A Formula to Apply to This Stressful Situation
February 12, 2015 12:55 PM   Subscribe

I frequently find myself really stressed by situations that have much in common. Namely, when I have a bunch of things to do that are equally important, especially if they each involve going to a different place, I get so paralyzed and wishy-washy and timid that I end up doing nothing. I'll include more details about today's example, but what I really want is for someone to teach me how to fish when this comes up.

Today, for instance, has been hard because I need to do laundry (at a laundromat), and I need to buy a huge garbage can (at a hardware store) and start working on getting out the trash, and I need to go to another store to return something (the owner is expecting me this week) and I also need to do dishes.

A lot of reasonable people would just pick one of those things and do it, hoping to find the momentum to do another but being okay if not. Not me. Once I get in this stress tailspin, I cannot prioritize or scale back my expectations. I am not sure why I get so thrown by these tangles. Some of the problem is anxieties around transportation--I don't drive, so I have to finagle the bus or pay for cabs, and I don't enjoy that. (And, no, there is nobody who could drive me. Really nobody.) I have spent three hours today already feeling terrified by this agenda and all the tasks that comprise it, and I've quickly abandoned any action I've taken towards it because it "didn't feel right."

Of course I want to chill out and get things done today, but what I am really seeking is help that I can apply now and to similar situations alike.
posted by mermaidcafe to Grab Bag (22 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
You are trying to optimize and then it paralyzes you.

Pick what to optimize for: Time or Money (Easy Route or Cab Fare)

Pick what is most important... they are not all equally important! I am sure of this.

If you can't decide what is most important, use a matrix with a scoring card. Grade each task by Money, Time, SocialStanding and HowGoodItFeelsToHaveDone. Do the largest scoring item first.

These decisions are not life altering. Ask yourself: will this matter in 5 minutes? 5 hours? 5 days? 5 months? 5 years? This tells you how much time to waste making the decision.

Get rid of the idea of perfect. There is no perfect way to decide or to do this task. No one is watching you or judging you.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 1:03 PM on February 12, 2015 [8 favorites]

Sometimes I just need someone to tell me what to do to snap my brain out of these tailspins. Our brains are nice, but they can't do it all, and the more they try to do it all the more they trip over themselves as you're finding.

What helps me is to go to someone (a friend, my mom, Ask Metafilter, etc) and say "My brain is a mess. Help me prioritize". Their fresh clean brain finds it easy, and gives me steps. For example let's think through this stuff. Do you have something to wear tomorrow? Yes? What about the next day? No? Let's do laundry. You have enough clothes for a few days? Let's go to the hardware store. What are the steps? Let's go on Google and plan a route. Let's put money on your transit card. Etc,

The more you get an external brain to help you process, the better your own brain will get at it. If you want you can memail me if there's nobody IRL you would want to ask.
posted by bleep at 1:05 PM on February 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

I've had days like this. What helps me are lists -- not just of the main tasks I need to do, but of EVERYTHING I want to get done in a day. This works for me because I include some easy tasks -- checking those off gives me a sense of momentum, and once I start on the list, it's easier to keep going. My lists look something like this:

-brush teeth
-dry hair
-return X's email
-some other easy thing
-other errand
-other errand
-work thing
-work thing
-work thing

I already know I'm going to shower and dry my hair and whatever, but suddenly I've checked off three or four things and eeeee, sense of accomplishment! I don't know why that makes it easier to keep going down the list, but it does. Sometimes I also include a treat, like "Watch the new Bob's Burgers episode" or "grab lunch at Arby's" or whatever after I've gotten most of the important stuff done. Again, I get to CHECK SOMETHING OFF, YAY, but it's actually a pleasant thing. It really does give me the momentum to go down the rest of my list.
posted by QuickedWeen at 1:07 PM on February 12, 2015 [6 favorites]

Lists and schedules. When I have a day like yours it really helps me to write down what I have to do and where I have to go and work out an itinerary, rather than having the tasks chasing each other in my head. I normally start with the things closest to home and out them at the top, so in your case 1) Dishes 2) Trash. Then plot a journey for the others. In your case I'd work out the locations of the laundromat, hardware store and the store you have to return the item and see if there's a bus route that you can do a return journey on. So maybe 3)Take laundry to cleaners 4)Bring item back to store 5)Go to hardware store.

