Overcoming task paralysis

Recently I’ve been feeling rather overwhelmed at work. With the introduction of a new database and several people off on sick leave my to-do list never gets shorter. Fortunately, I am an organized person and manage to move forward even if it’s just a few priority items. But what if being organized is a challenge for you? That feeling of being overwhelmed becomes so all consuming that paralysis sets in.

Let’s imagine a situation that many people face. Let’s call our test subject Gloria. She’s a single mother with two children and has recently decided that she will pursue her dream of working in television full-time, as a freelance writer and producer. When looking one year into the future she clearly pictures having implemented some of her program ideas, having produced the show she wrote, and being able to support her children financially.

The problem is that she’s so overwhelmed by the normal anxieties of life that she can’t see clearly. There seems to be so much stuff that she’s paralyzed by it all. She’s moved her office in-house so that she could work on things 24/7 but that hasn’t worked (which isn’t surprising). Bringing the office into the home often creates more anxieties not fewer. Without a clear separation of work life and home life, the stress and guilt of working or not working 24/7 multiples exponentially. Every moment at work outside of regular hours takes away from family time and every moment with the family is one less moment striving for the work-related dream.

In our go-go-go world this sense of paralysis is common and it’s something many people suffer from. It happens when you allow your to-do list to get longer and longer which results in panic and paralysis.

Gloria especially feels anxious when she looks at all the day-to-day tasks. That often happens when people keep it all in their heads — it builds and each item seems unrelated to anything else. As well, as I said working on things 24/7, is not the best way to get things done. Time off is important, not just to recharge the batteries, but also to allow ideas and projects to simmer in the back of the brain.

So what should Gloria do?

She needs a plan. She needs to know what she’s working on when. However, she can’t create that plan until she knows exactly what she wants to work on. Yes, in her one-year-in-the-future vision she hints at what she might work on now, but the ideas are still very abstract. They are results, not actions.

When looking into the future, it’s important to focus on actions. Outcomes are great, but they don’t motivate well because they leave a gap between the current state and the future outcome. That gap can only get filled by action. And what actions does Gloria need to focus on? What actions do you need to focus on if you want to achieve your dreams? How can you choose any one thing when the to-do list is longer than a line-up to buy U2 concert tickets?

She might just pick one random item and work on that. Or she might pick the top three things that have reached crisis mode. Or she might take a bit of time to plan out her actions, which first requires some research.

In this case, research doesn’t mean going out and looking up information or talking to others. For this type of research she is going to interview herself. Using a blank piece of paper, Gloria is going to write down the numbers 1 to 100. Next, she will fill in all 100 slots with everything she does during the day, as well as everything she feels she should do and everything that she wants to do, but hasn’t got around to yet.

What will Gloria get out of overwhelming herself even more? How will this exercise help?

Right now Gloria feels overwhelmed by all of her to-dos. These to-dos however are only in her head, which she needs to liberate to allow more focused thought take over. Getting it out on paper does just that. Plus by giving herself a goal of 100 items she’ll likely have a hard time filling in every number, and she’ll realize that she doesn’t actually have as many things to do as she thought, taking off some of the pressure.

So now she has a list of items that she does (or wants to do). How does she take this list of actions and turn them into a plan that works for her, gives her time to relax, and moves her towards her dream? By prioritizing, delegating, and deleting items from the list. And no, it’s not easy. In fact this sort of challenge paralyzes many people.

Gloria will most likely need help. She’ll need the outside objectively of someone who isn’t so intimately connected to the actions, someone who can help her decide priorities and what doesn’t really need to get done after all. That help could come in the form of a friend, a family member, or a professional (like an organizer or a coach).

So, just how short should her list become? That depends on each person. In my case, I can have a very long to-do list without panicking, but others might need short lists, with tasks and projects spread out over stages based on priority.

Finally, Gloria needs to get started. Lists are great tools, but they need to be used. She might decide to use a system like Getting Things Done, or Bullet Journal (as I’ve been doing). But whatever the system, she needs to commit to it and let the lists guide her through the minefield of task-related anxieties.

One Comment for “Overcoming task paralysis”

  1. posted by CGUnicorn on

    Great post! I second everything you wrote! Working from home and being a parent of small children, I couldn’t survive without scheduling blocks of time for my various roles and projects! It allows me to focus completely on whatever I’m doing at the moment without my entire list of to-do’s breathing down my neck! I don’t have to worry about if/when I’ll get around to certain things, so I don’t feel forever guilty about them or think about them constantly. Not only does this save my sanity, but I find that the process of scheduling the next actionable item in each area unblocks me when I’m feeling stuck or unmotivated.
    Before I got on board with this, I lived in a world of vague dread about whatever it was I *wasn’t* doing. It was completely exhausting!

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