An introduction, an invitation, even just a question–and suddenly you’re crushed under a set of possible outcomes. Impending and unavoidable. It’s like being comfortably settled in the dark when a light switch unexpectedly flips on. Suddenly you can see, but you don’t know where you are, and you don’t understand your surroundings. Still, you are in the spotlight and have to make sense of it all.
It’s more than facing a paradox of choice, it’s facing multiple distinct universes that I now know could exist but feel utterly unprepared to process–and yet responsible to take on. This is anxiety for me. It’s a condition that I know I share with many others in my line of work. Anxiety appears to go hand-in-hand with a key skill that product designers and many other professionals work hard to cultivate–the ability to see a problem from multiple perspectives, and to anticipate many possible outcomes. And yet anxiety can also sap our creative potential, keeping us perpetually in fight or flight mode and exhausting our minds and bodies.
Designers have become famous for the way they see the world, captured by the catch-all term “design thinking.” Can the more anxious of our ilk offer any ideas for working professionals, especially those in creative roles, to turn anxiety to their advantage? Is it possible to “design through anxiety”?
Tips for conquering anxiety from a designer’s tool kit
The first time I remember anxiety truly gripping my life was my first semester at college with an oversubscribed course load. Today I face the familiar pressures of the work world–as a designer, I’m constantly juggling multiple client projects, presenting concepts to C-level decision makers, and being asked to tackle difficult, novel problems that often require a knowledge set outside my area of expertise. There’s ample opportunity to succumb to anxiety. And when it descends, it’s fight or flight with nothing tangible to fight. It’s important to understand that anxiety is a physical response to what the body perceives as danger. It involves the amygdala, the seat of our emotions, and the hypothalamus, which releases cortisol and adrenaline. They increase the heart rate, blood pressure, and glucose levels–all of which is fine when you stumble on a bear, or when a man with a gun asks for your wallet. But it’s counterproductive to feel that way when your boss announces a tighter deadline.
Over the course of my career, I have learned not only how to manage my anxiety, but even use it as a tool to produce excellent work. I harness the positive traits of an anxious disposition–attention to detail, planning for all eventualities, conscientiousness of multiple variables. Here are eight tools that an anxious professional can use to fuel creativity while taking care of themselves and replenishing their cognitive abilities:
Minimize the unknown
Once the light switches on, and I begin to consider endless possible outcomes, there are two ways things can go: debilitation or empowerment. Now, instead of succumbing to the paralytic weight of worry, I choose to empower myself by solving for any variables I can anticipate in advance. Minimizing the unknown in advance can greatly alleviate both work- and social-related anxiety.
The task here is to first identify and then reduce or eliminate possible variables. What is the problem or situation at hand? What are my responsibilities? What new personalities will be involved? What knowledge gaps do I have? What skills am I missing? What do I need to produce? Who are the customers? What are the issues? Every responsibility has a different set of variables, so the earlier I can understand where I fit in, the better I can anticipate the answer to these questions.
Chasing down the logical thread for each possible outcome and answering questions that arise along the way is an important way for me to fight “imposter syndrome.” It’s harder to feel like a fraud when you’ve performed the mental research necessary to confidently address anything that arises. Confidence builds on itself. Success builds on itself. By expanding your comfort zone, you build a strong fortress where anxiety is no longer a serious enemy.
Know your boundaries
Especially difficult for those who suffer from anxiety is respecting their own boundaries and managing commitments against them. But this kind of self-awareness and self-care is critical for both professional and personal success.
Every deadline, every project timeline is its own source of anxiety for me. I can go from relaxed to panic attack by reading an email subject. Thus, I’ve given myself strict boundaries and allow myself to practice appropriate avoidance. For example, I don’t check my work email after hours. Additionally, I keep my personal calendar nearly empty. I’m always up for a spontaneous adventure, but let’s not plan much.
It’s important to observe and understand your boundaries and then create rules to ensure you respect them–particularly if you’re introverted or tend to people-please.
