he first thing I do when I wake up in the morning is check my email. I sleep with my phone under my pillow, and every morning, I hold my breath and scroll for anything important. It’s almost always your standard deluge of morning messages, but sometimes there are emails about exciting project opportunities like writing jobs or speaking gigs — the kinds of things I should be thrilled about given they’re how I earn an income. But in reality, they’re yet another entry on the list of things that make me anxious.
When you’re an anxious person, even something good can fill you with dread and panic: How will I deal with this important thing?
I work for myself, which means I’m in a perpetual state of semi-panic. My mind is filled with constant nagging worries that any self-employed person will easily recognize: What if my tax bill is huge? What if I fall and break my arm on the Metro? Should I have never quit my 9 to 5? Throw my anxiety into the mix, and most of my days are spent with a low-level fear that something bad will happen and that once I go through the internal whodunit in my mind, I’ll realize that I was to blame the entire time. The call was coming from inside the house; I am ruining my own life with my own behavior.
As a full-time creative professional who writes, hosts a podcast and designs social media content, a lot of my daily work involves staying on top of the kinds of tasks that get more difficult to deal with the longer I put them off. And they’re the kinds of tasks that feel so good to put off: answering that email, tracking down those forms, scheduling that appointment, booking that flight. I tell myself I deserve to put them off for a day, so I do. And then I do it again and again and again. Then it becomes habit. But in my line of work, putting off an email could mean missing out on a big gig or a deadline and rent money.
I was recently offered a dream opportunity: to produce a live episode of my podcast at South by Southwest in front of a sizeable audience. It was the perfect launchpad for a budding creative like myself, but it was also a perfect storm of things that make me anxious.
As soon as the opportunity landed in my inbox, a familiar chorus line of anxiety was set in motion. Would I overthink the confirmation email reply and never send it? Would I be too nervous to cold email people? Would I stress about booking the last-minute flight and put it off until it was financially prohibitive? How would I ruin this golden opportunity? How much would I hate myself for it if I did?
While I voiced all these anxieties aloud to a close friend, I realized I sounded like a pessimistic broken record and that I wasn’t even giving myself the chance to imagine it would be a success; I had already decided the outcome would be a negative one. It was a moment of clarity.
Wendy Wood, a social psychologist who studies the neurology of habits and how to break them, writes that a key component of breaking habitual behavior is giving yourself space to do things differently. “First you must derail existing habits and create a window of opportunity to act on new intentions,” she says. The way someone who’s trying to quit soda might have to train themselves to stop wandering down the soda aisle when grocery shopping, Wood says that disrupting your old cues is one of the keys to breaking bad habits. In other words, if anxiety has me feeling like a broken record, I need to actually do something — anything! — to break the repetition. Stop sleeping with my phone under my phone under my pillow. Delete the Instagram app. Have a friend change my Facebook password. Work from anywhere other than my apartment and vow to not return until I’ve finished. (If you already have a great tactic, add it in the comments.)
Wendy Wood’s words really spoke to me. I don’t have to play this the way I always do, I thought to myself. I may have anxiety, but that doesn’t mean anxiety has me.
Bolstered by the notion that I could break the pattern, that I was in control, I took a deep breath and began. I listed out the steps I needed to take in descending order and gave myself an hour to complete them. I emailed the important people. I booked the guests. I bought the last-minute flights. Instead of dwelling on the dread these kinds of tasks often elicit in me, I rolled up my sleeves and did them before I had the chance to procrastinate. And you know what? My last-minute flight to Austin didn’t bankrupt me or crash into the ocean. The important guests confirmed their attendance and then showed up. People came and enjoyed themselves. The live show went mostly as planned, and I was elated. And even though there were some tiny snags (like when a guest showed up so close to showtime I could only assume I’d given her the wrong address), it was okay. Nobody got fired. Nobody died. Nobody got screamed at. Even if things don’t go 100 percent smoothly, they went, which is better than not going at all.
This whole experience showed me is that I am not my anxiety and that I can break out of the cycle of feeling unable to tackle things that I’ve deemed “hard.” If any of this sounds familiar to you and your creative process, here are some tactics I’ve found helpful while tackling the biggest anxious hitch in my own.
Spend Some Time Thinking About Why Things That “Should Be Exciting” Feel Stressful to You
In an interview with the Creative Independent, sociologist Eve Ewing explains how she handles that all-too familiar feeling of really, really not wanting to do something.
