My anxiety has often functioned like a shot clock, especially in social situations. Instead of feeling like I had plenty of time to answer someone who asked me a question, I would instead feel pressure to react immediately.
And every millisecond that elapsed before I was able to respond pained me greatly. It was a bit like playing one of those electronic trivia games that discount your score the longer you take to lock in your answer. I could feel the other person’s respect for me draining away.
There was no time to think. I needed to answer. As soon as possible.
I took this attitude into other tasks, too. I routinely rushed through whatever I did, worried that I wouldn’t have enough time.
It didn’t matter that I was always the first one done with my duties at work, finding myself having to find other ways to kill the time if and when I ran out of things to do. I didn’t adjust my pace. I blazed ahead.
Learning That I Wasn’t Actually Taking Forever
It wasn’t until I was talking one day with one of the directors (my boss) about why they’d hired me that I realized I wasn’t actually taking forever.
“You were an amazing interview,” she said.
“Huh,” I said. “Really?” To my own recollection, I’d performed marginally. Hadn’t been 100% satisfied with the answers I’d given to her questions. And certainly not with the speed I’d given them. I’d definitely felt lulls and the panic that accompanied them.
“Yes,” she said. “You didn’t even have to think about the questions I asked you. You had answers instantly. And good ones. Like that.” She snapped her fingers.
I was stunned at the difference between what she was describing and what I’d been experiencing at the time. How I came off and how I felt inside.
We switched to talking about other, more pressing matters, but I found myself thinking about that conversation from time to time over the next several days, especially when I was talking to people and feeling my normal pressure to respond ASAP.
Slowing Down Didn’t Sabotage Anything
As I paid more attention, I started to realize that in spite of my anxiety that I was taking forever, I was actually quite quick to respond. And once I realized this, I began to experiment: What would happen if I took a breath or two before responding? What would happen if I let myself better absorb what had just been said to me before throwing in my take?
Shockingly, people didn’t become frustrated with me. Or give up. My professional life didn’t fall apart. Nothing at all like that.
Instead, if anything, it seemed to improve my interactions with people. My frenetic energy seemed to mellow a bit. The quality of my responses improved, with the sense of panic no longer distracting me from thinking straight. And the people I spoke with felt better listened to.
Instead of wasting time by taking just a few extra seconds here and there, I started collaborating more efficiently with others and at the end of the day not wasting time but saving time. And certainly saving myself stress.
This was stunning. Not at all what I expected.
I began to experiment with other things, other tasks, pacing myself. Giving myself a few seconds here and there to breathe. To think. To reflect.
Now, I was still very focused on the task and engaged with it. I wasn’t off taking a million breaks or scrolling through social media for hours on end, neglecting my responsibilities.
But I was approaching my workload without the usual sense of pressure and panic. And just letting myself work through it at a relaxed pace.
Again, the results surprised me. I was finishing up the work in about the same time frame as when I’d pressured myself and hurried — but the quality of the work was much better. And I also found it easier to start on a second project immediately, where in the past when I hurried, I would have needed a longer break between the two.
It Takes a Ton of Energy to Be Stressed
Like a lot of people, I’d made the assumption that gentle, relaxed people can’t get much of anything done. That to be productive it’s required that you feel pressured, rushed, stretched to your “full potential.”
I’d heard this and met other people who adhered to this principle countless times. It sounded right to me.
I hadn’t factored in an extremely important reality: It takes tremendous emotional energy to be stressed out. To hurry. To rush.
Was I moving faster? Sure. But I was also using a lot of energy to do so, energy I could be applying towards working out better solutions or building better interpersonal relationships.
I also realized that my tendency to procrastinate didn’t help. I was spending more energy dreading projects that I still had to do than I did actually doing them. Not because I was lazy, but because I spent a lot of time worrying that I wouldn’t execute them perfectly. Trying, and failing, to work out perfect solutions wholesale in my mind before I started.
It was a bit like I’d been trying to solve entire jigsaw puzzles without even touching them instead of sitting down and simply moving the first piece.