On Anxiety And Measuring Success

03 Jul
July 3, 2014

Anxiety is paralyzing.

Or, at least, it is for me. I can only talk about my own experiences here. Other people might thrive under stress, I don’t know.

Tell me if you’ve ever experienced this. A giant deadline looms. Every time you think about it, your stomach clenches slightly. But, instead of doing the rational thing, instead of buckling down and focusing on making the best use of your time, you find yourself procrastinating. Flittering away your time on the most trivial distractions.

Which makes the anxiety even worse. Whenever you stop procrastinating, the anxiety rushes back, made all the more worse by the knowledge that you have even less time left, and compounded by the guilt you feel at having squandered time on procrastination.

Which, of course, makes the urge to go back to procrastinating, to distract yourself from your anxiety, even stronger. The proverbial vicious cycle. And even if you’re aware of it, it can be extremely hard to escape the cycle.

For myself, I’ve experienced this more and more frequently the closer I get to releasing System Crash. I’ve invested so much time, money and effort into the project that thinking about the outcome creates a churning mix of hope, fear and stress. And, unfortunately, I’m one of those people who hopes for the best but anticipates/plans for the worst. I would love for System Crash to do well, but mentally I’m braced for it to be a flop. Which is just realistic, very few people hit it out of the park on their first swing, and certainly I’ve made a range of mistakes that I cringe thinking about (though hopefully I’ll avoid them with the next project).

But that kind of “realistic pessimism” mindset means that, in my mind, the chance of failure far outweighs the probability of success. So the anxiety loop feeds on that. I think about the outcome, my mind imagines failure/disappointment, and I feel…well, I suspect it’s anxiety, but I’m not so consciously aware of that part. What I am aware of is a sort of draining away of my motivation and enthusiasm. I develop a creeping apathy toward my own project, and a strong desire to focus on something else.

So I’ll go off and paint, for example, even though I know it isn’t a priority, that I really should be getting my SC work done in my scant free time. But the painting is simple, relaxing and creative. And painting still feels like I’m achieving something, unlike goofing off playing video games for hours. The fact that it feels productive means that I don’t feel the guilt that I do when simply playing around, but it doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things, so there’s none of the anxiety either. My future, my self-identity, that isn’t caught up in whether I paint this fantasy monster well or not.

Another one is getting into pointless internet debates. I have strong opinions on things at the best of times. But I think that when I’m stressed, I give in to the temptation to argue far more. Again, I suspect it’s my mind distracting itself from one emotion with another. “But it’s important that this is said!” I think. But it isn’t important. The long-term work is what is important, my mind is just focusing on distractions to push away the stress, to alleviate the sense of looming identity-threat.

So that’s fairly sucky. I dunno, I hope I haven’t come off sounding neurotic here. I don’t want to exaggerate the problem. But it certainly is something I’ve noticed. Especially now, toward the end. The closer to the end I get, the stronger the resistance is. But what can you do about it?

Enough talking about the problem, what’s the solution?

Well, discipline helps. Being able to force yourself to soldier through, whatever you’re feeling. But I don’t find discipline alone does it. At least not for me, not long term. Maybe I’m just not disciplined enough, I don’t know. But it’s really hard to stand as stern taskmaster over your own mind when it’s that same mind experiencing the stress and wanting to escape it. I find that if you try to simply pit your will against your emotions, eventually your will crumbles. Willpower is a castle built on the rock of your emotions, your drive and desire. When the foundations start to crumble, the structure cannot stand for long.

So discipline alone hasn’t proven to be a great solution, for me. I can power through, but only for a while. A more permanent solution is required.

What else? Well, what’s really needed here is to address the source of the problem, that anxiety. The mind can’t carry that kind of burden for long, it will seek to put the burden down one way or the other. If you can’t find a more intelligent way to give your mind relief, the animal subconscious will do it for you, it will play its tricks with procrastination and so on.

So What I’ve found works best, for me, is to reframe the way you think about it. The anxiety comes from the sense of identity-threat and impending disappointment. From this line of thinking – “I’ve tried so hard, put in so much, what if it’s a failure?!? What if it’s a public failure?!?! Oh no!!! :(”

But what is it specifically? What is the “failure” I’m afraid of? Well, here, failure is the game being a financial flop. Not making enough money to cover its costs. Being disappointing, to me and others.