Once I have my list I cross things off as I do them so I feel a sense of achievement, but if I don't get them all done the list is still there for next time I'm ready. So maybe today I only cross off number 1. Maybe tomorrow number 2 etc. Maybe I'll get to the laundromat and the store on day three, and get to the hardware store on day 4. If something else comes up in the meantime I can add it to the bottom of the list. Basically don't think you don't have to do everything RIGHT NOW. Just know what's to be done and get there in your own time. Writing things down gives me a sense of control over things instead of a feeling of panic.
posted by billiebee at 1:10 PM on February 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

These all have different transportation needs:
Laundry - bring from home to laundromat and then home again
Garbage Can - bring from store to home
Return - bring from home to store
Dishes - no transport needed

There are two that can be combined, the garbage can purchase and the return. Specifically, you can take the item from your home to the return store, then go from the return store to the hardware store and get the can and go home. You are probably saving a little on transportation costs and now you have 3 things to do instead of 4.

Would the new garbage can help you schlep your laundry? If yes, you want to do the shopping before the laundry. If not, you just want to do the shopping before the end of the week. I'd prioritize the laundry for today since it is a weekday and laundromats can get crazy on weekends.
posted by soelo at 1:11 PM on February 12, 2015

If I were in your position a far as needing to go places using public transport, I'd start with planning my route. Can you find a store for the large trash can near a laundromat? Maybe you can do laundry first then utilize the new large (clean) can to tote home the clean laundry? That might mean you take the bus to laundromat, schlepping the laundry. Then if at all possible, run to store for trash can while laundry washes. (If you're comfortable doing that of course, I mean, leaving your laundry washing). Then use the can to hold the clean laundry and take a cab ride home. To me that would be the most cost effective imho.

Very best case would be that the store you need to make the return at is somewhere along the route. If it's not, then tomorrow you make that return. Call the store that is expecting you for the return and explain that you can't make it until tomorrow. If you need the money back first to pay for laundry or the trash can, then the return moves back to the top of your list.

I didn't drive until I was almost 20 and I know how hard it can be arranging rides. I'm sorry this is a pain for you. The dishes can wait until you are ready, don't stress over them. And you're not the only person who freezes up like this. I make lists for what I'm going to do on my weekends off, and esp in winter months, I often don't even get dressed until 3pm then I feel shitty about being lazy and it begins a spiral of negativity. Now I just allow myself to be lazy if I need to. Beating myself up is worse than not getting some housework done in the long run.
posted by RichardHenryYarbo at 1:14 PM on February 12, 2015

"It doesn't matter what I do first - I will pick a thing and do it"

I've had this feeling before, and actually getting moving and knocking down a task or two usually dispels it for me.
posted by thelonius at 1:16 PM on February 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I get unable-to-prioritize vapor-lock also. My solution is to make a list, number the choices, and roll a die.

If you're not a gaming nerd with lots of different dice just sitting around, you can go to random.org and have it pick a random number for you or enter your whole list and have it put the whole thing in random order.

(Warning: If I randomize the whole list at once, it can send me spiraling again into how it's in the WRONG ORDER. Rolling the die to choose one item, completing that item, and rolling a die to pick the next item works better for me.)
posted by BrashTech at 1:18 PM on February 12, 2015 [11 favorites]

I get unable-to-prioritize vapor-lock also. My solution is to make a list, number the choices, and roll a die.

Yep. I actually have a motto: Don't concern yourself too much with arbitrary decisions. If one thing is about as good as another, I'll just do whatever pops into my head first, or whatever I wrote on my list first, or some other technique that is just as arbitrary as the decision.

It also makes me an incredible fast shopper, especially for birthday cards. If two are about as good as each other, I'll take the one in my right hand.
posted by maxsparber at 1:23 PM on February 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I have spent three hours today already feeling terrified by this agenda and all the tasks that comprise it, and I've quickly abandoned any action I've taken towards it because it "didn't feel right."

