The over-examined life is no picnic either
October 12, 2011 6:26 PM   Subscribe

I'm in a rut. Professionally and personally, I have long lists of projects that I need or want to get done and have made little to no progress on. I've made lists. I've made plans. I've made schedules. I've thought about why it is that I'm not doing what I know I should do. When I think about all the things I want to do and am not doing I feel ill.

After months of this I've finally noticed that action - any action at all - always feels better than inaction. Even if I planned to clean the kitchen, and instead wind up making a pie, that feels all right. I did *something*.

But what seems to happen is that I sit down and think, "Ok, what should I do today? I need to do x. Y would be fun, and z should be easy. There. A plan. Hmm.... should I do X or Y first? Y might take some time. I'll have to dig all of my Ying supplies out from under the bed first. Maybe I should Z first. But is Z really the right thing to do? Maybe Z would go better if I first did Zi. But I can't do Zi and Z and then do Y ..." Eventually, frustrated by all my mental chatter, I just watch TV, which enables me to tune out all the crap and feel calm.

This pattern has also cropped up in therapy. Every week I have a different notion of what my priority should be in therapy - self-esteem? compassion? self-discipline? radical acceptance? awareness? finding a mate? fixing my anxiety? exercising more?

Again, I know that any action at all feels better than sitting around and worrying about what to do first / at all. But breaking out of the rut and actually taking action is scary and difficult - I don't know why. It's only recently occurred to me that all of the stuff in my head might *not* be important, and that this level of introspection might actually be unhealthy.

1. how can I quiet the voices in my head?
2. how can I be more decisive?
3. is this normal?

If you've dealt with something like this I'd really love to hear what you did and what helped you.
posted by bunderful to Health & Fitness (15 answers total) 83 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: (Part of the problem is that I have a LOT of hobbies - I like to draw, read, write, paint, sing, play instruments, cook, etc - and I feel guilty when any of these sits on the back burner for too long.)
posted by bunderful at 6:32 PM on October 12, 2011

Go for a walk. Force yourself. Go for a 15 minute or half hour walk and just let go.

Then, come home, and tackle one thing.

Then tackle another if you're up to it.

Repeat for as long as necessary.

posted by These Birds of a Feather at 6:35 PM on October 12, 2011 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Give yourself a break!

Do you know anything you can do that you know will force your mind to stfu? Perhaps vigorous physical activity? And if so, do you do that thing regularly? I think that would help you just SWITCH OFF THE VOICES FOR ONE SECOND OMG.

On the other side of the spectrum, meditation can also help, but if you are in the middle of brain spinning, it can be counterproductive to try to sit for meditation... that's why I would start with the exercise first if I were you. Getting yourself out of your head *and into your body* may be more effective than getting yourself out of your mental chatter by dulling your brain with TV.
posted by pupstocks at 6:36 PM on October 12, 2011 [3 favorites]

Best answer: In college a favorite teacher talked me into editing our literary annual. I was doing precisely what you describe so eloquently. We had dinner one evening and, as we're both Jungian geeks, we decided I should summon a Goddess for help. I came up with "Industria" but she, wise woman that she is, said I would need the Goddess most like myself... "Procrastina." Next day she gave me this. It helped and so I'll pass it on to you.

And the great Mother Goddess with all the majesty that is hers, flung brilliant lightening bolts to Earth. From this source, her daughters were created. One among them was named Procrastina. Beautiful and talented, she was a favorite of the Mother. At unexpected times she would create the most marvelous lyrical poetry, produce insights of great wisdom, and many other wonders.
Dark clouds hovered however, when it came time to produce offerings for the annual rituals. Procrastina would sink to the most abject levels of woe as she found herself unable to finish her work. She did not understand this and suffered much because she so wanted to honor the Mother she loved. She was pursued my many worried distractions and these prevented her from working. Several years in a row, she had had no gifts for the celebration.

The Goddess called her favorite to counsel “Procrastina,” she said, “I have several things to say. First, you strive always to be perfect. Why do you vie for my powers? I alone am perfection. This is not your goal or nature. As my daughter, you create from the source of yourself that is good and loving. These creations are uniquely yours and add joy and wisdom to the world. Your striving for my powers only lessen yours.

‘Secondly, turn on the worries that pursue you with the most horrible mask you can find and say ‘Worries and distractions, I must choose between you and my creations. My creations give me much energy and satisfaction. You only drain and drag. I am a good person, loved by the Goddess. I am important to the world for I bring my unique gifts. So, I banish you; you will no longer be my companion’.
‘Thirdly, Just as we find Peace and Love by not striving to find them but instead when we do things to make ourselves content, we cannot try too hard to impose our will and force the work. Start early with a plan, make a lenient schedule and sneak up on the work with a song in your heart. Once started, the energy of the creation will carry you forth.

‘So, Procrastina, do not strive for my powers This only makes me sad because I know the futility of it. Your role is to complete the act to bring yourself joy. Before the next project say these words:

‘I am a loved and worthy person. My creation is not of crucial importance to the world of sisters or my mother, but I will create and complete it because it will increase my energy and my satisfaction with myself.’”

posted by R2WeTwo at 6:52 PM on October 12, 2011 [79 favorites]

Best answer: Sounds like we have something in common. I have many hobbies too and a list of things to do that is never ending. The further behind I get on my list the more incapacitated I am to do anything about it.

Here's what I do; I PLAN a day of relaxation for the day before I start on a segment of my list. When I get burned out, I schedule another one. I usually spend the day lounging around watching old movies and eating popcorn and soup. No effort stuff. The following day I'm up and ready to go for at least a few days.

I've been doing that for a couple of years now, and it really works for me.

I guess the important thing is to make your "day off" an actual part of your list. It's just as important as everything else.
posted by snsranch at 7:01 PM on October 12, 2011 [5 favorites]

Best answer: This happens to me when my to-do list is too long, which sounds like it is also the case for you. Limit yourself to a list of three things which you will do today. Ignore EVERYTHING else. Do not put 'urgent but unimportant' things on your list (like, 'cook dinner', and 'return X's phone call'). You can do them if you like, but don't list them.

And don't stress (or even think) about the other things that need doing that are not on your list. Tomorrow you can list other things.
posted by lollusc at 7:09 PM on October 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

I get why you'd miss doing an activity you enjoy (reading, painting, making music, etc.), but why on earth would you feel guilty for not performing that activity? They aren't loved ones you're ignoring.... Hobbies are supposed to fun, not soul-sucking chores.
posted by kate4914 at 7:15 PM on October 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

The only thing that really quiets the chatter in my head is drugs. (The prescription kind.)
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 7:48 PM on October 12, 2011 [3 favorites]

Exercise and "doing nothing" (going for a wander, reading a fiction book) will go a long way here.
posted by devnull at 10:44 PM on October 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: You need to learn about Structured Procrastination.
posted by flabdablet at 12:10 AM on October 13, 2011 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Books that have helped me with different aspects of these type of problems:
Getting Things Done - really helped with separating my endless lists into things I was actually intending to take action on and how to actually move those forward vs things I would kind of like to do but didn't want to commit to.
The Now Habit - helped with getting some insight into sources of procrastination once I had some clarity over what things I wanted to do.
Refuse to Choose - lots of good advice on managing multiple hobbies without turning them into chores.

Ultimately though the most useful thing was enough counselling to understand that my procrastination came from perfectionism, and the perfectionism from fear of rejection. YMMV of course, but maybe something to discuss with your therapist. I suspect all these things are very normal, in the sense of being problems lots of people have.
posted by crocomancer at 4:48 AM on October 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I could have so written this question, exactly. Recently (and by recently, I mean only the last couple of months), I've kind of come to the realization that if I want things done, I just have to DO them. I know that seems really simple and obvious, but for some reason it was a stunning realization to me.

I have all this mental chatter and planning instincts. One day I had an epiphany that I could spend all my time, for instance, thinking about how my house should be cleaner or coming up with plans for when to clean/the order of cleaning/etc, or I could just start doing something. Anything. It doesn't have to be perfect. Vacuum for 15 minutes and be proud.

In my career I have also wasted a lot of time stymied by perfectionism and efficiency woes. I am a research scientist, so this isn't necessarily a bad thing. But with my epiphany detailed above, I realized I don't have to do a PERFECT, COMPLETE experiment every time. I just do something. I show the data at lab meeting and people like it, and then I can expound upon it as time goes on.

So, in summation, I quote Nike by saying: Just do it! Acknowledge your mental chatter. Maybe even say it out loud to yourself, "Okay bunderful, you are choosing to have some mental chatter right now. Yes, you have to do x, y and z. But for now you're going to take a stab at X and just see how things go." Sometimes just acknowledging the chatter directly is enough to make it quiet down.
posted by corn_bread at 8:29 AM on October 13, 2011 [6 favorites]

Best answer: I always struggle with this too and haven't found a great solution yet. Things that help (that I think everyone already mentioned) include: just DO something, schedule "down" time, time yourself for certain projects (like half hour of kitchen work, half hour of internet surfing, etc), make "have done" lists (as opposed to "to do" lists). I also maintain a "master" to do list in Evernote of tiered projects so they aren't swimming around in my head all day - like longer-term projects such as scrapbooking, short-term needs such as budgeting, and a "life goals" list for really long term stuff (like travel, etc). Knowing this is all "somewhere else" lets me not think about it as much as I used to.
posted by wannabecounselor at 4:32 PM on October 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: But breaking out of the rut and actually taking action is scary and difficult - I don't know why. It's only recently occurred to me that all of the stuff in my head might *not* be important, and that this level of introspection might actually be unhealthy.

Those two realizations are cornerstones of enlightenment. I have been plagued by similar problems. Like you, I do 10,000 things, but flit back and forth between them, depending on my mood. It's a daily struggle.

Here are a few things that have helped me:

- keeping my house clean and organized, and putting things away when I'm done working on them for the day. Even though they're not "finished." When I let all my half-thoughts and half-projects lie around the house, it's distracting. It's as though every object has its own voice which shouts out, "Over here!" "No, over here!" "Come finish me!" "No, me first!" The result of which is that it reinforces the habit of jumping around from thing to thing. When everything is put away and clean, I can stand in the middle of the room and say in a commanding voice (in my head), "This morning I shall do ______!" And nothing else yells at me. The physical world and the mental world might seem separate, but that separation is an illusion. They flow back and forth between one another. That's one reason why action is powerful, and also frightening -- to change the physical world is to rearrange the mind, and the mind always wants to cling to wherever it is, even if it's presently miserable. Recognizing that mental resistence, and realizing the power of real physical action to overcome it, is like changing from being a person on a runaway horse to being a person riding the horse and telling it where to go.

- taking the long view. Once upon a time, people were respected and revered more and more as they aged. Older people were expected to be wiser and more accomplished than their younger counterparts. The passing of time and a long life were considered enriching to a person's soul. That cultural view is almost nonexistent in the modern US, which places all its expectations on the young. The young rock star, the young computer genius, etc. That expectation, and the corresponding belief that after 40 you're "done," puts a huge amount of pressure on everyone to PERFORM, RIGHT NOW, BEFORE IT'S TOO LATE! God willing, you will have the time and good health to let each one of your projects/pursuits bloom at its own pace. I believe that taking a wider view of time actually helps prevent procrastination rather than encourage it, because procrastination often induced by stress.

- making peace with the "back-burner" phenomenon. You may, like me, be jealous of specialists who are fully absorbed in one particular thing, day and night, for years at a time. And you may vainly attempt to force yourself to work on a certain project or activity long after it has ceased to be joyful, in the name of "getting serious." Sorry, but it's not going to work. If you are a generalist, you can't make yourself into a specialist. It's like trying to make yourself straight if you're gay -- you're just not wired that way, and trying to force yourself to work that way will just make you miserable. And you won't produce good work. Learning not to hate yourself for being a generalist is difficult. Again, I think cultural forces are partly responsible. As a culture, we mostly celebrate passionate specialists. I think this also ties to youth worship, because people with laser-like focus usually know who and what they are very early, and get a lot accomplished in their youth. Yesterday's Renaissance man is today's mere dilettante. Generalists have a much longer period of fermenting and exploring, but in this culture, we get very few role models of such people. I think as a result, it's normal to feel broken or worthless or lazy, instead of just different. GET OVER IT. ACCEPT YOURSELF AND ACCEPT HOW YOU WORK. Be proud.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 6:55 AM on October 14, 2011 [17 favorites]

Best answer: This sounds a bit glib, but I felt a lot better about doing something similar when it occurred to me I'm both not doing the thing I should be doing AND not enjoying doing nothing cause if the guilt. So I force myself to pick one or the other, either do whatever it is I have to do ( or something equivalent, that's okay to) OR do nothing and be idle, none of this half stuff. The act of making it a conscious, direct decision helped.
posted by The Whelk at 10:37 AM on October 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

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