What is ‘Productivity Paranoia’ and How Do You Fix It?

TikTok is talking about it, therapists are talking about it, and even the World Economic Forum is talking about it. It’s productivity paranoia and could be trapping you in a cycle of stress. So where does this experience come from, and how do you get out of it?

What is Productivity Paranoia?

Productivity paranoia is the consistent worry that you, your team, or your employees aren’t getting enough done. It’s more likely to affect remote workers, according to recent data. Still, productivity paranoia can happen anywhere – in your personal, work, or emotional life.

“The rapid change and prolonged season of uncertainty have taken its toll on every area of our lives,” says Dr. Robyne Hanley-Defoe, author of Calm Within The Storm: A Pathway to Everyday Resiliency and Stress Wisely: How to Be Well in an Unwell World. “And like all change seasons, the ability to adapt to the new realities uncovers truths.”

According to a study from Microsoft of 20,000 employees, fears about productivity don’t align with the reality of what’s getting done. Tasks are getting completed, and projects are launching, but workers don’t believe they’re doing enough. However, it’s less of an office phenomenon and more of an overarching psychological trend.

“While there really is no one-stop solution or fix, the current trends in the professional landscape are a battle cry for weary employees and leaders,” Dr. Robyne says. “A reckoning is needed. And productivity paranoia is just the latest symptom making the headlines.”

Where Does it Come From?

Productivity paranoia, Dr. Robyne says, is just a more significant part of life-altering stress. The fantasy that someone else (or you) isn’t getting enough done is more about the constant feelings of anxiety that can plague you and trap you in what Dr. Robyne calls a ‘stress cycle.’ 

“It is an extremely complex system both psychologically and physiologically, and we are not recovering from the stress cycling as needed. Hence, productivity paranoia, quiet quitting, languishing, and mass resignation are becoming more common.”

“The problem lies in how we are doing our professional and personal work has hit a critical point of no longer being reasonable within human limits,” Dr. Robyne says. “If we continue down this path of ‘trying’ to balance both the professional demands and our complex personal lives, it will inevitably result in burnout.”

Burnout, Dr. Robyne says, can be triggered by being trapped in this cycle. She continues that the three clinical signs of burnout are irritability, exhaustion, and error. Everything feels urgent, the sufferer feels helpless, and they believe things will never change. 

“It is a steady erosion of a person’s sense of identity, purpose, and capabilities.”

She also says productivity paranoia comes from the ‘disease to please’ – when someone is “starving for connection and recognition.” 

“People need to hear they are doing a good job and that their work matters. We need to know the sacrifices we make daily count somehow.”

What do we do about it?

If you’re suffering from productivity paranoia, here’s what Dr. Robyne recommends you do.

1. Acknowledge it. 

First, she says, you must recognize that your lifestyle isn’t sustainable. Existing in a stress cycle will only lead to a life of exhaustion, sadness, and bleakness.

2. Set two days of rest. 

Next, get rid of all responsibilities for two days – and Dr. Robyne means all responsibilities. Rent a hotel room if needed, hire someone to clean your house or watch your kids, or have a staycation. 

3. Get back to work.

Finally, get back to work. Dr. Robyne says you can’t handle stress just by removing yourself from it forever. Stress recovery needs to occur in the context of the things that stress you out, or else you’ll never be able to handle things continuously.

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