This is not (or not merely) a practical question; this is really an anxiety question. Your recent questions indicate that you're in treatment for depression. Have you considered CBT? It can be really helpful for this kind of anxiety.

Honestly, any practical suggestions are going to probably be kind of unhelpful if you're in an anxious doom spiral. You have my sympathies; I've been there, so racked by anxiety that I didn't want to go get groceries because that would mean I'd have to drive or look up directions or whatever. CBT was exactly that kind of "teaching me how to fish" thing I needed, because it helped me interrupt the bad thought patterns that were miring me in misery.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 1:23 PM on February 12, 2015 [7 favorites]

Best answer: I touched base with my partner on this - he struggles with a very similar issue, and I seem to recall that you two share a diagnosis, so there might be some basis to think that what helps him might help you.

So here's what he says: First of all, he has a document called something like "DECISION MAKING ISSUES" with all the techniques I'm suggesting below, so he doesn't have to reconstruct them from scratch every time - he just has to remember that if he's having this problem, he can go to that document and see what ideas he's had previously and some notes on which ones have worked well in which situations.

Suggestions from his document for this issue are:

- If there are a ton of options, try to narrow down the search space to a small number. Maybe you can decide to push aside everything that involves leaving the house for now. Get it down by any means necessary to a number of options that's less overwhelming, and then if you have to, just flip a coin or throw a dart.
- Try to put the decision into perspective - is this a situation where there might be a WRONG decision or one with a bad ramification? (e.g., do you have to make sure you get to the hardware store before it closes?) Or are all choices neutral-to-good (e.g., whatever you have for dinner is probably fine)? Sometimes that helps him figure out what to rule in or out of the decision space.
- Try to remember times you've had to make similar decisions before. What did you do? Was the outcome good? Is there any reason not to just do that again?
- Try to articulate, to himself or out loud to me, what is blocking the decision. Are there particular pieces of information needed, like knowing what time the hardware store closes? Saying this out loud seems to help work through the block sometimes.
- Try to articulate what really matters. For example, in your case, maybe what matters most is that the laundry get done or you'll have nothing to wear tomorrow, but the trash can wait a day. Or in a common scenario at our house, if he's paralyzed on what to have for lunch, what really matters is getting calories into his body at a reasonable lunchtime. If those calories are in the form of cheese and crackers or a premade shake thing, that's fine, what matters has been satisfied.

We both hope some of that is maybe of some use to you.
posted by Stacey at 1:27 PM on February 12, 2015 [6 favorites]

Best answer: "it didn't feel right" is hard because on the face of it ... good, we should listen to our feelings. The problem is that it is unrealistic to expect something to feel good when you are anxious. I make this mistake when procrastinating. I pick something i feel like doing off a list, and never seem to get to the essential things I don't feel like doing. My error is thinking that I will ever feel like making a phone call. I hate them! I just have to do it. I highly suggest getting help with your anxiety if it is keeping you from accomplishing things you want to do.
posted by Gor-ella at 1:31 PM on February 12, 2015 [3 favorites]

Best answer: it "didn't feel right."

You have no constitutional right to never be uncomfortable. Assume, given what sounds like your baseline anxiety level, that all the things on the list are going to feel bad until they are done (upside: having them done will feel good).

Then start making decisions based on facts: the laundromat is only open during X hours, the garbage can't get dealt with until the garbage can is acquired, are the laundromat and the garbage can store a combinable errand, does Amazon have garbage cans, etc.

You're not going to enjoy doing any of this, so stop making pleasure a criteria. Don't do things that are dangerous - don't go do the out-of-house errands during a storm. Don't do things that are unproductive - don't go to the laundromat when it's closed. But if the only complaint you can legitimately make about doing a thing at a specific time is "it's icky", well, so be it.

Like Gor-ella said, don't convince yourself you're ever going to "feel like" doing it and waiting for that bright shining day to come. Nobody ever feels like going to buy a trash can unless doing that is putting off an even worse thing. But having a needed trash can is often nice, if you can delay your gratification.
posted by Lyn Never at 1:44 PM on February 12, 2015 [9 favorites]

Best answer: How I talk to myself about the stuff I'm planning to do is crucial. Your list says "today I need to... I need to... I need to...they're expecting me..." Anything like need to / have to / supposed to / should is a pressuring way of talking to oneself. I pay attention to it because it's a known trigger for my anxiety.

