Overcoming Anxiety for Terrible Tasks?
September 17, 2018 5:49 AM   Subscribe

Lately, I've been struggling to deal with Terrible Tasks with eloborate procastination and dodging reasons. How do I learn to overcome my flaw?

I'm 90% certain my 1st Terrible Task will result in a negative outcome so I've been dragging my feet for the greater half of this year like contacting my college. As a result, I'm not sure how to progress wrt my future. I'm in therapy and under medication to deal with anxiety/depression but even then writing this question has taken me a few days of deliberation. However, I can't live my entire life avoiding difficult tasks and wondering if anyone else has advice with dealing with it? Thanks.

Oddly enough if I knew if it were 100% negative outcome I'd be happier since I can say I tried my best but having the last 10% being unknown is terrifying me.
posted by chrono_rabbit to Grab Bag (17 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
The fact that you're making these things into proper nouns probably isn't helping you manage your feelings. They're just things you have to do to get to an end result you want.

It sounds trite, but, just do the thing? I've found that I have more inertia preventing me from starting a thing, as opposed to doing it. Once I'm executing and not overthinking about all the things that could go wrong, I tend to be okay. That's my personality, though. I'm not sure if that generalizes to everyone who's ever felt anxious or depressed. Also, in my case, the thing that happens is almost never as bad as I'm afraid it is.

Another observation: procrastination has the potential to make the range of outcomes worse, not better. If there's a temporal component, time-sensitive things have a chance to evolve, and sometimes not in a good way. That's how I convince myself it's good to just take action, sometimes.
posted by Alterscape at 6:41 AM on September 17, 2018 [9 favorites]

Can you confide in a close friend and ask them to sit with you while you do the Task, assuming it's something like writing an email? And when the reply comes in, have them ready by phone or in person while you read it? Accessing that kind of support has helped me.
posted by Morpeth at 6:49 AM on September 17, 2018 [4 favorites]

The stressful task isn't going away. It's easier to do the task (or even a step in that direction) rather than expend all of this energy avoiding and worrying. That perspective helped me quite a lot long ago and then lots of practice only reinforced it! It often causes more stress to avoid tasks than it would to just address it!
posted by belau at 6:59 AM on September 17, 2018 [1 favorite]

Come up with a reward for yourself. Once you do The Task, do something fun! Carve out a half hour to do something enjoyable (coffee and a crossword at a cafe, for example), but only after you get The Task done.
posted by Fig at 7:08 AM on September 17, 2018

Can you write a really granular to-do list for each task?

So "contact college" becomes
- jot a list of 5 questions to ask
- find my old student number
- open college website
- look up name and phone number of admissions person
- plug in phone headset
- make the call

Each of those tasks is relatively painless and once they're all done the actual call is much easier. Most dreaded tasks can be broken down this way- they tend to require a bit of planning, a bit of research, a few physical objects... and then the remainder of the task is almost rote.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 7:09 AM on September 17, 2018 [18 favorites]

"Oddly enough if I knew if it were 100% negative outcome I'd be happier since I can say I tried my best but having the last 10% being unknown is terrifying me."

Your choice of "oddly" is telling. That is odd. You know why? That story doesn't make sense. If you knew you were going to fail, you wouldn't do the task. Your reptile brain that doesn't like scary things is trying to convince you that the chance of success is the scary part because if failing is NOT scary, then, hey, check it out, we don't have to do the scary thing, yay, whew! But if you follow that boneheaded advice, you 100% fail, and failure's not relaxing and fun, it's disappointing, and the outcome of this mystery task matters to you, a lot, or you wouldn't be so wrapped around the axle about it. You have a ten percent chance of succeeding, which would be great! And a ninety percent chance of failing, which: you know, with terrible tasks, we all have that 90 percent. It's not scary. It's just being a human. It is our lot in life with the terrible tasks, we fail them all the time and it's kindof sucky, but it's not TERRIFYING. You're telling yourself a scary story to keep from starting. But the story isn't believable if you look at it hard.

You know how I know? Because this is my thought process exactly. I create reasons that whatever it is I'm avoiding is Very Bad, and the reasons don't really have to make sense as long as I just kinda forget to look at them very hard. Which I often do because if I see how illogical it all is, I might have to start doing something unpleasant or not doing something pleasant. Hence: "I haaaaaaaave to [drink the rest of this bottle of shiraz/call in sick/play eleven hours of candy crush instead of doing the taxes] because [my ex sent me a mean text that made me cry/my boss and all my coworkers hate me/I will do it wrong and the IRS will garnish my wages and send me to jail]."