But surely that isn’t the only measure of success? Making money? I know it’s going to sound like hippy bullshit, but the only way I’ve found to truly relieve that anxiety long term, to achieve a measure of mental zen, is to redefine how I am choosing to measure success. Let the money be a nice, but not necessary condition for considering the project “successful.”

Instead, choose to measure success by :

– Whether you’re proud of what you’ve created. You’ll probably never be perfectly happy with anything you create, but you can be proud of it, nevertheless.

– The sense of pride and accomplishment you feel for actually having done it. You’ve done what you set out to do. You’ve taken the step most people can’t or won’t. You haven’t just talked the talk, you’ve walked the walk. You haven’t just dreamed about it, you’ve picked up your tools and turned it into a reality. That’s a powerful thing. Keep doing that and your life WILL change.

– What you’ve learned in the process. Education ain’t cheap, as a friend told me when I mentioned that I was stressed about the fact that I’d sunk so much of my savings into this project and I might see little in return. And that’s the plain truth. Education is expensive, but it’s the best investment you can make, investing in yourself .

– Whether the game finds an audience who enjoys it, no matter how small. Even if it’s just 3 people and one of them’s your mum. If it finds an audience who it resonates with, who enjoy playing it and are enthusiastic, you’ve built something that adds value to other people’s lives. That’s a great, rare thing. Treasure it.

– Fun. Plain old fun. Did you enjoy creating it? Do you still enjoy playing it? Look, it’s not going to be fun all the time. There will be long periods of hard or boring work. Lots of grinding. But in amoungst that, there should be plenty of moments where you felt that joy at creating something that excites you. Remember those moments, clutch them to your breast, let them feed your soul.

So that’s what works for me. Changing my own definition of what it means to be successful. When I do that, the anxiety melts away. I’m already successful. And I look forward to the future, I look forward to releasing System Crash and sharing what I’ve made with all of you. And then doing it again.

The doing must be an end in itself, not a means to an end. That’s the secret that I’ve found. The process is the reward. And when I keep that in mind, I can get back to creating from a place of joy and excitement. Instead of a cloud of fear.

Yoda had it right. Fear really is the path to the Dark Side.

7 replies
  1. Kate says:

    So much of this! We need to have a drink and chat…

    Reply
  2. Daniel says:

    Talking about, procrastinating. Well that’s what I was doing when I read this post.

    Reply
  3. Colter Cookson says:

    I procrastinate by finding something productive to do as well. I think it’s part of being human.

    For what it’s worth, I’m looking forward to the game. I enjoyed the demo you posted here a while back, and I suspect the game has only gotten better since then.

    Reply
  4. Jay says:

    So, did writing this blog post feel like a productive use of time? I keed.

    I feel a lot of pressure to succeed with my “main” project as well, and end up in the same vicious cycle you describe. As others have pointed out, the things you achieve while procrastinating can be quite impressive! Some people have even elevated it to an art form:

    http://www.structuredprocrastination.com/

    The trouble I see with that is as your side projects grow in stature, they risk falling into the same performance anxiety-laden territory, and now your system will encourage you to start something new and fresh and painlessly rewarding 🙂

    Reply
  5. gareth says:

    Heh, thanks guys. 🙂

    And Jay, yep, that’s the problem. Your procrastination activity is only relaxing until it shifts to being your main focus. Then you get into the same old loop.

    The trick is to do whatever it takes to stick it through to the end, methinks.

    Reply
  6. MaximillionMiles says:

    The ending stretch is definitely the hardest.

    One thing I do, and I have no idea if it will work for others or not, is too break down a big task into a bunch of tiny tasks and then plow through them. It may sound stupid, but whenever I finish one mini-task and cross it off the list I feel a little proud of myself. I feel the progression a lot better that way, instead of feeling as if I am treading water.

    But regardless of what happens, I enjoyed testing your game and look forward to buying and playing the full version.

    Reply
  7. gareth says:

    Max – Yeah, I do that as well. And agreed, crossing things off a list, no matter how small, is very motivating. I recommend it.

    Just don’t get intimidated if your list is huge. Set a modest goal, like 4-5 a day, and aim for that. If you get more, great! If not, don’t beat yourself up.

    Another thing I like to do is end the day knowing what I’m going to do next. Like, be midway through something, and stop. That way, the next day, you have an easy point to pick back up, you know what to do. You don’t spend time sitting there figuring out where to begin.

    It sounds minor, but once you build a little momentum, it’s easier to continue.

    Reply

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