Until recently, one of my only lines of defense against anxiety was hard work. Being well rehearsed, well prepared, and churning out your best work is a sure way to reduce anxiety. No one would recommend workaholism as a long-term anxiety management tactic, of course; the most relevant component of this recommendation is focusing yourself on learning. Get your hands on everything you can to equip yourself for the task at hand. For me, educating myself on a topic allows me to process arguments and counter arguments–of those possible variables that I become aware of. I begin to demystify them. I put myself into each of them and begin to learn what’s in there. I begin to gain control. And then I start making, doing, and creating.
Apply “Trench Mentality” to your work
One of the most relevant experiences for anyone with an anxious disposition is being overwhelmed. To combat this, I design with a mental state that I call “Trench Mentality.” It’s an intense focus on the task at hand and working at and seeing what will be required to arrive at the point of minimal completion. While some parts may still require a bit of imagination or finesse, the whole thing is there. There is a huge sense of relief at this moment. From there, I’ll break down the process and fill in the details–again and again until the final product is where it needs to be.
Get comfortable with “good enough”
Managing my own expectations has been one of the more difficult lessons in my journey with anxiety. However, I now embrace the notion that it is wise–not lazy–to recognize when getting it done is more important than making it perfect. Success is almost always achieved in increments. When time is lacking, something is better than nothing.
It’s unrealistic to deliver 100% on all aspects of everything. Not only is it unrealistic, it’s wasted effort. There is an art to presenting relevant information balanced against the limited time we all face. As I progress through my trench designing, I constantly evaluate what parts need a higher fidelity and when certain parts are good enough. And that takes understanding where your greatest impact lies. It’s a challenging mental exercise for me: learning how to cut off certain variables, to leave some areas unexplored. It requires discipline that has taken time and experience to develop. And you know what? The world does not, in fact, fall apart. I’ve found a lot of freedom in that, and you will, too.
Diffuse responsibility through delegation
I’ve spent most of my career in “I’ll do it myself” mode. The challenge in delegation for me is that it opens up new variables and requires me to trust someone else to do an outstanding job. I need to trust their understanding, their skill set, and allow them to arrive at a solution I might not have chosen or entirely agree with. And, again, I need to remind myself when a thing is good enough.
The pitfall to avoid here is to go back and “fix” someone else’s work. It robs that person of a chance to learn and devalues their contribution. With practice, I’ve made great strides in this area, and finding satisfaction in seeing other people produce even better solutions than I would have come up with. Everyone wins.
Select a low-anxiety environment
It’s crucial to work with people and in environments that don’t ramp up your anxiety level. Do you notice heightened anxiety in a cubicle environment, an open office, or working from home?
Evaluate where there are choices you can make that could make you more comfortable and reduce your anxiety level. These are a few things you may want to examine: lighting, noise environment, temperature, your chair, your posture, wall color, immediate surroundings, work mates.
Listen to your body
Unfortunately, prolonged anxiety has negative health implications. Some people are more acutely susceptible to the physical ravages of anxiety than others, and the advice I’ve offered here will not be enough. If that’s the case, it may be time to have a heart-to-heart talk with yourself to consider making major changes in where you work or what you do. Consulting a doctor or counselor is another option in terms of available therapies and medications.
Taking better care of myself has become a key component of my anxiety-management strategy. And while it may feel unproductive at first, resting and recharging isn’t a weakness, it’s key to doing good work and staving off anxiety. Paying closer attention to your breathing and consciously taking deep breaths throughout the day can calm the autonomic nervous system and provide mini-recharges while you’re working. Exercise is also crucial. It’s the best way to flush out the residual side effects of the fight or flight response.
Recognizing a problem is the first step in solving that problem. Many, if not most people, have to come to terms with situations that raise stress levels at some point in their professional lives. Too many try to bullshit their way through it and end up suffering the consequences, not just professionally but in their private lives as well. Coming to terms with anxiety and finding a solution that works best for you requires patience, dedication, and a willingness to adopt new behaviors and attitudes–all in the name of solving a problem and surmounting the difficulties that life and career can throw at you.
Matthew Santone is a UX designer at Argodesign.