Perhaps you’ve noticed a pattern emerging in your daily or weekly planner. While plenty of projects cycle on and off the to-do list more or less on schedule, a stubborn handful turn over from one day, week, or month to the next without progress—and frustratingly, they are the projects you find most meaningful.
If this sounds familiar, it’s worth taking a closer look at what’s holding you back. As it turns out, a packed to-do list that leaves no time for meaningful work can be a sign that something deeper is going on: anxiety.
Work-related anxiety is a vestigial response, explains psychologist Andrew Rosen, founder and director of the Center for Treatment of Anxiety and Mood Disorders in Delray Beach, Florida. That feeling of panic or agitation when you’re stressed is part of the physical “fight or flight” response humans evolved to respond to threats.
A surge of chemicals that prepares you to fight for your life is a helpful reaction when facing an actual predator. When facing social threats like embarrassment or loss of status, it’s much less helpful—but still terribly uncomfortable. So uncomfortable, in fact, that we’re often not even aware of the lengths we’ll go to avoid it.
“Avoidance is a hallmark of anxiety,” says Robin Yeganeh, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley and director of the Cognitive Behavior Therapy and Mindfulness Center in San Ramon, Calif.
It’s a vicious cycle, he says. People anxious about a significant goal will often engage in unproductive behaviors (email, social media, trivial errands—anything other than getting down to business) to avoid that discomfort, only to feel more distressed as time passes and no progress on the goal has been made.
But when it comes to things that are important to us, what are we so afraid of?
First, our feelings about this goal may be more complicated than they seem, said Leslie Connor, a licensed psychologist in Wilmington, Delaware. Every success comes with tradeoffs—more exposure, more pressure, less freedom—and ignoring worries about those can come back to bite us.
“If we only connect with the affirming feelings, and push down the ambivalence or fears, they will come out. But sometimes they will bang on the door,” Connor said.
And then there is the big one: the fear of failing.
Humans are remarkably creative when it comes to finding ways to avoid that bad feeling, be it procrastination (“I’ll do it tomorrow”), diversion (“I’ll just check Twitter first”), or self-sabotage (“You know what? It’s a dumb idea anyway.”) This last one is particularly popular among analytical or cerebral types who may not even realize the extent to which their hyper-rational reasons for abandoning a dream are influenced by fear.
“A lot of times you see a person get excited about a goal, and rather quickly the excitement turns into disillusionment or disappointment because they’ve become hyper-vigilant and destroyed the goal before they even had a chance to explore it,” Rosen said.
So how do you dig yourself out of this hole?
“We often get in the bad habit of choosing actions that are more comfortable over behaviors that are good for us based on ‘reason giving,’” Yeganeh said. “For example, ‘I work hard so I shouldn’t have to do X’ or ‘I am too tired to make progress on X.’ I would suggest listing all the reasons for not engaging in higher priority behaviors and then challenging the credibility of each reason. Decide if these rules have led to successes in life or if they need to be upgraded in favor of success-oriented reasons for making decisions.”
Yeganeh does an exercise with clients in which he asks them to imagine a see-saw teetering back and forth between “what feels good” and “what’s good for me.”
“I ask clients to mindfully notice which choice they make in relation to particular growth areas and then identify which choice they value,” he said. “If they value ‘what’s good for me,’ we lean in and develop a more specific plan of action.”
In the short term, the most effective strategy is breaking a larger goal down into small, measurable steps—and scaling expectations way back, Connor said. When you’re paralyzed by worry, just opening a Google doc and choosing a title counts as progress—so don’t promise yourself that three pages of fluid writing will follow. And beware the creep of perfectionism, in all its forms.
“There are the stereotypical perfectionists, with their color coded calendars, and then there is a whole subset of perfectionists that look quite the opposite. And that’s because they can’t be perfect so they throw in the towel,” Connor said. “Perfectionism is an approach to a goal that inevitably defeats the goal.”