Strategic planning for anxiety sufferers.
January 25, 2012 10:59 PM   Subscribe

Do you over think things? How do you channel this power for good while avoiding research-driven procrastination and anxiety?

If there's one thing I'm really good at, it's researching things and navigating complex outcomes. An ex-boss cheerfully dropped me in way, way above my head to a surprising degree of professional success - think putting an inexperienced intern in charge of client interactions, where the decisions have multi-million dollar consequences. Turns out I'm pretty damn good at that kind of thing - not least because I've always been kind of obsessive about analysis and scenario planning. And to be honest, 80% of the time this makes my life pretty fun and rewarding. But.

I get caught in the cycle of researching and planning really easily, and when I'm stressed, it's more likely to set in as a form of procrastination. This can spiral out of control if stress leads to procrastinatory research which leads to more stress, which can exacerbate a few minor health issues, which is the point where I realize hey, this is not a good thing I'm doing here. But those unhealthy patterns are awful similar to when I'm in the zone at work - just zeroed in on the wrong priorities.

That said... in the past two years, this pattern of stressed, "escapist" research has gotten me multiple job offers, raises, and freelance assignments, as well as halfway through a master's degree in The Worst Job Market In Recent History. So even as I'm increasingly aware that this may be a problem I should address, I feel like I've gotten a lot out of channeling this tendency, so I don't want to damp it down too much.

N.B.: Uncertainty is a huge exacerbator - right now, we may be living in any of 6 cities next August, since my husband's in the midst of applying to graduate programs. Two years later, we'll probably move again. This is all really good - we're late 20s/early 30s and finally at a point where we're comfortable setting long-term goals, yay! But it's hard for me to not try to contingency plan for multiple outcomes on all fronts, even when doing so is detrimental to my focus and stress levels.

How can I navigate this better? I've read Getting Things Done. I like it, but it's at best a partial solution to managing this (at worst, my project list goes fractal within a month). I've read The Now Habit and the first half of The Feeling Good Handbook, but neither one resonates because I don't have much in the way of negative thoughts. If anything, I've always been overly concerned about the idea of cognitive bias and cognitive distortion since childhood. (They're fascinating and terrifying concepts.) If I have no other priorities, I prefer to do things comprehensively, but more generally, I'm fully aware that the perfect is often the enemy of the good. And I'm good at what I do when I put my mind to it: once I focus, I tend not to get stuck or distracted.

What I'm not very good at is not getting distracted by complex research problems when I'm stressed out. Ask MeFi is like crack to me in this way: I may not be anywhere close to owning a house, but I still might someday need to know the pros and cons of installing a Japanese soaking tub; I may not have much time to cook right now, but I still need to know how best to store moderate quantities of bacon fat. Reading problems being solved in real-time is a pretty awesome form of stress relief (or it would be, if you'd all stop posting more problems that haven't been solved yet).

Anyhow, I'm poking fun at myself, but enough rambling. MeFi always has a quorum of anxiety suffers, and I've read some specific threads on rumination here. So I'll boil my question down to this: Overthinking is the secret to my professional success AND a symptom of my anxiety. If you struggle with similar problems, I want your advice on how to strike a balance without losing my edge.
posted by deludingmyself to Work & Money (10 answers total) 60 users marked this as a favorite
I am a bit like you; and it has worked in my favour in life. But it also has its downsides as you know, including following AskMe threads that have no actual relevance to my life. I call your japanese soaking tub and raise you post-natal self-sufficiency.

So when I asked myself a similar question, the answer that came to me was:
1) recognise when I am being distracted
2) then make a conscious choice as to whether I will remain distracted or get on to what I should be doing.

If I choose to remain distracted, I tend to lose interest in the distraction more quickly. If I choose to get on with work, I feel pretty chuffed. If I choose to ignore the reality that I am letting myself be distracted I feel negative toward myself and thus seek more distraction. So I've found the real key for me is the first part - recognising the reality in my actions.

