How to prevent daily tasks from overwhelming me?
February 10, 2014 11:11 AM   Subscribe

I have a problem with consistency in carrying out daily activities, particularly those that are communication-based such as responding to messages. I have missed out on business opportunities, hurt friendships, and am generally seen as unreliable due to my inability to respond to people's messages in a timely matter. This has got to change, but I'm not sure how and could use your help.

I am an introvert by nature, and value my alone time. The mindset of someone who responds to every text/message/email as soon as they get it baffles and sometimes annoys me (texting at a restaurant/theater makes my blood boil) - I would never be able to get anything done if I responded to every blip and bleep that my phone makes. I think I would have done much better in a world without social media - for my ADD-addled brain, the amount of information I am getting from so many different places overwhelms me and I lose track of what I should be doing.

The problem is, I often let the messages I have received go unanswered for too long. Then, when I get too many, I panic and go into 'shutdown' mode where I don't respond to friends at all - I almost try to make myself forget that I need to get back to these people. This eventually gets to a point where it literally takes hours to respond to all of the emails/text messages/fb messages that have accumulated. And I'm responding to people a week, maybe even two, late so I feel like I'm letting them down. I have been called out on this before.

I think the main problem is that I get super focused on one thing. For example, I am a freelance music composer and when I get into the 'zone' I just can't handle distractions when I am working. I spend an inordinate amount of time working on a project, and forget about the daily minutia of life that I need to be attending to - I sometimes have to remind myself to eat.

I think that scheduling a block of time during the day for social media/email/text time would be the best way for me to handle this, but I have a hard time sticking to a schedule as I do my best work creatively in the early morning and then have a hard time switching to something else.

I've tried the Pomodoro technique, but I just keep resetting the timer and working on the project that I am working on at the time. I've thought about making rules, such as only being able to reset the pomodoro 3 times for one assignment, then moving to the next order of business on the list. I've also considered scheduling my day into blocks of time that I must stick to; 6-7 AM, for example, could be "responding to people" time. But again, I have a difficult time with schedules that are self-imposed. I also tend to get overwhelmed by cleaning, washing dishes, etc. but at least there are no negative social implications if I leave my plates in the sink for a day or two.

I'd love to hear advice on what methods people who are similar to me have employed to keep on top of responding to emails, friends, etc. My gut is telling me that block scheduling is the best idea, but have tried it and am having a difficult time making it a habit.

PS: I have been diagnosed with ADD with comorbid anxiety, and am on Wellbutrin for that. I find that my mood plays a big part in whether or not I respond to people promptly.
posted by Thanquol180 to Human Relations (16 answers total) 57 users marked this as a favorite
You mention that you're on medication, but are you in therapy?
posted by Jahaza at 11:26 AM on February 10, 2014

I have an awful time with responding to messages — this has been noted several times by friends, in tones varying from "wry" to "outright incandescent".

What works for me is making communicating with people the last thing that I do in my day, unless it's urgent. So I'll see messages as they come in on my phone, but they don't get replied-to until the end of the day. I usually set aside the last hour of my day before I knock off and do something else to communications, and by and large it works for me.

As with other tasks I find hard to get into, I reward myself: "If I (respond to these 10 emails|do the dishes|make that dentist appointment) I can have a cup of tea" and so on. Obviously YMMV.

Most importantly be kind to yourself. The vast majority of communications don't need anything like an immediate response. It's modern technology that's given us the illusion of that privilege (or duty, depending on which end of the communication you're on). Delaying responding isn't the worst thing in the world.

In most cases I don't think about it and just respond when it comes to my "email time." If I've let something dangle for a while longer than I'd have liked to, I start the reply out with "Sorry for not replying sooner" or similar.
posted by gmb at 11:28 AM on February 10, 2014 [3 favorites]

When you do have time to worry, text people back. I know it's hard to get out of the cycle of feeling guilty and avoiding responding to people because you feel guilty about taking too long to respond to them. But just do a quick couple word response to the people you care about responding to. Honestly, like Jahaza said, therapy can definitely help with that.

But whenever you do have a break to, say, eat, just text at least a couple people.. And don't feel like you have to respond to everything, especially if they are mass message sorts of things, the people who send them probably don't get everyone responding. If these people are your friends, I'm sure they know darn well you're an introvert and are okay with it.
posted by Zalzidrax at 11:36 AM on February 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Set a few times a day when you respond to email and social media.

10, 2 and 4, like Dr. Pepper. These are good, nautral stopping points, and it's easy enough to get back to everyone.

Reframe how you think of yourself. Introvert who cherishes alone-time, is also Hermit with no friends if taken to extremes.

Also, get used to inturrupting yourself. There is a fallacy that once you're in the "flow" that your work is better. It's not.

At some point you will realize that your work and your friends need a certain amount of nurturing and it's either important to you, or it's not.

If it IS important to you, you'll sacrifice something to make it happen. If it isn't, you'll continue to explain WHY you're not getting back with people, and you'll continue to lose customers and friends.

