HSPs need to understand the dark side of productivity, so it doesn’t become an addiction.

My name is Emily. I am a time management geek. I’m in recovery—I hope. But I know why time management can take on an addictive pull for me. When you need ample time for rest, reflection, and play like I (and most highly sensitive people) do, you quickly bump into the unfortunate reality that each day contains only 24 hours.

Sometimes I wish I lived in Munchkin Land, where the inhabitants sing,

We get up at twelve and start to work at one,
Take an hour for lunch and then at two we’re done: jolly good fun!

Back in reality, I need to, and love to, work and contribute to our household. I also need to exercise, take care of paperwork, and do laundry, chores, cooking, and so on. If I’m not efficient with all that, then all hope of downtime is well and truly lost.

Hence my keen interest in Getting Things Done, Building a Second Brain, and related organizational systems designed to maximize efficiency. I’ve benefited a great deal from my attempts to master these systems.

Today, though, I want to talk about the dark side of productivity. The fact is, the lure of ever more efficiency and productivity can be an addictive trap. If you fall into that trap, you will discover it has exactly one piece of equipment in it: a hamster wheel. You get on that wheel. Then you run.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with running. However, if you aren’t careful, running becomes the whole point. You lose sight of the reality that you are sprinting constantly, but never arriving.

Productivity can be an addiction

In the Inner Bonding six-step model for healing, an addiction is defined as any activity we use to protect ourselves from feeling our feelings. When I hear the word “addiction,” my mind first goes to the widely recognized ones like alcohol, drugs, or sex.

Those addictions are easy to spot. However, just about any activity, from shopping to explaining to exercising, can be used to numb or distract yourself from your feelings. Among these, working hard and “being productive” serves as a socially sanctioned form of addiction for many people.

Hard work has certainly been a ‘go to’ addiction for me, even superseding my other favorite addictive activity—disappearing into a book. (Don’t get me wrong: I love reading. If I stay up way past my bedtime reading night after night, though, the reading is functioning as an addiction.)

Even in junior high school, I stayed busy all the time. “Have a productive day,” my mom would say as we left the house. I’d fill every spare minute with homework, cooking, sewing, reading, cleaning, and practicing.

Again, these activities weren’t inherently problematic. All of them are widely accepted as beneficial. The problem was my intent. I was anxious. However, instead of addressing the root cause of the anxiety, I developed an addiction to busyness. I used hard work to try to control my anxiety.

In the thrall of addictive thinking, I believed that if I just got enough done, I’d feel more peaceful. This hope kept me going, while the busyness itself numbed some of the anxiety I felt.

HSPs and the productivity trap

As I mentioned above, hard work—even workaholism—is a celebrated value in western culture. None of us is immune to the pull of this socially sanctioned addiction. However, HSPs are particularly vulnerable for three reasons:

  1. We are conscientious, even to a fault. We tend to be keenly aware of the effect of our actions (or our inaction) on others, and will push ourselves too hard to avoid letting anyone else down.
  2. We think deeply about the situations we are in. As a result we may foresee potential difficulties, and we feel responsible for addressing or preventing them.
  3. We hate being the object of others’ disappointment or disapproval. We dislike and fear conflict and the overarousal that accompanies it.
  4. Many of us are vulnerable to anxiety and low self-esteem. Working hard becomes a coping mechanism: we get recognition for it, and the addictive pull of constant work numbs the anxiety.

I’d like to pause for a moment and pause to point out how ridiculous it is, on a philosophical level, to say, “I kept busy doing stuff all day.” After all, you can’t be alive and not be doing something at any given moment. Intellectually, you can argue that the mere acts of sitting in a chair, or taking a nap, or staring into space, each constitute “something.”

To be “productive” by the typical social definition, you need to complete a list of “tasks.” The problem arises when we judge what constitutes a legitimate productive task. Paying bills? Legitimate. Playing a video game? Not legitimate.

