These 4 Pitfalls Are Causing Anxiety & Stress — Here's How To Avoid Them

Contributing writer By Amy Jen Su
Contributing writer
Amy Jen Su is the Managing Partner & Co-founder at Paravis Partners, a boutique executive coaching and leadership development firm. She has worked with CEOs, executives, and rising stars in organizations to sustain and scale their “highest and best” as they lead organizational change and transformation.

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What I have come to understand is that more often than not, we cloud our vision as a coping mechanism. Meaning, in response to some sort of challenge or uncertainty, we turn to our go-to form of relief. This makes perfect sense, as all coping mechanisms offer a short-term benefit, such as temporary relief from anxiety and stress. But inevitably, most coping mechanisms reach their limits, and if relied on for too long, they can lead us into a deeper hole.

I've found that there are four types of these pitfalls we typically fall into, which keep us in a cycle of stress, ineffectiveness, negativity, or feeling overwhelmed. I call them the Four Pitfalls of Doing: 

1. The "I'll just do more" pitfall. 

There will always be more to do than we have hours in the day to do. The "I'll just do more" pitfall leads us into a false comfort zone crammed with volume, motion, and activity. 

When we're in the "I'll just do more" pitfall, we believe that as long as we keep working—harder and longer—we'll be able to add more value, get ahead of others, get more out of life, or just feel OK. 

In this mindset, our lens becomes clouded with all that's going on, and we lose vital track of how our work and choices are connected to passion, contributions, meaning, or progress. Instead, we get caught on a hamster wheel of doing, of sheer activity, and despite our strenuous efforts, we don't get the results we hope for, and we don't have a sense of internal satisfaction in what we're getting done. This mindset is easy to fall into because the world around us tells us this is what we should be doing to succeed.

It may feel good temporarily to be needed by others, demonstrate that you have a high tolerance for stress, or relish the excitement of taking on something new. But eventually you hit a point of diminishing returns. 

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How to know you're in this pitfall.

You know you're in a full-on pitfall when you feel overwhelmed, like the weight of the world is on your shoulders. While you take pride in being someone others need or count on, in this pitfall you start to resent the people you've been trying to support, or you begin to resent those you see leaving the office earlier or perhaps friends or loved ones who are in jobs or have life situations in which they work fewer hours or don't work at all. 

You feel exhausted and wonder when you can get off the hamster wheel. Each time a new request comes into your inbox, you experience it as an imposition rather than an opportunity. Despite your complaining and venting to friends and family, you find it increasingly harder to say no and keep saying yes. You often hear the voice in your head insisting you "should" do it. And on projects, you often do more than is required just because you can. 

2. The "I'll just do it now" pitfall.

If the first pitfall is about our relationship to volume, then the second is about our relationship to time. 

Looming deadlines, long to-do lists, and overfull inboxes are all realities in modern work life. Meeting deadlines and getting stuff done quickly are important. However, when we've fallen into the "I'll just do it now" pitfall, we've started to overdose on adrenaline, and our responses become knee-jerk and impulsive. 

The mindset of this pitfall becomes fixated on getting things done ASAP. You begin to cope by believing that as long as you use your speed and ability to push, then all will be well. The thrill of crossing things off the list does give some temporary relief—until you realize the list is endless. 

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How to know you're in this pitfall.

Rather than demonstrating an appropriate level of urgency for the situation at hand, you've fallen into a constant state of emergency. Rushing is your operating norm. Your conversations, meetings, and emails are all marked by an intensity and sense of urgency that is disproportionate to what the situation calls for. People get blasted with one-liners from your cellphone without context or clarity. In meetings, you dive right in without setting much context or an agenda. In reviews, others may describe you as reactive, abrupt, or overly focused on execution. 

We all need to sprint from time to time, but the healthy dose of adrenaline that fuels a push now goes haywire—your body is nearly always tense and contracted, and you start to hold your breath or shallow-breathe as adrenaline and unhealthy levels of cortisol flood your veins. You hear every ding of your email or phone and react immediately, with a constant glance at technology or social media. Your nervous system feels like it's in overdrive, and the coffee and snacks you grab on the run only worsen your agitated state. You radiate tension and stress as you power through the day in a state of fight-or-flight reaction. 

3. The "I'll just do it myself" pitfall. 

There will always be things we are able to do better or faster than others, and there will always be things we want done a certain way. And frankly, there will always be things we simply love doing ourselves. 

But there comes a point when our instinct to do everything ourselves creates an overdependence on us. When we refuse to wean ourselves off a task and insist on doing it all ourselves, we can create bottlenecks that are detrimental to ourselves, our teams, and the goals we're trying to achieve

This mindset is guided by the false belief that you must do everything by yourself or that you have to rescue others. Either can feel really good temporarily, for any number of reasons. Perhaps you do something yourself because it's fun even though it's no longer your highest and best use in a larger role. Or maybe you love the sweet taste of moving quickly and keeping control of something that you know you're able to do faster and better than others. Or perhaps you feel relief from avoiding the conflict of difficult performance discussions or tough personnel decisions by taking on things in order to protect an employee who's been loyal to you or has worked for you for a long time. Whatever the underlying motivation, at some point you end up feeling overloaded and more stressed or doing more than your fair share. 

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How to know you're in this pitfall.

When you've fallen into the "I'll just do it myself" pitfall, others keep coming directly to you, rather than your team, for information or deliverables. You get involved in many conversations and decisions, and often, your team feels they don't have the autonomy to deliver on their own—they have to wait to talk to you first. You often say things like, "Oh, I'll just handle it" or "He's going to get there—I just need to give him more time and don't mind taking on some of the pieces until then." Even when others offer to help, you ignore or refuse them. Your go-to response is, "No worries, I got this." 

By routinely doing things that others could do for you or by doing things yourself because you're compensating for a weak performer on your team, you can become a bottleneck and end up compromising your vision

4. The "I'll just do it later" pitfall.

While the first three pitfalls are about coping by exerting your will or finding a way to feel like you're still in control when things around you feel uncertain or out of control, this fourth pitfall is about procrastination or putting yourself last. 

This mindset kicks in when we assume that we'll get to important things that matter to us later. For example, your goal for getting in shape or taking more vacation this year can get shuffled down the priority list when other things seem more important—yet again. You find yourself making excuses like, "Something else came up," "I'm just too busy," or "I'll get to that eventually." 

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How to know you're in this pitfall.

You find yourself often frustrated that you're putting off important things. Other people's needs—or indeed any other need that comes up—take priority over your own agenda, and you find yourself continually sidetracked. There could be an underlying conflict avoidance in play, or perhaps you have weak boundaries with others, either of which makes it easier to put yourself and your own priorities last. Or there could be an underlying fear of failure that's causing resistance to working toward your goals.

Whatever the cause, it can feel like you're not performing up to your potential. You are relentless in reminding yourself of what you're not accomplishing, and you may struggle with a constant thrum of anxiety about not meeting your goals. Putting off or ignoring the big initiatives and objectives, over time, has the potential to derail or even end a career, and the stress of remaining in this pitfall can easily lead to negative impacts on health and relationships. 

It's often easier to think about these pitfalls in the context of what's happening for other people rather than for ourselves. In my case, it's always been easier for me to spot a pitfall happening for a client than for myself. After all, holding up the mirror is never easy. 

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Adapted from The Leader You Want To Be: Five Essential Principles for Bringing Out Your Best Self—Every Day by Amy Jen Su. Copyright © 2019 Amy Jen Su. All rights reserved.

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