The story is false. Does that help to know that? Hell no, of course not, the task is still scary. But what might help is if you can find a tiny piece of the task that you can do right now, a piece that is so incredibly beentzy that your reptile brain can't immediately see how to make it scary.

What is one thing that you could accomplish toward the task that would take under five minutes? Maybe just clearing off a spot to do the very first initial part of the task (or the very first initial part of finishing the bit of the task you're on--I don't know what this task is and where you are in it). Maybe you could spend five minutes assembling a couple of the first things you might need to do some small part of the work?
posted by Don Pepino at 7:19 AM on September 17, 2018 [9 favorites]

The two times I ever got all worked up about contacting a former school being So Probably Terrible in my 20s resulted in a) a check made out in my name that I almost didn’t deposit in time because I was avoiding The Terrible Envelope Of Almost Certain Doom, and b) an extremely boring, but useful, copy of my transcript. Both were something of a wake up call for learning to manage anxiety better. Do the thing, and commit to combating anxious avoidance behavior. Your future self will thank you.
posted by deludingmyself at 7:25 AM on September 17, 2018 [2 favorites]

1) Break it down into the smallest level of tasks possible.
2) Commit to doing the first one today. The first one could be just looking up the phone number or address of that person you need to contact. But start!

I struggle hard with procrastination. NEVER ONCE has the task itself been worse than the mental anguish I put myself through while I was procrastinating. It’s just never as bad as my brain can imagine.
Good luck. You can do this!
posted by greermahoney at 7:26 AM on September 17, 2018 [3 favorites]

(Oh, and as far as strategies, they’re all crap unless they lead directly to Doing The Thing. Obsessing over strategies to combat your avoidance problem is just another way to avoid Doing The Thing. So is this Metafilter question. So is every time you work yourself up about The Thing. The only “strategy” that worked for me in anxious avoidance spiral mode was getting everything ready to Do The Thing before bed, and then not letting myself get out of bed in the morning (even to pee) until I’d Made The Phone Call.)
posted by deludingmyself at 7:30 AM on September 17, 2018 [6 favorites]

I've just finished Learning How to Learn, the excellent Coursera course mentioned in this thread. A lot of it's about study skills, but a portion of it deals with procrastination. It's a great course, and free, so you could just sign up for it (I mean, what better way to procrastinate, than to learn about procrastination?!). But the takeaways for me on procrastination were:

* The pain that causes procrastination is real. When we think about a task we don't want to do, the same parts of our brain light up as when we experience physical pain. It's a natural response to find a way to avoid that pain and to do something else instead.
* If we can override that pain and start the task, the experience of pain abates about 5 minutes after starting the task and we feel fine.

I find those two things useful to know - that my pain and avoidance are real and at one level rational; and that if I can just get started, executing the entire task won't be painful, only the start.

The suggestions they make to overcome this are:
* Concentrate on process not outcome. You could do this using greermahoney's trick of breaking it down into the tiniest steps possible. Don't sit down to complete the task, just sit down to start the first tiny step and keep going.
* Using pomodoros to remove any question marks about when and how long you'll work at it for, and to reward your work with a break. I personally don't always get on with pomodoros - once I've started I'd rather keep on, and I find it hard to get back to work after my break. But YMMV.
posted by penguin pie at 7:44 AM on September 17, 2018 [4 favorites]

The amount of time and agony you've already spent not doing the thing is more than you'll likely experience having done the thing.

A really important thing to remember - and this is a human thing, we all do it - is that the outcome already exists, you just don't know what it is yet. While every once in a while an outcome is determined by the request (asking someone to do something for you is different than punching someone to do something for you, as an example), that's almost never the case. Either the mail has come or it hasn't, either your application is accepted or it's not, it's either cancer or not cancer.

You're not magic. That's kinda bad news in the grand scheme of things, but it's also great news because all you have to do is the task, you don't have to do the extra effort of manifesting the outcome out of thin air.

And finally, there is this: anxiety is largely fear of pain, and inappropriate anxiety is fear of any tiniest amount of discomfort at all, when that is neither what you are owed nor the only thing you can tolerate. Being uncomfortable IS the human condition, not constant bliss, and we are built to withstand quite a lot of it. If you maintain a goal of minimizing rather than avoiding discomfort, that's the place where you not only find productivity but reduce discomfort through practice. That's the space where you put the kettle on for a nice cup of tea and do the thing you've been dreading in the time it takes to boil the water instead of spending months not doing it.

As part of your practice of acclimating to small amounts of discomfort, keep a log* of all the times you do it and how long it took and how terrible it actually turned out to be. Maybe write down some times you can think of in the past where you dragged something out and the consequences (whether that's just emotional misery or real consequences like late fees or some other decreased value) were worse than the original thing.