This is 100% in your hands, and as a grown adult, it's your responsibility to DO what you KNOW you need to to do, to achieve the results you say you want.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:42 AM on February 10, 2014 [12 favorites]

Could you limit your private social media presence? Keep a professional music composer page/account on different platforms but don't use it for private matters. This way you reduce the overall amount of incoming messages.

Have a few generic drafts in your email account / on your phone. Things like: "Hey there, thanks for writing. I'm feeling inspired and working on a new piece currently. But I'll get back to you soon! Take care!" or "Sounds good, can you call me after 6pm today? Thx." or whatever works for you.

Use some scheduling tool like trello or reminderfox and keep notes who to contact, why & when. (There are other tools, of course)

Hire a private assistant for your communication needs.

Lastly, accept that as introverts we have a limited bandwidth for people, even friends. And that is fine. Try to separate work related communication (needs fast replies) from other types of messages. Friends should be okay with it if you get back to them a bit later. "Sorry for the lapse in communication! Your last update sounds ...."
posted by travelwithcats at 12:13 PM on February 10, 2014

I'm the same way. What recently has helped me is keeping daily and weekly lists. I add in communications as part of my tasks and I can better schedule them for when it fits with my overall task load.

I do have to reward myself - every time I complete three tasks, I'll take a break, mess around on MeFi or some other activity. It works.

And being kind to yourself is important, as mentioned before. We live in a weird time with instant communication expectations. Value your own time as much as you value time with others - or vice versa, if need be.

You can do it, and it'll get easier each time.
posted by glaucon at 12:18 PM on February 10, 2014

Best answer: What helps me is being careful with my self-talk, meaning how I talk to myself in my mind. If I say to myself "I have to write people back now," I immediately want to avoid it. Nobody gets to tell me what I "have to" do, not even internal me. If I say "ugh, I've been avoiding doing this all week, I hate writing people back, and I have so many I need to write back, and they probably are already mad at me," even worse. Right?

So when I find that I'm saying that kind of thing in my head, I rephrase it as a choice. "I don't have to do anything. I can write people back now if I want to, or I can [do other thing] if I'd rather." This isn't an easy out, though, because I ask myself to be really honest about how each possible choice is a building block in my life, either toward my goals and values or away from them.

When I say to myself "I want to keep working on blah because it's fun, and I don't want to do bleep because it makes me anxious," it's like OK, now I'm being honest. I need some fun in my life, but am I going overboard with all fun all the time? Am I letting my anxiety dictate my decisions? Is that really how I want to live?

Also, each choice reinforces itself. The more I avoid things out of anxiety, the more the anxious part of my brain pats itself on the back for a job well-done and the stronger it gets. The more I do things that make me proud of myself, the more I feel like I can be successful the next time. Remembering this when it's time to make a choice is helpful because it's too easy to say that what I do for the next 30 minutes doesn't really matter--it does have a ripple effect beyond that.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 12:45 PM on February 10, 2014 [39 favorites]

As a few others have mentioned, therapy can help a lot with this type of stuff. In particular, cognitive behavioral therapy methods have been HUGELY helpful to me personally (I also have an anxiety disorder, together with depression). When I'm avoiding some task there is usually some negative self-talk that is behind it. CBT helps you figure out what that self-talk is (called automatic thoughts in CBT), and then gives you ways to address it.

Working with a therapist is great and probably best if you can afford it, but there are also ways to do it on your own. Here's a free CBT course that I've heard others recommend. And here's a link to the book my therapist recommended, which has been helpful: Mind Over Mood.
posted by ReBoMa at 12:56 PM on February 10, 2014 [5 favorites]

Attach it to a habit? Maybe?

Like.... Eating. Eating or getting a glass of water, or going to the bathroom. Also, I know very few composers who aren't perfectionistic - reply with a text, not a letter. Or a phone call if that is easier. You don't need a long reply.
So, maybe try responding to a text each time you have a bathroom break?
posted by Elysum at 2:58 PM on February 10, 2014

As a fellow ADD-er / semi-obsessive with my own projects, I've found some success with limiting the variety of different kinds of social media I'm on. I don't text, I don't IM, I don't do twitter, I don't send Facebook messages, I don't do instagram, I don't carry a cell phone. If people want to get in touch with me, they can email or call my landline.

The advantage of this is that I then only have one thing to stay on top of: email. (Phone calls are rare and take care of themselves). And when it's one thing, it feels far less overwhelming, and I can either fit it into my day or take care of it all at the end.

It also simplifies my life because it cuts down on the number of times my attention is grabbed by some random electronic device beeping at me. And perhaps this is generational -- I'm in my thirties -- but I haven't found that it's hurt my social life at all. People know how to reach me, and know I'll respond to that, and that's the main thing from their perspective. Maybe if you were super extroverted it would be a problem, but since you're an introvert like me I can't imagine it will be.

