In the updated 2023 version of my book, The Language of Emotions, anxiety has its very own chapter. But in the original, it didn’t because I didn’t understand anxiety very well!
It wasn’t until late 2010 — after the original version of the book came out — that I heard Dr. Mary Lamia on my car radio and realized what had caused my complete emotional ignorance about anxiety.
Dr. Lamia is a clinical psychologist and educator who practices and teaches in the San Francisco Bay Area. She was on KQED’s Forum program to talk about her children’s book Understanding Myself: A Kid’s Guide to Intense Emotions and Strong Feelings. I truly enjoyed listening to Mary, because she treats emotions as aspects of intelligence and cognition. This is rare, and it was wonderful to hear about a children’s book I could suggest to my readers.
Toward the end of the interview, Dr. Lamia talked about anxiety as the emotion that motivates us to get things done (such as tasks, plans, and projects). I pulled my car over and listened closely, what?
There are two equally valid ways to work with your anxiety
Dr. Lamia said that we respond to our anxiety in one of two ways. In one anxiety response, procrastination or deadline-orientation, people focus on deadlines and wait until their anxiety reaches a level of intensity that compels them to act. It’s like leaping into a lake in one big jump.
In the other anxiety response, do-it-aheading or task-orientation, people focus on individual tasks and complete them one after another on their way to a deadline, like carefully crossing a stream from stone to stone on their way to the lake.
Here’s an example: If a task-oriented do-it-aheader were planning a meeting, they would separate each of their preparations into small tasks, likely with a to-do list that prioritizes which tasks they should do first (reserve the room, send the invitations, organize the agenda, and so on).
In contrast, a deadline-oriented procrastinator might approach the meeting in a more big-picture way and perhaps set the date and the participant list first and then (seemingly) do very little until right before the meeting starts. The procrastinator would trust that they could pull things together at the last minute, though in fact, they were working on the meeting subconsciously the whole time.
We’ve all been taught that task-oriented behavior is correct, while procrastination is a sign of laziness, but Dr. Lamia strongly disagrees, and she’s right. I have known many procrastinators who regularly complete masterful projects at the last minute, but like most of us, I was taught to see their eventual accomplishments as “lucky” instead of understanding that they work with their anxiety in a different way than I do.
Since 2010, I’ve explored anxiety empathically with the help of Dr. Lamia’s concepts, and I’ve studied my own task-oriented style and experimented with procrastination (I can do it, but I’ll never become truly comfortable with putting things off until a deadline looms).
In 2017, Dr. Lamia wrote a book about anxiety called What Motivates Getting Things Done, and it’s a very helpful exploration of these two anxiety styles.
Why I couldn’t identify my anxiety
I am a task-oriented do-it-aheader. I rarely feel the intense anxiety that procrastinators do, because I have always responded to my anxiety when it’s very subtle, and I complete many small tasks continually. This explains my ignorance about the more intense levels of anxiety that procrastinators feel and work with (often brilliantly)!
I had been working with anxiety every day of my life, but I couldn’t see it because it didn’t feel like the anxiety everyone talks about. I viewed the more visible anxiety of deadline-oriented people as a sign that they weren’t working well with their emotions! I had no idea that I was working with subtle anxiety every day, and that deadline-oriented people were working with anxiety in an entirely different way.
As a task-oriented person, I manage my anxiety quite differently than deadline-oriented people do. If I ever feel intense anxiety (I almost never do), it means that something has gone very wrong: I’ve forgotten a task, fooled around, wasted my time, or failed (in the way I work with anxiety). For me, intense or obvious feelings of anxiety signal a serious problem.
For a deadline-oriented procrastinator, on the other hand, intense feelings of anxiety can be normal and supportive.
Dr. Lamia noted that a procrastinator can almost relax on their way to a deadline, secure in the knowledge that they will definitely complete their project, even if they have to drop everything else for hours or days in order to do so.
A deadline-oriented person’s anxiety works in the background, nearly imperceptibly until the deadline looms, and then it springs into action, shazam!
In contrast, a task-oriented person’s anxiety is more in the foreground, yet it may work at very subtle levels of activation as the person moves from task to task at a regular and consistent pace. Looking at a task-oriented person, you may not detect anxiety at all. You may call this person organized, focused, or diligent, but you would likely not identify their anxiety. I certainly didn’t.
What I’ve noticed as a task-oriented person is that I work with subtle anxiety regularly throughout every day (for me, it’s like a quiet voice continually asking, Is this done? Does this need attention? What about this?), while my deadline-oriented friends experience anxiety as more of an intense special event (they might feel a powerful surge of anxiety close to the deadline and pull everything together in genius ways at the last minute).
Sadly, many people would call the procrastinator’s relaxation laziness, and their ability to pull things together at the last minute luck. It’s tragic that procrastinators are not seen as skilled.
Dr. Lamia notes that task-oriented people with their moment-by-moment organizational skills get nearly all of the praise, while deadline-oriented people get nearly all of the criticism — even though both anxiety styles have their genius and their downsides.
I’m envious of successful procrastinators, and I’ve seen the downfalls of my task-oriented style, but even though I’ve become more comfortable with procrastination (in manageable amounts), I will likely always be a task-oriented person who speaks procrastination with an accent. That’s just how my anxiety works.
How Does Your Own Anxiety Work?
This short and unscientific list of statements can help you identify your own anxiety style.
- It’s normal for me to work hard just before a deadline and get everything done at once (and often at the last minute).
- I feel comfortable showing up to a presentation or project with a general map of what I’ll do. I know I’ll figure it out on the fly.
- I often pull all-nighters just before a deadline, and I deliver strong and complete projects.
- I like to sit with tasks and projects and let my ideas incubate.
- I can easily ignore tasks that are not a part of my current project.
- Unfinished tasks support my creativity.
- I like to complete many parts (or all) of my project well before the deadline.
- I like to have presentation and projects charted out and scheduled ahead of time so I can relax somewhat and rely on my plan.
- I often get projects in before the deadline, but I may have to revise them after I submit them.
- I like to complete tasks as soon as possible.
- My attention and energy are often pulled toward unfinished tasks, even if they’re not a part of my current project.
- Unfinished tasks destabilize my focus.
Or are you a mixed deadline- and task-oriented person? Are you equally comfortable with both ways of working with anxiety?
Learning to embrace your anxiety
In my 2020 book, Embracing Anxiety: How to Access the Genius of This Vital Emotion, I focus on anxiety and its working relationships with ten of your other emotions.
As you learn to identify your own anxiety style, Embracing Anxiety can help you learn what motivates you, how you work best, and how your other emotions support your ability to complete your tasks and meet your deadlines.
Anxiety is an essential emotion that is basically your motivational system. When you can learn its language and your own anxiety style, you can change your life.
Thank you, anxiety!