What helps me when overwhelmed is to look at benefits and drawbacks, and make a choice. There is always a choice.

For example, what are the benefits of going to the laundromat today? Sitting and reading while the clothes wash, a treat for myself from the laundromat vending machine, nice fluffy piles of clean folded laundry when it's all done. It's good to have the plus side of doing it come into focus.

What's the worst that could happen if I don't go to the laundromat today? I'll start running out of clean clothes by Monday, and when that happens I can either start washing things in the sink and hanging them to dry over the tub, or start re-wearing dirty clothes. Suddenly going to the laundromat today doesn't sound like the worst option.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 1:52 PM on February 12, 2015 [7 favorites]

I do things one of several ways. One way is what is an immediate need right now in this moment?

"Today, for instance, has been hard because I need to do laundry (at a laundromat), and I need to buy a huge garbage can (at a hardware store) and start working on getting out the trash, and I need to go to another store to return something (the owner is expecting me this week) and I also need to do dishes."

So for today.....I would have said,

*Trash (I need to get gross smelly things out of my house before my house can otherwise be clean)
*Laundry (I need clean clothes to be clean)
*Dishes (I need clean dishes to be clean and healthy)
*Return to the store -- the owner is expecting me this week. This week still includes tomorrow and Saturday. So long as there are no financial penalties for waiting.

The other way I do thing is, what is the easiest thing to do that will take the least amount of time that would be harder to do later on?

In which case --- *Return to the store. I can't return the item when the store is closed, and it won't take long to do it once I'm there, so I'll get that out of the way.
*Trash --- I can't buy a bin when the store is closed, so I'll go get that, but then I will do:
*Laundry -- because taking out the trash can happen when the laundromat is closed, but laundry can't, but I won't fold the laundry and put it away when I get home because I will:
*Start getting out the trash because I need to do the messy work before doing the cleaning work
*Finishing the laundry

As for the paralyzing anxiety, if it's like this a lot --- like more than occasionally --- I'd consider talking to your doctor. I have a friend who sounds a lot like you that she basically didn't know where to start so she never did --- turns out, she has OCD. But instead of compulsivity to do things, she had obsessive thinking about doing things that paralyzed her. She's doing a lot better now that she's recognizing her thinking patterns. I'm not saying you have OCD, but if this type of thinking is predominant in your life, then you should bring it up with a professional because you don't have to be this nervous about accomplishing what are, really, very basic everyday tasks.
posted by zizzle at 2:06 PM on February 12, 2015

Response by poster: To answer something that's come up, yes, I do have terrible anxiety and I see a therapist and a psychiatrist. My psychiatrist doesn't want me on benzos any longer and nothing else has really helped so far.
posted by mermaidcafe at 2:16 PM on February 12, 2015

I had really bad an anxiety for a while from a medication side effect and it makes life so hard. When I'd get overwhelmed and stuck trying to figure out what to do, I'd do the easiest thing first so I'd feel better about at least getting something done. For me, I'd probably do dishes first since while it's a pain, it's not a headache to figure out like a bus route.

Next, I'd break down into smaller steps what else I'd need to do. Write a list of everything, then figure out what it takes to do the first thing you wrote down (don't worry about importance) and so on through the list. When you've done stuff like figure out bus routes, see if anything can be combined. Now you can decide if anything is time sensitive and needs done first. If they'll all important, then do combined stuff first and just work you're way down the list day by day.

The best advice I read when the anxiety was bad was to break down tasks into smaller steps and if you still feel overwhelmed, break down the steps into even smaller steps until you find something you can handle. Making even a little progress helps break you out of that overwhelmed head space.
posted by stray thoughts at 2:49 PM on February 12, 2015