*I am a fairly recent convert to bullet journaling - messy, non-artsy, extremely functional bullet journaling - and this is a really great way to work through your backlog and also just not let things drag on so much.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:52 AM on September 17, 2018 [7 favorites]

"(even to pee)"
Oh! that reminds me. I have found that linking the completion of oft-avoided tasks to bodily inevitabilities is useful. So for instance, I tend to sit motionless for unwise lengths of time at the workplace (those mahjong tiles aren't going to match themselves, after all), so I have two rules: one, I have to drink constantly (which is good because the breakroom fridge with all the La Croix in it is across the building from me, which makes me stand up occasionally), and two, I'm not allowed to use the bathrooms in the building to pee, I have to walk to the 6-story building down the hill and use their bathrooms and while I'm there, I might as well do the stairs. So far I haven't succumbed to a blood clot, so that's been working pretty well.
posted by Don Pepino at 7:59 AM on September 17, 2018

First of all, stop framing them as Terrible Tasks. Unless you're burying a body in your backyard, the task is just a thing you have to do. Get an accountability buddy. Ask a friend to help you out. Email that friend saying "I'm gonna do X thing today" and then at the end of the day email the friend again to say whether you've done it or not. And Nthing breaking the task down into the smallest segments possible.
Also, give yourself some self-love that however terrible the outcome, you can handle it. Large bill? You'll work out a payment plan. Disappointment from someone you admire? They don't control your self worth. Remind yourself that you're smart, resourceful, and adept enough to handle whatever life throws your way.
posted by missmary6 at 8:57 AM on September 17, 2018 [2 favorites]

Perhaps a seminal moment in my first round of therapy came three months in when my therapist looked me straight in the eye and said “If this is going to work, you’re going to have to *relax*”.

What he was referring to was my tendency to make a Big Deal out of just about everything in my life. Everything was life and death. To the extent that my anxiety was (is) biological I was helpfully playing along by creating an Epic Narrative to "explain" it.

My suggestion is that you recognize that you are anxious and that makes the situation sucky but that it is not something that bards will be singing about for untold ages.

After that you can make a list such as pseudostrabismus suggests and slowly, reluctantly, but successfully complete each step.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 9:52 AM on September 17, 2018 [1 favorite]

My motto is do one thing every day that terrifies you.

Start with this one.

I know it sounds trite but it's actually changed my life. Look for the chances to do something that really, really scares you, and tackle those things. That's where the growth is. The things on your to-do list that you like to do and are easy are important too, but they serve a different function.
posted by warriorqueen at 10:21 AM on September 17, 2018 [2 favorites]

I definitely recommend pseudostrabismus' suggestion of breaking up the task into a list of very granular steps. The next thing I recommend is coming up with your worst case scenario and actually developing a plan for it.

For example: "OK, so the worst case scenario is that I lose my scholarship due to a low GPA, and without it I can't afford classes next term. The first thing I'll try is contacting the financial aid office to see if they have emergency grants available. Then, if that fails, I guess I'll apply for a leave of absence and take some time off. It's September, so I bet I can get a seasonal job for the upcoming holidays. When that's done, I'll have enough money to come back from leave."

I have never once had to actually use my worst case scenario plan, but just having one improves my anxiety. It always quiets the billion "What ifs?" if I can answer them and repeat my answer to myself.
posted by capricorn at 11:53 AM on September 17, 2018 [3 favorites]

Find something worse to do that you want to do but haven't even been considering. Afraid to make a phone call? Okay, what would be worse than making the phone call? Volunteering for the food bank. Okay, fine, now you have permission to not make the phone call, if you volunteer for the food bank.

Do a satirical mock up of what you are procrastinating on, as practice. Sit down with your phone, air dial the number and play act your side of the conversation. Make yourself sound as silly and confused and tentative as possible. Do it again, but this time be responding to an abusive vicious clerk with you stammering and trying to get a word in edgewise while he she scolds, ridicules and berates you.

Lay out everything you need to make the call each day at a set time, put it in front of you, and sit staring at it for three minutes. Do not make the call. Unless you want to. But every day you have to sit beside your phone doing nothing and looking at the piece of paper with your notes and the phone number without making the call. Set a timer for three minutes and sit not making the call. If you do that you are off the hook for one day and don't have to think about it until it is time to not make the call again.

Lie to someone and tell them you made the call, embellish the story about how casual you were and how easy it was. Now you have to do it or you will be caught lying.

Ask other people to tell you about phone calls they should have made and never did.
posted by Jane the Brown at 6:46 AM on September 18, 2018

« Older Planning around older hard drives   |   Books similar to Gunnerkrigg Court Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments