How to avoid productivity anxiety and toxic perfectionism before Christmas

It’s not very festive, but it turns out that a portion of productivity anxiety – served up with a side order of toxic perfectionism – is the mood-killer to expect ahead of Christmas.

While it’s meant to be the most wonderful time of the year, for many of us, productivity anxiety and toxic perfectionism at Christmas are about as traditional as the turkey.

The two terms refer to the pressure – often self-manufactured – to do more, achieve more and to be our best selves, both at work and in our personal lives – and it’s particularly likely to strike in December.

And this year, according to a study by Microsoft, more of us are suffering than ever. Coming out of lockdown, going back to work and heading into the holiday season is a perfect storm for many who already struggle with anxiety.

Why? Working from home without any social plans allowed us to completely focus on our personal and professional to-do list. Now, as the pace ramps up, trying to fit back into old routines with a commute that eats into our day is adding an awful lot of pressure.

The Christmas period only exacerbates this, with expectations of a dazzling social calendar and party outfits to match, Instagram-ready Christmas decorations and perfectly wrapped, perfectly picked presents for our friends and family. Oh, and there’s also the end of year to wrap up at work, too, with office events and deadlines looming before the holidays.

The research by Microsoft Surface puts this growing sense of pressure to do it all – and to do it to perfection – into hard data.

The research found that nearly two thirds (63%) of those surveyed reported that they are at the point of stress overload and cited ‘productivity anxiety’ as the culprit.

The majority (61%) also reported that this feeling has worsened since restrictions eased and we have been able to add a social life to our professional life again – something that doubles down in December.

It found that what it calls a ‘should, should, should’ mentality to prove we are getting enough done is causing our anxiety levels to rise.

Not only is ‘productivity anxiety’ cited as a major stressor, but an unhealthy perfectionism creeps in too.

Often a response to internal anxieties, such as a fear of judgment or inadequacy, this so-called toxic perfectionism can make us feel like we never meet the mark, making us hypercritical towards ourselves.

And it seems the younger we are, the worse we feel about ourselves in comparison to the people around us. In the study, Gen Z reported the highest levels of unhealthy perfectionism (89%), closely followed by Millennials (84%) and Gen X (74%).

Someone who knows a thing or two about toxic perfectionism is Great British Bake Off star Michael Chakraverty. After appearing on the show, he felt so under pressure to create the ‘perfect bake’ every time, that he simply gave up.

He says: ‘Prior to Bake Off, I’d never really baked for anyone but myself. More than anything, I baked as a mindful activity to reduce my anxiety (with tasty results) – but as the series ran its course, the weight of expectation grew. People would certainly expect more from me from now on.

‘Like many bakers from the show, I fell into the trap of baking for social media validation. Each week, I’d push myself to become a flawless chef, an innovative food stylist and skilled photographer.

‘It felt as though any bakes that would be seen by the outside world (including family and friends) had to be perfect – no longer could I rest on the excuse that ‘there just wasn’t time in the challenge’, ‘the tent was too hot’ or ‘I’m just a home baker’.

‘I’d rush home from work and rack my brains and cupboards for something I’d not seen before, something that would prove to the watching world that I was worth my spot on Bake Off and that would grow my social media following.

‘It wasn’t particularly that I was modelling myself on anyone else – it’s just hard not to see your followers and engagement rise and not feel pressure to continue the upward trend.’

And that sums it up: the pressure to be perfect that prevents us from enjoying ourselves – and what’s more, is the thief of innovation.

In short, striving to be perfect and being afraid to fail means we either don’t enjoy our successes – or like Michael, we don’t try at all.

So what can we do? Toxic perfectionism and productivity anxiety can be tamed. Microsoft Surface partnered with psychologist Dr Rajvinder Samra and psychotherapist Joshua Fletcher (AnxietyJosh on socials) to offer suggestions on what can help.

Here are their tips:

In short, this Christmas, try giving yourself the generosity of joy and goodwill that you give to others.

So what if your presents are late, you give up on Christmas cards or you buy in the Christmas dinner from Cook?

Be as kind to yourself as you would be to others – can’t you hear yourself telling a friend no one cares about cards anyway, or that a project can wait til January? – and bear in mind that productivity doesn’t always equal performance.

Celebrate accomplishments, even the small ones (you have decorated a tree! You’ve made your Christmas list).

While it’s unlikely you’ll ever completely stop these stomach knots and middle-of-the-night wake-ups appearing from out of nowhere, you might make them easier to live with.

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