[Anxiety filter]: I really want/need to focus, but I don't know how!!
December 9, 2016 10:09 AM   Subscribe

I have a lot to do, but I'm extremely picky and perfectionist. I keep having panic attacks and end up procrastinating! How can I sidestep the panicking part and just start?!!

Hi Mefites!

Everyday I have a list of things to do, and more than enough time to complete those tasks. And yet I often find myself spending somewhere from 1/3 to 2/3 of my time freaking out and running around in circles (usually mentally). It's annoying because I want so badly to get my work to be as good as I picture it. But I just can't quiet down my mind half the time!

For your reference, I already implement a lot of lifestyle things: I'm restarting therapy soon, I take medicine, I exercise a few times a week, I socialize sometimes, I eat and sleep and drink water...

I am looking for pro-tips and techniques for just getting started!
Does anyone else have this problem? Do you have any tried-and-tested solutions?

Thank you!
posted by Crookshanks_Meow to Work & Money (16 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: What about doing a shitty first draft/half-assed version of your task? Like, you can tell yourself "I'm going to do this fast, and I'm not going to worry about getting it right because I can come back to it later." Or "I'm just going to wipe out the sink with a towel and then I can come back later and *really* clean the bathroom."

Maybe you do get around to doing it later, maybe you don't, but in the meantime you've done *something*.

But this is hard stuff! I will be following this question with interest.
posted by mskyle at 10:17 AM on December 9, 2016 [6 favorites]

This happens to me quite often, and one thing that I've found that works pretty well for me is making a task list (sounds like you already have one?), and then setting a timer for fifteen minutes and working on a task. If I'm in a great state of mind, I'll pick a more involved task and get to work and sometimes not even hear the timer when it goes off because I've gotten myself in the right mental place to get some work done. If that's not happening and I'm all in a lather and can't get my mind quiet, I set the timer and pick an easier task from the list, and when the timer goes off I set it again for fifteen minutes and walk away from my desk. I work from home so I'm able to go fold laundry or pet the cat or unload the dishwasher or just walk around my apartment. If this is happening for you in a place where you don't get to do those things, still take the break and get away from your desk -- use the restroom, get some water, what have you. Lather, rinse, repeat as needed.

Usually doing this for a bit has the effect of getting me to work in fits and starts, and eventually I gather enough momentum to keep going. Sometimes it helps me get at least the most urgent stuff done so that if I have to answer to someone about it, I have some progress to show.
posted by palomar at 10:23 AM on December 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'd highly recommend the Pomodoro Method.

Here's how I'd suggest doing it:
1. Download a Pomodoro timer app for your phone (I use Block and Flow, but there are lots of free ones).
2. Pick something you need to work on that will take at least 25 minutes. (I.e., don't pick "unload the dishwasher" if it will only take you ten minutes - instead pick "kitchen stuff," unload the dishwasher for the first ten minutes, then clean the sink, etc. etc.)
3. Work till the timer dings. You are racing yourself here, in a friendly/non-stressful way. How much can you get done before the timer goes off?
4. Every time you think "Ahhhhh perfectionism!!" or whatever, say to yourself, maybe even out loud, "I have to keep working. I can assess after the timer goes off."
5. After the timer goes off, don't assess very hard and don't nitpick what you've done. (I mean, if you're writing and you really need to go back and edit, that's totally fine. But if it's like "Ahhh, that clean water glass has a tiny spot on it, I must rewash it!" try your best to let go of that.) Look at all the things you did, pat yourself on the back, give yourself a quick treat (5 minutes of a dumb iPhone game, a foot rub, a neck rub, a glass of juice or whatever), and then start again at #2.

(On preview, what palomar said!)

I also keep an idiosyncratic log of my Pomodoros in Excel, where different task types are color coded and each completed Pomodoro gets a colored box filled in, etc. I'm sure you could come up with something much less finicky. It's very nice for me to look back over all the pretty colored boxes that show what I got done at the end of the day/week/month. Block and Flow keeps track of completed Pomodoros (and lets you color code them!) but only through the end of the day - I like having a more permanent record.

Good luck!
posted by bananacabana at 10:26 AM on December 9, 2016 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I find breaking things down into small tasks very helpful. Things that can be done in 15-30 minutes. So instead of "My apartment is a mess" or even "I need to clean up the bedroom", my tasks will be 1. put away clean laundry 2. straighten up bedside table 3. straighten up dresser 4. change sheets 5. prep dirty laundry to wash 6. do laundry.

It is no longer an overwhelming job, it is several easily achievable tasks. Finishing each one feels like a little achievement, and each one completed makes the next one easier to start.

I also use a digital checklist with reminders. It will keep reminding me until I mark something complete. It's a big help.
posted by Cranialtorque at 10:30 AM on December 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I break down work into 'micro-tasks', as detailed in a previous AskMe.
posted by prinado at 10:33 AM on December 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

I have a similar anxious reaction to a large list of tasks. I've gotten much better with it over time through many little tweaks including the lifestyle things you mention. The biggest concrete thing I did that helps me get something done while not being overwhelmed is to break the tasks down as small as I need like such:

1. List all of the day's (hour's, week's, whatever) tasks and prioritize them
2. Take the number one priority, forgetting the rest as much as possible for now and make a new list with that as the header.
3. Break that task down into pieces. I get really granular because it helps me focus. The list will have multiple line items which seem like tiny pieces, but are real and need to be done.
4a. If I can look at the task at this point and start tackling it I'll dive in, crossing off each item as I complete them. This gives me a sense of accomplishment and keeps a record of when I did each thing which comes in handy often.
4b. If I the task still seems very daunting, I'll take the first few tasks back to step 2 until it's something I can handle and then start in. I make another new list for each iteration of this so I'm only looking at 8 little sub-tasks in front of me at any time. I can do 8 little things!

