If you feel anxious to be productive then try the "Relaxed Urgency" framework.
Here's a life lesson on happiness through contemplative practice and self-psychology.
I spent over 1,000 hours studying myself.
That’s what it’s like living as a Zen monk. I got to know myself very well. And I uncovered what I call “achievement anxiety”: a subtle, tense, scanning for things to accomplish. I learned it’s always there — lurking just below the surface.
I decided I don’t want to live that way.
This essay is about achievement anxiety: what it is, how to identify it, and what to do about it.
Discovering my hidden companion…
My job at the monastery was mindfulness. You might think of mindfulness as meditation: sitting on a cushion for 20 minutes and counting your breathe. Then you get up and go about your day.
But this view misses the whole point of mindfulness. The 20 minute meditation is the formal practice. The real practice is the other 1,420 minutes.
Your life is the meditation!
Now spending your day in one continuous meditation is a high bar. It’s more about the intention and effort.
At the monastery, I’d start my day with about 2 hours of formal meditation (zazen). Then I’d try to continue the meditation: eating breakfast as meditation, doing my work (as a glorified janitor) as meditation, working out during my break as meditation, and finally more formal meditation in the evening.
I got to spend a lot of time with myself living this way. And as Yogi Berra said — “you can observe a lot by watching”.
The first thing I learned: it’s really f — king hard not to be busy. If I’m totally honest, many Mondays through Fridays I’m not living my life — I’m living my to do list. When you’re in this constant state of speedy busyness your mind becomes conditioned to it. It’s like trying to fast when you’re used to snacking on all day.
My mind bombarded me with a constant stream of frenetic tasks and to dos — which it was my job to observe and let go of. I felt like there was a tire spinning in the mud spraying wads of thoughts onto my consciousness. And day after day I uncovered this subtle energy that I now call achievement anxiety.
Even once the mud spraying of doing thoughts calmed down. There was a sort of ambient, lingering presence. It often manifested as a tightness in my chest. As if something were pulling on me from the inside. It’s like an internal lurching forward. It’s an undercurrent of mental scanning and rumination.
I was unpleasantly surprised to find this energy as my constant companion. It was always hanging out in the periphery — just outside my direct attention. But like a dash of salt in a glass of water, the flavor was always there — adding a hint of neuroticism to all my experience.
Maybe this is just a me thing. After all I’m pretty god damn neurotic and attentive (have you noticed?). But as I shared this observation with my friends — particularly the motivated intellectuals and business-types — they seemed to have an idea of what I was talking about.
And I have a hunch this is more common than we think.
Finding achievement anxiety…
I encourage you to investigate this within yourself. Turn your attention inward. Study yourself as you go through your day. Pay attention to the energy that’s driving your activity.
What’s the quality of the energy? Is there tension? Is it a pulling, lurching, forced feeling? Or is it loose and smooth? Does it feel like effortless effort or effortful effort?
That’ll help you investigate your mind. Buddhist teacher Matthieu Ricard said that when it comes to anxiety, fear, anger, and other negative emotions — it should be like waking up in the middle of the night because you suspect an intruder. You search every nook and cranny until you’re certain there’s no one in your home.
Search your mind and body for this intruder — achievement anxiety.
Having left the monastery to make it in the working world, my achievement anxiety often comes roaring back. I understand there are things that need doing. And feeling compelled to do them is important. That’s where “relaxed urgency” comes in. This is the name I give to my operating system — my ideal orientation to productivity.
When I’m in the midst of achievement anxiety I’m outwardly still but inwardly moving. I’m all motion and no action. My mind is spinning out of control but can’t get traction. There’s lot of commotion but nothing actually happens.
The best days are when I’m outwardly moving and inwardly still. Activity flows out of me. In Taoism they call that wu-wei — effortless effort or non-doing. It’s urgency without tension. It’s productivity without freneticism. It’s working on life for tomorrow while enjoying life today.
How do you do this?
That’s a great f — king question. I’d be lying if I said I’ve got it down. But I’m getting better.
Here are 3 steps to implement relaxed urgency.
1. Label it.
When you do the investigative work outlined above be sure to call out your achiever anxiety. Literally call it out with a label. Say to yourself “there’s tension” or “I see you stress.”
I often say hello to it. “Hello friend”. Now you might not want to say this out loud if, like me, you’ve managed to convince others that you’re not a crazy person. But saying this in your mind is immensely helpful.
Awareness is the first step. To tame achievement anxiety you first have to be aware of it.
2. Recondition yourself.
Your mind is shaped by your habitual mode of being. If you spend 12 hours per day for a week in silent meditation or 12 hours per day for a week working on a startup your default state of mind will be very different (I say this from experience).
Every time you catch your achievement anxiety and instead settle into a feeling of relaxed urgency you do one repetition. Over and over again you want to check in and adjust. It’s greasing the groove.
Every time you come back to relaxed urgency you’re reinforcing that mode of being.
When you jog you condition your cardiovascular capacity, when you lift you condition your muscular capacity, when you notice your tension and relax you condition your relaxed urgency capacity. It’s the accumulation and compounding of repetitions that creates change.
Practice relaxed urgency in daily life and eventually it will become more and more your default mode.
3. Remember that your life is the meditation.
Finally, it’s worth reminding yourself that we’re floating on a god damn rock in the middle of infinite darkness. Whatever you have on your agenda that is so incredibly important as to cause you stress is — quite literally — as inconsequential as a shooting star: a flash in the pan of beginningless and endless time.
You should ponder that. It’s a lot more than some existential quip. It’s perspective. It’s wisdom.
All that matters is enjoying your life. If your desire to be productive to get what you want out of life gets in the way of enjoying your life then there’s no point! Health and happiness should be the priority — always.
Your life is too precious and precarious to let achievement anxiety have its way.
Redefine your operating system.
Turn your attention inward… Ease your chest and shoulders… Take one breath… And remember — “relaxed urgency”.