In our new #Take5 series, we release a short 5-point post on the 5th of each month.
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Normal levels of anxiety keep us on track and motivate us to get stuff done, hopefully on time. But sometimes, anxiety gets out of control and actually prevents us from completing our work. The incomplete tasks then increase our anxiety, making it even harder to be productive. Needless to say, this is a very unpleasant cycle that can make grad school life miserable. Here are a few ideas to help manage your work-related anxiety.
1. Break your to-do list down into small steps, and allow yourself to be satisfied with completing just some of them. Does your list right now say something like “finish writing that %#$@ report”? Maybe that isn’t a realistic goal for today. But you can open the file, write a draft introductory paragraph, and watch that tutorial on the new data analytic technique you need to learn.
2. Try to find an accountability partner who can help you get an early morning start, before the anxiety has a chance to peak. Staying in bed and avoiding your work can feel great in the short term, but you will be kicking yourself later. Find a friend who’d be willing to meet you at the office or at a coffee shop one or two mornings a week.
3. Schedule actual life stuff so you have at least a few hours a week when you literally cannot be working. In grad school, you feel like you should be working all the time. If you struggle with anxiety over your work, then this means you feel anxious all the time. Break this harmful cycle by scheduling at least one regular night off. Engage in a specific, absorbing activity so you are distracted from your work. Netflix won’t work. Set up a sushi date with a loved one, a weekly cooking group with friends, or sign up for Zumba.
4. Accept that your mental health is a valid reason to ask for an extension. High-functioning folks are reluctant to ask for help, and we fear being seen as incompetent or (gasp!) lazy if we don’t meet deadlines. But if your anxiety is spiralling out of control as that deadline approaches, the quality of your work is probably going to suffer. Give yourself a break – in most cases, a quick email asking for a few more days is perfectly normal.
5. Use tried and tested anxiety reduction techniques. Focusing on your body, just 5 minutes of deep breathing might prepare you to tackle that project you’ve been dreading. Focusing on your thoughts, take a minute to acknowledge that although you feel very anxious, you have the task under control, and in the past you’ve successfully completed many similar ones. Use a “worry journal”: when an anxious thought comes to mind, briefly record it in a notebook or separate Word document, then return to your work.
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