controlled and silent.

The Monkey likes to worry, and it wants you to worry with it, too. “The voice is here to warn you that what you are doing,” he writes, “or thinking about doing is a terrible idea that will destroy your life. It tells you the dire consequences that are about to fall on you. How your life will unravel maybe even end if you take the step you are contemplating. It is here to worry you, to scare you, to stop you.” It’s a dramatic and hyperbolic voice, speaking in frenzied, fevered language, which ought to highlight how imaginative and how far-gone from reality the voice is. Reality because our inner-critic is often so distant from it is a powerful tool in keeping that pesky voice muffled.

Perhaps wisely, Gregory notes that internal distraction is often the root cause of why we are drawn to external distractions in the first place. The Monkey that doubts and frets and worries drives us toward “French fries, Buzzfeed, drinking, chocolate cake, insomnia, and Real Housewives.” Media is a vice too, as The Monkey “loves the mindless vegetation of watching TV, numbing you with celebrities and gossip.” The Monkey would rather not deal with the possibilities of failure or disappointment, and prefers to divert itself. It is one of the many insidious ways unchecked anxiety and doubt can waste our time.

To overcome the voice of our inner-critic, we must first understand that it is averse to boldness, risk, novelty, and change. It holds so strong to comfort and familiarity that it distorts reality to get us to comply with it’s will. Checking these exaggerations requires us to be impartial, honest, and to acknowledge them fully and unsparingly (do you notice a common theme yet?).

Say you’re coming right off your latest effort, one that you’re convinced was a disaster. “Instead of being self-critical,” says Gregory, “be self-analytical. Start by avoiding value judgments; just use neutral descriptions.” Continue in this vein. Listen to the critical voice in your head, the voice that worries, and interrogate it. Mr. Gregory recommends asking yourself: “What is the fear? What are you really afraid of? Write it down. Describe it in detail. More detail. Keep peeling the onion.” Through such an effort, you will hopefully uncover the legitimate (and altogether manageable) source of your anxiety.


Someone once noted that every novel could be titled Great Expectations, and with good reason. There is something about the human capacity for hope and disappointment that makes expectation a central element of human discontent.

Falling short of our expectations or worrying about not living up to them are universal anxieties that are drains on both our psyche and productivity. Caroline Webb is a management consultant and author of the book How to Have a Good Day, which explores what behavioral science might teach us about performing at our best. We can be a fragile species, and are as easily deterred from our goals in failure as we are compelled to them in our success. Anxiety itself thrives within the ruins of dashed expectations. If we could minimize the gaps between execution and aim, we could give less occasion for our disappointments to metastasize.

Webb recommends setting one’s goals in bite-sized chunks; in setting definite and feasible benchmarks for your work. Say you want to speak French. Learning a language “is too big and amorphous to be on anything but the ‘someday’ part of your to-do list. But you could probably break the goal down into bite-sized chunks that are genuinely feasible today such as ‘do fifteen minutes of Internet research to find best-rated French classes’ or ‘call Nicole and ask her advice on learning French.’” In a similar fashion, she advises against making too ambitious a to-do list, out of the philosophy that it sets up the opportunity for wide rifts to form between one’s progress and goal, giving power to anxieties to deter and de-energize us.

When it comes to controlling anxiety, worry, and other means of interior distraction, it pays to approach the most unpleasant of our thoughts with a perceptive and sober eye. The consequences of ignoring them can send adverse ripples across the many levels of our life and work. We are far too complicated a species to stick ourselves to sheer discipline and hard work to succeed. If these new approaches to self-management reveal anything, it’s that the secret to a productive day is a balanced and emotionally-healthy mind.



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Stressed Out: The Modern Malfunction in Our Fight or Flight Response

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