The Upside of Anxiety

We often think of anxiety in negative terms. And of course, it can be debilitating and miserable. But it can also be a tool that you leverage, either for your own, or your team’s benefit.

Anxiety comes in many forms. Excitement, jitters before a race, and butterflies in your stomach on a first date are all forms of anxiety.  But unlike clinical anxiety, they have positive associations.

One place where a form of anxiety is ubiquitous is in start-ups. Most of my clients feel pressured. They don’t complain about anxiety, but they grapple with managing competing priorities and constant urgency. Despite feeling uncomfortable, they produce extraordinary results and solve problems in unforeseen ways. Could that be due to their moderate anxiety?

Watch the 6 Minute Video here.

The Mogul Down the Street

My neighbor, “Judith”, is a carefree woman in her mid-70s. She is friendly and outgoing, often inviting me for a glass of wine as I pass her house with my dog.

She recently sold her real estate business for roughly $65m. It could have been much more but she retained one commercial high-rise for its rental revenue.

Judith’s an unlikely mogul. Raised in poverty, she struggled in school because of her severe dyslexia, and barely finished high school.

But, she has grown an empire from nothing, and attributes much of her success to the quest to relieve her anxiety.

She is relentless in strategizing the best avenues to her goals, and will go toe-to-toe with the financiers and attorneys who underestimate her. They soon revise their assessments.

Despite having a $65m “nest egg” and a massive portfolio earmarked for her children, she is uncomfortable without income and a cash reserve. An annuity will not satisfy that need. So, she maintains the one building.

Is it the most conventional financial plan? No. But it’s the only way she can relieve the anxiety that remains from her impoverished childhood.

Anxiety As Prod to Action

The data show when we experience moderate anxiety we better manage our time and resources. That leads to greater productivity and better outcomes.

In my own life I compulsively try to complete things the second I think of them. It’s not the “bias for action” so many recruitment ads mention. It’s anxiety –although I never recognized it as anxiety until recently. The minute I complete the task, I feel relieved—as though I can breathe again.

Part of what keeps non-anxious people from completing tasks is distraction. But, when anxiety is the driver, it is its own distraction. Plus, it seems to intensify concentration and focus. So anxious people do more, and do it with greater concentration.

Decision-Making and Risk Assessment

It surprised me that anxiety is associated with enhanced decision-making and risk assessment. We often think of it as causing indecisiveness or rashness. But the anxiety borne of external pressure, time-sensitivity or even high stakes can raise conscientiousness.

Here’s the thinking on it:

Information Gathering:  

Our primitive genetic coding makes us great at collecting data when we feel stressed. Recognizing scat as belonging to a saber-toothed tiger was critical when foraging in the wilderness.

Every decision starts with information –even simply deciding where to order pizza.

I often struggle with this aspect of decision-making because it’s hard to know when you have enough information; there is always more. Recently I was trying to choose a new mobile phone.  I narrowed the choice down to 3 options. But then I continued to read more and more reviews of all three models, hoping something would clinch the choice. Ultimately, I bought a phone –but I continue to review the data. I’m “checking my work”.

Lots of people fall into the trap of “analysis paralysis”, otherwise known as following a Google search to 150 open tabs (as I nearly did). But, the addition of anxiety seems to make that search more focused and discriminating. There is pressure to decide, and it focuses the mind.

Risk Assessment:

Anxiety wakes us up to risk. Our enhanced risk sensitivity makes us better judges, able to weigh the probabilities and calibrate decisions accordingly. Of course, if your anxiety is paralyzing, you may be intolerant of any risk. But at moderate levels, it helps.

Plus, another benefit of anxiety is that with that risk-sensitivity we viscerally feel the potential for failure. So, anxious people also craft better contingency plans.

Anxiety, a Creative Turbocharge

Finally, although the idea of artistic temperament being linked to mental illness is long since debunked, there is a connection between creativity and anxiety.

Tests of divergent thinking show that when people are feeling moderate levels of anxiety, they are more creative. Whenever we connect unlike concepts or objects together to form novel combinations we are thinking divergently. That’s what knowledge workers do. Whether plotting an engineering sprint, or negotiating a partnership, divergent thinking is our tool of choice.

The addition of anxiety, and consequent uptick in creativity could mean 10 patents instead of 5 or the invention of a new revenue stream –like the Lego™ team did when they added theme parks to their manufacturing business.


Is This Useful?

All of this could just be interesting. But there are ways you can use this both for your own work and for your team.

For Yourself:
Are you a procrastinator who does great work at the 11th hour? That adrenaline rush at the last minute is anxiety. So, exert that pressure sooner. Work with your coach or manager to craft preemptive deadlines that will increase your sense of stress—thereby reducing your procrastination and increasing your productivity.

For Your Team:
You can also create organizational structures that produce mild stress. Instead of complete autonomy, time-lock projects with stringent milestones. Set up brainstorming sessions to solve confounding process or strategy problems in an hour, instead of over days or weeks. Along with producing stress, time, resource, and methodological constraints all catalyze greater creativity.

But before you start turning the central heat up to boiling on your engineers to induce anxiety, more is NOT better. The effect seems to be tied to a sweet spot of neither low nor very high anxiety. So, maybe add deadlines but leave the temperature comfortable!

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