Note which category your self-care needs fall in. Resting, reflecting, taking a walk–all these are suspect. No wonder someone coined the term “power nap:” a nap is one more thing you must do efficiently. You can see how easily HSPs can burn out trying to live within this productivity paradigm.

How to shift your productivity stance

To shift your stance towards productivity, you have to want to shift it. That sounds obvious, However, having struggled with it myself for years, I can attest that it isn’t necessarily easy.

I was so scared of being broke, I pushed myself constantly. I believed my absolutely only chance of surviving was to work myself to exhaustion every day. My motto was, “If I die (or go broke), at least I died trying.”

This wreaked havoc on my HSP nervous system. My workaholic attempts to tame my anxiety make it much worse, because I was chronically dysregulated and stressed. This made me less effective in every way.

I got so desperate that I finally sat myself down one day and said, “If I go broke, I go broke. But I can’t go through life without exercising. Screw it. I’m going to exercise, even though I don’t have time to exercise.” To my amazement, once I made time to exercise, my life seemed more spacious, not less.

The same thing happened later with meditation. I told myself, “I really do not have time in the morning to meditate AND exercise. But I cannot go through life without meditating. Screw it. If I go broke, I go broke.” And…you know the rest. I felt better, and miraculously, my life did not fall apart.

If you find yourself in the grips of a productivity addiction—pushing yourself to protect from feeling anxiety or other painful feelings— you can try my “screw it” method. Fair warning, though: for the part of you that believes overwork will save you, easing up will always feel like jumping off a cliff. You aren’t, of course, and being prepared for that fear to come up makes it easier to handle it.

Who is working?

There is a quicker, easier method though. You can go within and develop an inner relationship with the part of you that feels compelled to constantly be busy and productive. This part has its very good reasons, from its point of view, for behaving the way it does. However, as long as it is in charge of your work life, you will be in addiction mode.

There’s nothing wrong with working hard, if you want to. When I say “you,” I mean your adult self–that bigger “you” that can hold all your needs in consideration. To be able to happily say “yes” to work you also must be able to say “no.” Our inner parts can’t do that. They are acting under compulsion, and they have only a limited perspective.

This compulsive quality is an excellent way of identifying where your work urge is coming from. If work addiction is an issue for you, take a moment to recall from your past experience the whole-body feeling of working from a compulsive place.

Bringing “beingness” to your “doingness”

Once you recognize it for what it is, this distinctive feeling of addictive “doing” can provide you with powerful feedback that you are off track. That discomfort acts as a “stick.” We very much need “carrots” too, though. “Carrots,” in this context, are your experiences of beingness.

I’m sure you can think of times when you’ve felt a simple, deep joy and contentment. You may think of these “carrot” feelings as butterflies that land on your shoulder. That’s not an accurate metaphor. We have much more control than we think we do, over our state of beingness.

First, simply notice the quality of your beingness in the moment. If you feel tight or stressed, check in with yourself. Are pushing, rushing, or trying to be “productive?” Next, recall the feeling of being spacious and at ease. Finally, ask yourself what you would need to do right now to bring more of that quality of beingness into yourself here, now.

By way of inspiration, I offer this two-minute video shot by my friend and Focusing colleague, Anthony Ocone.* It shows a cloud slowly dissolving. (It’s in the center of the bottom row of videos, between two trees. You may want to watch more of the videos while you are there.)

As you watch the video, allow your attention to soften and broaden. Let it include the screen on which you are watching; the background behind the screen; the room around you; and your other senses of sounds smell, taste, and touch. Notice how your body feels when you do this.

This spacious awareness is available to you at any moment, even when you are working. It is a powerful antidote to addictive productivity. When you choose to expand your awareness in the moment, you consciously create the very peace that your “inner workaholic” is yearning for but can never quite attain. Miraculous, isn’t it?

Photo by Dan Freeman on Unsplash

*Note: My heartfelt thanks to Anthony Ocone for sharing his art. It never fails to put me in a spacious state. You can see more of Anthony’s art here.