She says: “I’m a big believer that when you don’t want to do something, there’s a deeper reason. When I find myself dragging or having a hard time, I step back and ask, ‘Why aren’t you doing this? Is it ‘cause the project isn’t important? Why’d you do it then? Is it just for money? Like you agreed to do this just for money or you said yes because the person seemed important?’ And I’m like, ‘Maybe you shouldn’t do that again.’”
I first read that when I was in a tailspin of writer’s-block-induced self-loathing, and it sparked another moment of clarity. If I don’t actually want to do something I agreed to do, acknowledging my reluctance can help me decide next steps.
I know it’s easy to ignore those feelings and struggle through the associated tasks instead, but next time you find yourself filled with dread and anxiety about a project, ask yourself: Is it early enough in the project that you can responsibly pull the plug? If you can’t bow out, who can you ask for help? Can you ask for a deadline extension? Even if none of that is possible, spend a little time ruminating on the why of this anxiety and remember its source; this can give you clarity when faced with a similar decision next time. It will give you a lot of insight into how you work.
Be Like Nike and Just Do It
According to a Lifehacker piece about procrastination, we start feeling anxious about tasks the moment they plop onto our plates (no sh*t), and that anxiety worsens the longer we put tasks off. If you’re not actually making progress, then nothing happens during this phase other than the accumulation of bad feelings. So, if you want to save yourself weeks of feeling like an unproductive piece of crap, the only logical thing to do is just start.
Easier said than done, I know. Here are some tips I use: Try setting a timer and writing nonstop for five minutes. Or break your project down into small, easier-to-manage tasks. If writing and sending a two-minute email will get the ball rolling on a project, start there and use the momentum it creates to fuel your next steps.
At Harvard Business Review, economist and executive coach Caroline Webb writes that zeroing in on the smallest step is a good way to dive into a daunting project. You know how procrastinating feels so good? That’s because research shows your brain is pretty much always biased toward feeling good now over feeling good later. To combat that, Webb says you should identify that easy-to-accomplish first step, “something that’s so easy that even your present-biased brain can see that the benefits outweigh the costs of effort.”
Make an Accountability Pact
I’m lucky to have friends in my life who hold me accountable; they recognize my patterns (when I go MIA, it means I’m stressing) and they help get me back on track. Having an easier time staying on track when friends are involved isn’t unusual: A study from the Institute of Applied Health Sciences at the University of Aberdeen asked a group of participants to find a new “gym buddy” while a different group worked out solo. In the end, the group who leaned on supportive workout pals worked out more.
Asking a friend or roommate to keep you on track requires vulnerability and clear communication. This can feel scary, so offer to make it a two-way street. Maybe your friend helps you beat procrastination while you help her get to the gym more. Maybe you both text one another when you want to stray from your paths. This way, you’re both sharing in the vulnerability while offering mutual support.
Once you’ve completed the project that caused you anxiety, reward yourself! Getting a handle on anxiety isn’t easy. Celebrate small victories. You train a puppy by giving her a treat when she exhibits behavior you want her to repeat, right? Think of yourself as a more complex version of a puppy and reward yourself for completing tasks.
When I finally tackle a handful of things I’ve been putting off, I celebrate by watching “bad TV.” And while I’m still in the middle of the work, knowing that I get to watch whatever I want (for as long as I want) once I finish keeps me going. It’s a literal light at the end of the tunnel.
Webb says treating yourself is effective because it helps take the edge off having to do things we don’t want to do. “We can make the cost of effort feel even smaller if we link that small step to something we’re actually looking forward to doing. In other words, tie the task that we’re avoiding to something that we’re not avoiding,” she writes.
For me, anxiety is like that mean girl from junior high who was always there to point out my flaws, only she lives inside my head. While I may never fully silence the inner monologue that drives me to obsess on the scary “what ifs” of any given situation, I’ve learned that I don’t have to let it stop me from doing the things I want to do in life — starting with my to-do list.
Bridget Todd is writer and digital strategist who lives out of a suitcase. She is the cohost of the podcast Stuff Mom Never Told You. Her Twitter is @BridgetMarie and her IG is @BridgetMarieinDC
lllustrations by Gabrielle Lamontagne.