This happens to me, a lot. My best trick is to not think twice. Whenever I'm like "here I go off to [do laundry]-- oh wait, shouldn't I go to the grocery first because it closes earlier?" I screw up my motivation to do anything. That's how I end up not doing anything, when I worry too much about doing things in the right order. So I try to ignore that voice of "but shouldn't you...?" When I go with that first instinct, I end up with more energy to do items #2-5 on the list. Regardless, #1 got done, which is more than some days! If I try to do #2 first, no matter how awesome the reason, I end up totally derailed until I do #1. Ditto for trying to group errands that are on the same side of town. Now, if I plan all this the evening before, I can pull off some super optimized day, but if I waste the spark of "go do X now" when I'm almost ready to walk out the door, and smother it in analysis and second guessing, I'm screwed until I relight the spark by finally getting around to X.
posted by salvia at 10:58 PM on February 12, 2015 [2 favorites]

Put another way, just do anything on the list. Doing anything will reduce anxiety, freeing up energy to do another thing, whereas trying to do the right thing will worsen your anxiety and risk paralysis. All the better if you can go with your gut, which probably knows things you wouldn't factor in. (E.g., it took me forever to realize I was preferring things one could do while holding a coffee mug for the morning.)
posted by salvia at 11:08 PM on February 12, 2015

This prioritizing tool ("ask the oracle") from similarminds could help you make a list.
posted by gemutlichkeit at 5:51 AM on February 13, 2015

Are there deadlines for any of those things? Do you have a trash day when stuff gets picked up? If so, then you have to get the trash done before trash day. There's a deadline for taking the thing back to the store, since the owner expects you this week. I generally do the tasks with deadlines before the ones without. It's a decent way to pick an order to do the tasks in.

If there's a trash day, and it's before the end of the week, do the trash first, then taking the thing back to the store. If there is no trash day, or it's after the end of the week, take the thing back to the store first.

You can order the other tasks based on how inconvenient it is getting to not have them done. If you're running out of clothes, but you can get by on dishes and trash for a day or two, do laundry first (after taking the thing back to the store).

If it's equally inconvenient to have all the other tasks undone, you can pick the easiest or the hardest one to do first. I often like to do the hardest one (or the one I'm dreading the most) first. Then you're not dreading it any more. If there are several hard tasks, I like to space them out, so I'm only having to do one dreaded task in a day.

You aren't going to do everything perfectly. It might turn out that you would have been better off doing the tasks in a different order. There might be a way you could have made it cost less or take less time. That's just the way things are, that's not your fault, and that's OK. You're not going to get everything right every time, because nobody ever does. Optimization is a mathematically and computationally hard problem, so of course you're not going to get it right every time.
posted by Anne Neville at 6:33 AM on February 13, 2015

I'm also a carless person, and one thing that helps for me is finding something pleasant to do during the waiting/bus riding/walking. The fact is, I'm going to spend a fair amount of time on transportation, so it may as well be nice rather than stressful. The list I've come up with includes:

--reading a good novel on my Kindle or phone
--calling people to chat (while walking or waiting...don't do this while ON the bus as it is annoyign to others)
--listening to podcasts
--listening to my favorite music
--downloading movies/TV shows before I go (or you can stream, depending on your data plan)
--saving a new magazine to read on public transit

A few other tips:
--Unless the weather is terrible or the distance is unwalkable, I find I'm often happier to walk rather than take transit, even if it takes longer. Obviously this won't work lugging around laundry, but since you said this comes up frequently, I thought I'd mention it. I get to feel like I'm doing "double duty" of getting exercise/fresh air while I'm accomplishing errands, which I like.
--Do you have Uber/Lyft in your city? My experience has been that they are significantly cheaper than cabs.
--Figure out which of these tasks might be able to be outsourced/delivered, and whether you can afford that outsourcing. I often get groceries delivered, and I don't find it to be a ton more expensive (especially because it's easier to avoid impulse purchases when you order online!). I like Instacart, but there are many choices out there for different stores. You may be able to order the trashcan online from Amazon, Walmart, or similar. Some places will pick up/deliver laundry, although that may or may not fit in your budget (but be sure to factor in the cost of cabs when comparing!). Etc. etc. I find that the only way I can live car-free and not go crazy is to get as much delivered as possible, even when it's things that a person who DOES own a car would think are crazy...BUT, you are saving a ton of money on not having a car, so I think it's okay to splurge on some delivery items when you can afford it.
posted by rainbowbrite at 7:30 AM on February 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

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