Harvard Business Review

Worry Isn't Work


Posted on Harvard Business Review: August 20, 2010 11:08 AM

Many of us have grown up thinking that if we are properly self-punishing then we are somehow being responsible. "What, I'm a nervous wreck—how could I possibly take on more?" On the other hand, if, God forbid, we are feeling carefree, we have this nagging sense that we're being downright irresponsible, certain that if we don't get right back to self-flagellation then the other shoe is going to drop. And hard. We don't correlate our sense of responsibility with what we are actually producing. We correlate it with how hard we are being on ourselves.

Thus anything that's fun cannot possibly be work, and everything that's unpleasant is.

I can hunch over my computer screen for half the day churning frenetically through e-mails without getting much of substance done, all the while telling myself what a loser I am, and leave at 6:00 p.m. feeling like I put in a full day. And given my level of mental fatigue, I did! I can spend my Saturday afternoon worrying about financial ruin to the point of exhaustion, and my inner critic is satisfied. But clear my mind with a 30-minute meditation, go for a 45-minute morning walk, or leave the office for an hour to decompress and get a healthy lunch—all of which would make me more productive for the day—and the voices inside my head start screaming, "Infidel!"

(Those of you who don't suffer from this tendency toward self-criticism, please comment and let the rest of us know your secret.)

We can trace a lot of our modern dysfunction to our Puritan roots. Historian Perry Miller wrote that "without some understanding of Puritanism...there is no understanding of America."

Historian Stephen Innes noted, "In no other colony could the most industrious women and men, who throughout their lifetimes had striven to 'improve [their] Time and Talents for God's glory,' daily lacerate themselves with accusations of 'selfishness...' and the overwhelming conviction that they were...the most 'unproffitable' of the Lord's servants."

Historian Amanda Porterfield observed that "American missionary thought involved a strong investment in self-criticism that was rooted in the biblical concern about the need for awareness of sin and, more specifically, in the Puritan preoccupation with self-assessment."

Sound familiar?

The Puritans had a strong work ethic. They also burned witches at the stake and massacred Native American women and children. We need new role models.

Unfortunately, the high-pressure business school atmosphere isn't the best place to look. The fantasies are just different; hyperanxiety about failing grades gets conflated with being responsible and getting an education. The pressure the VC culture puts on start-ups does more to induce stress than creativity. And don't get me started on the nonprofit sector. It's the sacristy for self-criticism.

Worry isn't work. Being stressed out isn't work. Anxiety isn't work. Entertaining a sense of impending doom isn't work. Incessant internal verbal punishment isn't work. Indulging the great unknown fear in your own mind isn't work. Hating yourself isn't work.

Work is the manifestation of value, and anyone who tells you that a person whose mind is 50% occupied with anxiety is more likely to manifest value is a person who isn't manifesting much.

It's OK to take care of yourself. To take time to exercise. By all accounts, exercise improves brain function. It's OK to eat well, and to slow down enough to eat consciously and appreciate the food. Proper nutrition improves brain function as well. Go on vacation. Meditate. Take a break each week for an hour to see a therapist, or a movie, or stop in a church, if that's your practice. Sit quietly on your porch in the evening and reflect. Chaining yourself to your desk is no more correlated to productivity than mental self-annihilation.

After all, who is likely to be the more productive contributor to the company, and to the world—the person who is healthy, rested, well-balanced, full of energy, and clear of mind, or the sleep-deprived, overweight, heart-attack-waiting-to-happen, psychologically unexamined, self-critical maniac? Who is more likely to be present enough to see the next breakthrough? Who is more likely to analyze problems clearly, for what they really are, instead of what they are assumed to be?

We have to rethink what it means to work and to be productive. We have to disentangle self-hatred from responsibility, self-criticism from self-care.

What does re-thinking mean in this case? Start thinking of being hard on yourself as being irresponsible. Start thinking of wasting half of your brain power on fantasies about your own destruction as self-indulgent. Conflate self-negativity with laziness. Start thinking of time for yourself as being responsible. Start thinking of a healthy mid-day meal as essential to your productivity, time away from your desk as productive.

In short, start thinking the opposite of what we've been taught since, well, since the Puritans. We stopped burning witches at the stake four hundred years ago. It's time we stopped doing it to ourselves.

Copyright © 2012 Harvard Business School Publishing. All rights reserved. Harvard Business Publishing is an affiliate of Harvard Business School.

Dan Pallotta is a leading expert on innovation in the nonprofit sector and a pioneering social entrepreneur. He is the founder of Pallotta TeamWorks, which invented the multiday AIDSRides and Breast Cancer 3-Days. He is the author of Uncharitable: How Restraints on Nonprofits Undermine Their Potential.

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