... oh, look at that, a question about cars!
posted by Kerasia at 11:38 PM on January 25, 2012 [4 favorites]

Here is a nice video about procrastination.
posted by leigh1 at 11:53 PM on January 25, 2012

I relate to this question so much! One thing I've been working on is taking breaks. The research shows (I am told) that your productivity declines after 40-50 minutes, but most people don't know they're mentally exhausted until 1:20 or so, at which point they actually need a somewhat longer break (this came via a work habits seminar, but I might be remembering the numbers somewhat incorrectly). I find that if I break out of hyper-focus and walk around long enough to mentally unclench, maybe 5-10 minutes, then I stop following the question of the minute into the weeds and instead remember what is most important to move things forward. Carpal tunnel / RSI rest break software can enforce these breaks. You could try it and see if your productivity goes up as a result?
posted by salvia at 11:57 PM on January 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

I break this habit by being HELPFUL with my skills.

On AskMe and in Real Life, I have a TON of ongoing obligations I've volunteered for, willingly. These add structure to my day.

These recently include - folks with landlord/tenant disputes (just knocked two out of the park since 2012 started), a few long distance mentor-like relationships with younger people here online that grew up in similar circumstances as I did, and a friend who needs a lot of TLC because he's almost paralyzed (but will recover!) after a motorcycle accident.

My husband and I are launching a new small business together in March of 2012.

The only way I know to get my frenetic self back on track is to help others.


There's a lot to be said for simply making yourself available and being able to juggle. It's a skill not everyone has. Might as well make it work for you.

posted by jbenben at 1:19 AM on January 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

Since you're into books, this is a good book for learning how to cut through irrelevancy:

Second, I am sort of you, except I think you can handle even more complexity than me. I have used techniques like CBT and Focusing, which have definitely helped me to not bleed thinking skills into areas of my life where they shouldn't be. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, 2nd Ed. is very theoretical but goes into detail about how cognition can consume your life if you're not careful.

The thing that has helped me the most is a balanced meditation practice. Specifically,

You don't need to buy into the dogma, you just follow the instructions and see whether you like what happens over time. Basically, you learn how to be friends with your mind but to not let your mind push you around. You get into a better relationship with reality, and your mind gets less psychotically, manically, overprotectively active. Another book that has been helpful is Clarifying the Natural State, and also a hardcore theory book, Dogen on Meditation and Thinking. But the book linked above really cuts to the heart of it, for me. YMMV. If you gently experiment your way up to 20-60 minutes a day, even if you don't have time, even if it has to be sitting in a nice, comfy chair, I think you will experience tangible benefits in your life. Again, YMMV.

My "core books" right now are GTD (I've developed my own flavor, which I've been using both effectively and perhaps obsessively for many years), the Smart Choices book linked above, and the Opening the Hand of Thought book. Now, please MefiMail me and tell me your secrets for managing massive complexity. I want to get better at it. :)
posted by zeek321 at 6:18 AM on January 26, 2012

These are great suggestions. What has worked for me: breaks, as described by salvia, and becoming friends with my brain as described by zeek321.

The breaks force me to stop going down the rabbit hole. Once I've stopped for a few minutes, I realize that what I was doing so determinedly isn't necessary right now, and I can get back on track.

To force myself to stop, I installed Time Out on my Mac. At 40-minute intervals, it takes over my Mac for several minutes. Currently my breaks are 20 minutes long, because I have physical projects I need to do in addition to my computer work, and activities like chipping old mortar off tiles is a great way to unstick an overenthusiastic brain.

It can also be helpful to watch your supercharged brain from a slightly bemused distance. Look at that brain go! It's so eager! It's so thorough! But it's pointed in the wrong direction at the moment. Let's take the brain for a brisk walk around the block and then point it at the target we need really need to address today.
posted by ceiba at 7:53 AM on January 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Ooh, the software idea is a great one and one I've meant to implement for stretch breaks anyway.

It was hard writing this question since on the one hand, I've been reasonably successful when it comes to what I've accomplished over the past year or two, and on the other hand, I regular catching myself stressed out & staying up too late looking at houses in other cities on my phone on Trulia, even though a) we may not move to that city at all, and b) we're at least as likely to rent vs. buy if we do, and c) that's going to be at least 4 months from now, and in the meantime, I have freelance projects, schoolwork, and important stuff for work all due next week.

So I appreciate all the suggestions and various perspectives. Even the stuff that I don't have time for right now (like adding more commitments to my plate) is worth considering for the future. Although that last sentence is also kind of my problem in a nutshell. Hm.
posted by deludingmyself at 12:00 PM on January 26, 2012

I started with the Pomodoro Technique and twisted it into something I can actually use; essentially a focus-training program. I set a timer and focus on ONE THING for 25 minutes, take a five minute break, focus on ONE DISTRACTION for 25 minutes, take a five minute break, repeat. This helps me manage me manage my projects AND distractions. Nothing's worse than getting distracted from your distractions.
posted by lekvar at 1:47 PM on January 26, 2012 [6 favorites]

On the question of how you can avoid over-analyzing things, I've had fanatic success in the last few years with an experiment in active, engaged, aggressive impulsiveness. As someone who will naturally ponder over any question far longer than it deserves, and who has missed countless opportunities as a result, I started a project a few years ago based on the following principles:

1. Always choose the *active* choice. I'm much less likely to regret a decision to do something than a decision not to do something, even if it turns out to have been wrong.

2. After satisfying #1, always choose the scarier and less certain choice. Even if the outcome is bad, the challenge is often worthwhile in itself. Given a choice between bored and scared, always aim for scared.

In practice, it leads to immediate, concrete, defensible answers to hard questions. Should you ask someone out? yes. Should you leave your partner? yes. (Assuming it's a serious question in the first place.) Should you quit your job? yes. Should you engage in civil disobedience? yes. Should you move to Guelph and study cello? yes. Should you buy a ticket to Azerbaijan on credit? yes. Should you go meet your friends at the bar even though you have to wake up early tomorrow? yes. Should you give twenty bucks to the homeless guy whose sign caught your eye? Yes. Should you volunteer to become the dishwasher on a merchant marine ship? yes. Should you tell the colleague you don't much like that you don't want to have lunch next week? yes.

In around four years, I've yet to regret a single decision made in this way, and have had all sorts of interesting experiences I would have missed if I had resorted to the traditional habit of weighing outcomes and trying to choose the best possible solution. (Actually, the results have been pretty stunning. I'd be embarrassed to list them all.)

Now, obviously there are some caveats. First of all, this only applies to the big sort of decisions that would otherwise be debilitating. In ordinary, day-to-day life there isn't isn't time to be impulsive all the time and also get anything done. However, the big stuff occurs rarely enough that it's always worth pursing.

Second, this sort of thing only works if you're a ponderously careful perfectionist to begin with. (And, it's probably helps if, like me, you naturally de-escalate conflicts and it never occurs to you to become angry with individuals except for grand ideological reasons.) If you're the sort of person who naturally jumps out of their car intent on fisticuffs with someone who cut you off in traffic, or the kind of person who has a habit of not showing up for a scheduled meeting for no reason whatsoever, then you're better off skipping this advice.

Third, there's no reason to believe this leads to the *best* outcomes. (As an aside, here's an interesting policy-level take on why it may be bad advice for governments. I would argue vigorously with several of the speaker's points, but some of the examples are mighty interesting.)

In practice, though, I've become thoroughly convinced that it leads to fewer regrets. And, disregarding ethical concerns and larger obligations, living with as few regrets as possible is a fine goal for living.
posted by eotvos at 9:17 PM on January 26, 2012 [12 favorites]

Also, you say this is integral to your work success? I appreciate the impulse to recognize its utility and make friends with it, but I bet it has serious downsides. Finding those is a big motivation I have for changing my own anxiety.
posted by salvia at 2:12 AM on January 27, 2012

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