This seems like a lot of extra work and it is, especially until I was used to it and it came naturally. But for me the time saved by getting started and knocking tasks off the list is much greater than the time put into making the list(s). I'm to the point where I do a bit of this in my head which is how I imagine a lot of people do it. I also fly through lists and sub-lists which feels good. Before I know it, I've gotten a whole project done. I also usually find that I have less of a struggle with perfectionism because it's a lot easier for me to be satisfied with each little task than an overall project.

One thing that helped me a lot when I started this (and other life adaptations) was my therapist telling me "this is not you being weird or not being good at time and task management. This is you doing your version of time and task management very well." That helped other anxieties about my work style and tools. You might call me weird but I'm very good at my version of weird. People, now including me, almost never care how I got to a finished product, just what the finished prduct looks like.
posted by Clinging to the Wreckage at 10:37 AM on December 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

I should have previewed. Basically what prinado linked to. Except for me that large outline would still be daunting to the point where I couldn't focus, so my version is pretty close prinado's method, but only having a small part of the outline actually in front of me at a time.
posted by Clinging to the Wreckage at 10:41 AM on December 9, 2016

The other suggestions are better, but self-medicating might help you get over the initial hump of getting into the work. So if you can occasionally consume alcohol without getting addicted, I have used alcohol or marijuana to get over procrastination/perfectionism before.
posted by flimflam at 11:20 AM on December 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

If it's the perfectionistic side that is tripping you up, try to plow through your daily list and finish things to a "good enough" standard. Afterwards you can revisit any tasks that didn't meet your initial visions of perfection and tweak them. When I do this, I often find that once it's done, the "good enough" really was good enough. Phew. But occasionally I'll redo something that is important to me.

In my experience finishing goes a lot way to quelling the anxiety. Also, in the words of my former acupuncturist. "How are you ever going to finish if you don't start?"
posted by defreckled at 11:41 AM on December 9, 2016

Best answer: It took me about 40 years to figure out, but forward progress on a tertiary task is better than no progress on any task.

* I set a timer for 10 minutes and start with the least objectionable task on my list. Just that few minutes often gives me enough momentum to carry on.

* I assign rewards, like "I am not allowed to pour coffee / have lunch until I start X"
posted by DarlingBri at 12:37 PM on December 9, 2016 [2 favorites]

For me, this is almost always biologically based. I just didn't know it for a long, long time.

Blood sugar issues or adrenal stress cause me to dither and be anxious and incapable of focusing. No amount of self discipline or mental anything helps me with that. Addressing the underlying physical cause is the answer for me.
posted by Michele in California at 3:17 PM on December 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

Law and Order. Or whatever floats your boat. I find that having a show I like on removes part of the anxiety equation. It's as if the spinning part of my brain is a child. I stick it in front of a television screen to keep it distracted while I get shit done.
posted by Vaike at 3:20 PM on December 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

Similar to other suggestions of choosing one of the subtasks from your list first, to get myself over the anxiety I prime the pump by doing some task that isn't part of the anxiety inducing project at all, but that is a similar type of work.

So if my stressful project is to write Proposal B, I might go back and edit some small section of Proposal A to clean it up. Proposal A is pretty much finished so there is no anxiety involved and it gets me in the proposal writing groove.

I know you said you're already good on this front, but my other suggestion is meds. When I'm procrastinating because of anxiety I take a tiny bit of klonopin and then find something else to do while it takes effect. This gets me over the hump and within 20 minutes I'm working steadily.
posted by duoshao at 6:03 PM on December 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

Haha, I came to post the same thing flimflam did. It's not socially acceptable to say that you drink or get high or whatever to get started on work you're procrastinating on, but it works. Just enough to get you over the hump and produce a first draft, and then you continue to work on and revise the project sober. (I also have an rx for Klonopin, but I find that it affects me too strongly to be at all productive while I'm on it.)
posted by phoenixy at 6:27 PM on December 9, 2016

I've been working on this same thing lately. For tasks like dishes, I've implemented the "Dish Toll". Whenever I walk by the sink, I have to take care of one dish. Put one dish in the dishwasher or put away one fork that's clean. Eventually the task will be so close to completion that I'll just go ahead and finish putting things away, or whatever step it's on.

For other tasks, my motto for the month is "Don't do it perfect". I just start whatever it is, going through the motions of the task. If perfect looks like Z, I purposefully aim lower, for Y. If I'm feeling pretty good when I hit Y and want to continue on to Z, I do. If not, stopping at Y is likely more than sufficient.

These tips are not something you will be able to implement once and you'll be okay forever. You will have to remind yourself over and over than putting away one dish is enough, or making one phone call instead of five is enough. But imperfect progress feels a lot better than paralyzed perfection. Good luck to you, you're not alone!
posted by jet_pack_in_a_can at 11:23 AM on December 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks guys! Still a nervous wreck (LOL) but I tried to incorporate crappy first drafts + tiny tasks + rewards... Hopefully this will get easier with practice. Thanks y'all! :)
posted by Crookshanks_Meow at 4:44 AM on December 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

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