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The Stress-As-Motivation Myth (and why it’s harming you)

There is a common myth that driving ourselves with stress is somehow necessary to get shit done. Sound familiar?

Do you use how much you get done in a day to praise or condemn yourself? As a grad student, I used to congratulate myself for crossing off a full to-do list, but most days I rode myself hard for “not doing enough.” I was on a roller-coaster of overwork, with heavy-duty productivity days, working too many hours and through non-existent breaks, followed by days of epic burnout, when I did virtually nothing but snack, day-drink, and watch TV. I firmly believed that I had to be stressed out in order to get work done. Fundamentally, this was because I thought I was lazy. I used the burnout days as evidence that left to my own devices, I would be a slug. I only learned differently when this whole cycle became unsustainable and I reached out to a coach. Then I learned the truth.

The truth is, I am not lazy. And if this sounds like you, you’re not lazy either. You’re exhausted.
You’re exhausted from riding yourself too hard. You’re exhausted from overworking while ignoring the need for rest that is baked into your body and mind as a human being. Those burnout days are not evidence of laziness. They are evidence of an unsustainable level of overwork.

The other truth, and maybe the one that is more radical to consider, is that driving ourselves with anxiety about our to-do list is not actually motivating. You are getting things done despite your stress, not because of it. Stress and anxiety are emotions that drive very predictable actions for humans, which are to hide and avoid. Think about it. Remember back to when you have been very anxious about a project. When feeling anxious, did you truly want to do it or did you really want to avoid it? We get to the doing when we fear the consequences of our avoidance, usually right up near the deadline (which is where the consequences of avoidance start overtaking our fear of the thing itself). All of this is the emotional underpinning of procrastination, but it also plays out daily for a lot of people who don’t identify as procrastinators. I didn’t identify as a procrastinator, but I certainly played this game. It was only when I stepped off this roller-coaster that I realized the enormous amount of time and energy I was spending trying to push myself to do things.

Each task is a hill. Every day, you pick up a bully at the bottom of the hill, put him on your back, and trudge up the hill with him yelling at you the entire way. You get to the top exhausted. After doing this many times, you start to think that you need this bully yelling in your ear to get up the hill. You think he is motivating you when he’s just adding to your load.

The idea of stress-as-motivation, and our pervasive culture of productivity-at-all-costs, is frankly harmful. There is a reason medical doctors increasingly warn about stress (a catch-all term for negative emotions of anxiety, fear, and overwhelm that are associated with high levels of cortisol in the body). It’s harming us. Work-related stress in the U.S. and Canada is particularly high, especially for women. In many nations, work-related stress contributes strongly to pervasive health issues including diabetes, heart disease, gastrointestinal disorders, depression, anxiety, and sleep disorders.

Many of these same nations have strong cultural messages that productivity bestows the right to self-worth. Culturally, productivity is especially compulsory for anyone who is not rich, white, and male. Economic systems, religious history, and white-supremacist patriarchy have all contributed to the underlying narrative that humans — especially BIPOC, women, and poor people — are inherently lazy and sinful.

It’s no wonder that there is such big money in purported “relaxation” — whether in the form of substances (sugar, alcohol, etc.) or other escapes (phone and video games, TV, gambling, shopping). We have a hard time powering down and really resting these days. And when we do, we feel guilty. Unless we’re doing something that falls into another culturally “acceptable” category, such as fitness or caretaking. This is especially true for women since the cultural narrative for “goodness” in women rests on self-sacrifice and male-approved looks.

However, just because stress-as-motivation and productivity-as-worthiness are common cultural messages doesn’t make them true. It is not necessary to feel guilty for fulfilling the basic human need for rest. You are allowed to stop. Breathe. Do absolutely nothing. You don’t have to keep these values once you realize that they are harming you. Stressing out about your tasks is actually optional. When I learned that I could actually just do the work I chose to do without all the productivity anxiety, everything took less time and energy. You can put down the bully. Just walk up the hill. It will be so much easier and more pleasurable.

The Counter-Intuitive Productivity Hack: Rest More
Your life does not have to fall apart if you give yourself permission to rest. If you cut yourself some slack, it does not mean that you will binge TV every day for the rest of your life and die in a puddle of ice cream.
Of course, if you haven’t let yourself rest much, you might need to catch up a bit. Yes, you actually might need to give yourself permission to recharge without shame, which undermines full rest. Consider it a grand challenge. Consider how you could truly wind down (hot tip: occupying your brain with doom-scrolling doesn’t count). If you allow yourself true rest without shame, you will notice that once you are rested, you get antsy. We are not built to do anything forever. We are too curious, too motivated…too bored. This is human nature. We are driven to do, to make, to explore, to engage. But we need to balance that with rest, play, and relaxation. The place of balance is the sweet spot of creativity. The place where you can bring your best self to your work and your people.
Start Here
So, how do you stop forcing yourself around the hamster wheel? How do you engage with work without all the stress?
Catch up on rest if you are exhausted. You may need a few days. If you can’t take them totally off, then scale back effort and just do the bare minimum for a week. Notice that the world does not fall apart. Then, start identifying what thoughts and emotions actually do to help you accomplish tasks without drama. Cultivate those. I recommend a journal. Try out different ways of talking to yourself intentionally: like telling yourself that it will probably be easier than you think, that you’re excited to see the end result, that the process will teach you something, or that you’re good at this — all of these can be helpful. Find the ones that work for you. Notice when you’re intimidated by a task and break it down into the smallest pieces you can, so small that each action is too easy to be scary. That will help you believe it actually is easy to take action on the task (which is why this common piece of anti-procrastination advice actually works: because it helps you believe action is easy).
The Payoff
You can do work because you find it interesting, enjoyable, or because you simply enjoy getting paid. Without the drama. You can do work, then stop, rest, and choose not to worry about what you did or didn’t get done today. You can choose not to worry about what you have decided to do tomorrow or the next day. You can trust yourself to show up with your talents and creativity and get done whatever you have decided to get done.
This doesn’t remove all stress in the life of course, but it does remove a large chunk of the optional stress you’ve been inadvertently choosing if you’ve been driving yourself with to-do list anxiety. When you are free to do work because you truly want to, it actually makes the work go so much more quickly and easily. Rather than the fear of not working, you’ll find that you get so much more done than it actually seems like magic. It’s not. It’s really just basic cognitive theory — your brain works best when you are on board, not when you are fighting yourself. Working from this place, you’ll be able to set healthy boundaries with yourself about when you work and when you rest.
I learned to make this true for me and I invite you to do the same. When you unhook your self-worth from your productivity, you actually can get more done, more joyfully. It’s counterintuitive but absolutely true. Bullying yourself takes an inordinate amount of your energy and time. Stopping is liberating and joyful.
Living this way doesn’t come from a single decision, but a single decision can get you started. What if you decided today that you won’t beat yourself up about productivity anymore? That you are enough no matter what? This isn’t a bullshit affirmation — you are not trying to fool yourself. Instead, the goal is just to notice what is already true and reject social conditioning to the contrary. Just try saying it out loud: “It’s possible that I am enough, no matter what I get done today.” Practice believing that.
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