Anyway, it's a simple suggestion that sounds silly, but makes a huge difference. I think I'd go crazy if I were on as much social media as it sounds like you are.
posted by forza at 3:02 PM on February 10, 2014

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone, for both the kind words and constructive criticism. I know I should be seeing a therapist - and I was - but I didn't feel comfortable with her and just stopped going. Having no one to sound off to is really getting to me, though, so I'll look into starting again with someone new. And yeah, I think my anxiety and resulting low self-esteem is at the root of 99% of my problems; I tend to engage in a lot of negative self-talk which sabotages and undermines my efforts to work on things. I need to stop reinforcing my anxiety and letting it spiral out of control. I know what I have to do, and will try to make the right choices starting... now.
posted by Thanquol180 at 3:53 PM on February 10, 2014

Why is it a big deal if you're responding to some personal messages 1-2 weeks late? Your ability to concentrate on your projects is a tremendous asset in creative endeavors. The side effect of "long lag to respond to texts" seems like a fair price to pay. Most people have the opposite problem where they get writer's block on their projects, or their attention wanders and they can't stay focused on their main project.

You could let your friends know that you'll respond in a timely manner to messages that require an urgent and short response ("Are you coming to dinner tonight?", "What's Joe's phone number?"), and that you'll respond late or never to chatty messages ("what's up?", "how was your weekend?").
posted by cheesecake at 7:05 PM on February 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

You're spreading yourself too thin. A good strategy for life is setting up systems that enable you to win. You aren't doing that.

Delete your Facebook account. Seriously. It's not that big of a deal. It will always be there waiting for you if you want to go back.

For emails, put a link to this in your signature ('using'). That's right. You get five sentences for an email. If it takes longer you are doing it wrong. There is no rule that says emails have to be long, arduous tasks. I've been doing this for a year and no one has called me out on it. They appreciate not having to read long emails.

Side note: if you are cc'd on something it does not require you to respond. It just means you are in the loop.

You allude to this in your post, but setup twice a day to respond to messages. Once in the morning before the creativity starts; once in the evening after you are done being creative. Let people know this is your schedule and you will be training them to only expect responses at only those times.

And also determine the priority of responses during the typical day. For me it's: Bosses, Spouse, Family, Friends, All others. So yeah, if someone is in the All Others category it may take me a week or two to respond. Too bad for them, life goes on.
posted by quadog at 12:57 AM on February 11, 2014 [4 favorites]

I have a huge problem like this. I manage my work email inbox well enough, but I have a pretty active online life and a couple of side projects, so my personal inbox receives a ton of messages and it has been a huge source of stress and guilt for me in the past. One thing that has helped me is to focus more on people than messages.

Think about the people who are important to you. Put them on a calendar was recurring "events" to remind you to stay in touch with them. There are also tools you can use for this. I use Contactually which let's me categorize contacts into "buckets" like "friends" who I like to keep in touch with every 7 days or "Acquaintances" who I like to keep in touch with every month at least. Unfortunately, Contactually is a bit expensive, but any tool that lets you focus on people rather than messages is going to be a big help.
posted by melissam at 2:01 PM on February 11, 2014

I have similar tendencies and also experience a kind of dread before addressing important emails (whether personal or not). I have been giving myself a goal of three days max to deal with them, letting myself write whenever the mood strikes and time permits within that deadline (but shoot for a 1-2 day turnaround). I still resist but force myself to do it at the best time I can find that fits. Many times I will get myself out of it by writing something really just short and plain. Other times it can take up to an hour (depending on who, why, when, etc). I always feel better when it's out of the way, and try to focus on that.
posted by cotton dress sock at 6:07 PM on February 11, 2014

I struggle with the same problems, and have identified this as likely the biggest obstacle to many of my goals. Since I have by no means gained the upper hand, you might be better served by ignoring me. On reflection, I have had a few promising insights. (For what it's worth, I don't consider myself particularly introverted.)

- I have an overflowing email inbox, and stuff that requires a reply is mixed with reference stuff and stuff I don't need at all. This adds a lot of friction (friction is evil!) to the process of deciding what needs to be done, and as a sub task who needs a reply.
- I could be wrong, but I think that it is not strictly necessary to reply immediately to all email. It's easy for this to turn into avoidance, though
- Sometimes I'm just really, really busy. While this is indisputably true, I still need to learn to step back and examine the cause. If I feel like I'm too busy to communicate for days, there's a bigger problem here.
- Also regarding extremely busy times: I need to internalize that it is literally less helpful to not communicate. Working for days without touching base is (in my case) generally not preferable even if it means more "work" got done, because part of that work is collaboration that's being skipped.
- A lot of my reluctance to reply is a fear of losing what's in my head right now, which was almost certainly not "hoping for an email to arrive". So far, the best approach to this problem has been to a) get better and more frequent at dumping everything out of my head onto paper or screen, and b) get better at recognizing and jumping on the small interstitial times and using them to clear out some small things like emails rather than jumping right back into something deep.
posted by RikiTikiTavi at 10:27 PM on February 12, 2014

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