I'm incapable of getting tiny tasks done.
June 7, 2007 9:41 AM   Subscribe

Most procrastination advice seems to include something along the lines of "Break up tasks into small manageable bits" and "Keep a to-do list." I procrastinate on tasks that are too small to break up and I already have a to-do list. It's getting worse and worse. I think it has something to do with social situations.

I don't have a problem tackling large tasks (I actually enjoy completing huge projects by myself). Rather, the tasks that I put off the most are the ones that require me to make social contacts. They are usually tiny little tasks that simply require me to call someone up and ask them to do something. And its not like I am asking huge favors: the things that I am referring to are very straightforward, like asking a print shop to print something or a customer service rep to change some information on an account. That is their job and I am not inconveniencing them by asking, so it's not like I should be feeling guilty for asking. And it seems to be happening more and more often.

I put off returning phone calls and email (in both work and personal arenas) as well. It got so bad last month that a friend emailed my boyfriend asking where I was and if I was okay. I was incredibly embarassed and I managed to email an apology and now everything's cool, and I vowed not to let this happen anymore. But I'm still doing it at work and with other people.

Yet I don't feel like I have social anxiety. I can be shy (when it comes to asking people for stuff, like directions or information) but I am friendly, I make people laugh, people like me. I once worked as a shot girl in a bar and was pretty successful; I had no fear of going up to strangers, flirting, joking and asking them to buy disgusting jello shots. Given my (low-level) position at work, I am actually too outspoken during meetings. I'm not afraid of public speaking. I really don't think I have social anxiety. I used to think my procrastination was a symptom of ADD, but now that I see it so linked to social situations I'm not sure.

What is wrong with me? What can I do about it? Have you had a similar problem? Thanks everyone.
posted by chelseagirl to Human Relations (26 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
This is really common. I experience the same thing, and so do a lot of other people. I'm not shy or anxious in person, but I have some resistance to "bothering" anyone by contacting them out of the blue.

One thing that might help is identifying a key task you're avoiding, and doing it first thing in the morning. Don't do anything else tomorrow until you've made that phone call or sent that e-mail.
posted by mbrubeck at 9:49 AM on June 7, 2007

Batch, batch, batch. Make a list of calls you need to make, then nominate a specific period of time, like 30 or 45 minutes - perhaps even use a timer - then fill up those minutes with the tasks in question. Firstly, this should mean you avoid repeatedly having to go through the first real high-stress experience of getting into the right frame of mind to make phone calls. Secondly, if you're weird like me, dedicating a specific period of time will have this strange effect where it shifts your focus from the tasks to the block of time, which feels somehow ring-fenced, and drains the stress from the tasks themselves. But that second bit might just be me.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 10:19 AM on June 7, 2007 [4 favorites]

I'm the same way. I have terrible trouble completing tiny tasks, even things like putting things in the mail. I think I find them a waste of mental and physical energy, which is ridiculous, because it's way more energy to worry about not having done them. I'm not anti-social at all, but I hate making phone calls. I deal with some of this by doing as much of my contacting over email, but like you, I sometimes get stuck on emailing, too. I don't have any advice, just wanted to let you know you're not alone :-)
posted by walla at 10:25 AM on June 7, 2007

I'm the same way. My weird motivations for not acting more quickly in response to emails or vmails are actually two:

1. I don't want to bother them (this is usually when I'm instigating the conversation)

2. I don't want to appear to be at the beck and/or call of the other person by responding too quickly (this is usually dealing with people I'm not crazy about)

Both are rude and unprofessional and I have yet to figure out either.
posted by crickets at 10:28 AM on June 7, 2007

See if you can get some of these tasks done via filling out a form (online or paper)... Filling in numbers and checking boxes goes a lot faster then thinking about what a nuisance it is to call someone. I think this is one of the major reasons why online pizza delivery forms are so popular (that, and it gives them fewer excuses for messing up your order).
posted by anaelith at 10:30 AM on June 7, 2007

Another person here who isn't shy at all but who, for some odd reasons, hates to initiate phone calls ( though I am somewhat better with email). I also detest answering the phone but this has improved immensely since we went with Vonage and I get my voice mails as email attachments.

I chalk up my reluctance to the following:

a) I am horrible with audio cues and much better with visual cues and body language. So, I struggle with phone conversation and, to a degree, email.
b) As I get older, I have a harder time processing and remembering auditory information. I'm much better with reading it. I've always been like this, but it has gotten worse.
c) When I talk to someone in person, I can walk away to end the conversation. When I talk to someone on the phone, I don't feel comfortable ending the conversation. Instead, I feel awkward and stressed out when trying to end it gracefully.
d) I have had stressful phone calls for work in the past, which has given me a reluctance to use the phone for communication.

I usually do my phone calls in batches (as suggested above) and with my husband in the room for support. Even when he doesn't know that he is there for that purpose :) Somehow, with my daughter, the calls have been a little easier because I can be brief and efficient if I have to tend to her.

I also find that the longer that I put off the calls, the more resistant I am to making them.

Best of luck. You're not alone. I've always wondered if this kind of thing had a name.
posted by jeanmari at 10:44 AM on June 7, 2007

I don't know what one does about this, I have it too. Too many people able to contact me by too many ways - phone, e-mail, other e-mail, text message, cell phone.. I think we're all bombarded with communication all the time and it gets exhausting. I don't even check my voice mail any more.

And I hate bothering other people because they're all negotiating all this excess of communication, mostly ineffectively. Who's found a good way yet, for real? I mean, those who don't have a personal assistant? I don't want to hear about GTD either, I can't keep on top of that & the cult of hyperproductivity.. It stinks, though, because if I want someone else to do something it means usually having to be the squeaky wheel and bother them over, and over, and over. I hate this, so I put it off.
posted by citron at 10:55 AM on June 7, 2007

Happens to me too. I find this is a loop that is pretty easy to talk myself into and out of. Once I get really stuck on "I'm unable to do this", I convince myself of it and become even more unable. Conversely, I can also say "I'm just going to make that one call, which will take me 30 second... GO!" and then that makes it easier to do the next thing.
posted by judith at 10:59 AM on June 7, 2007

I've wondered sometimes if this phenomena (raises hand on having felt similarly at times) has to do with calibrating appropriate levels of self-sufficiency and independence. That's a trait that can be every bit as slippery a slope as social interaction. And I could see where it could be easily mistaken for other things, like not wanting to inconvenience others.

I hate the phone too, for many of the reasons jeanmari gives, and I'm sure that doesn't help.
posted by gnomeloaf at 11:06 AM on June 7, 2007

As far as procrastination, a technique that works for some is the 12-2 or 15-5 method. Set a timer and do 15 minutes of work. Then goof off when you're done for the 5 minutes. Adjust times as appropriate, but 15-5 is nice, because at the end of the hour you've done 45 minutes of real concentrated work.
posted by cschneid at 11:08 AM on June 7, 2007

Really maybe the answer is to just accept that we're not all wired to adapt easily to all this multitasking & try to find a way to stop worrying and/or feeling guilty about it.

Facebook I've found is actually pretty handy for keeping friends updated on what I'm up to without actually having to remember to respond to this or that message at a given moment.. it doesn't provoke the same anxiety response as emails or phone calls. (Yet.) :)
posted by citron at 11:13 AM on June 7, 2007

I also hate making phone calls, especially for work, but unlike jeanmari, I'm less stressed about it when I have no one around to hear me make them -- I get (irrationally) freaked out that my co-workers or bosses are judging me (and, if it's around friends, that I'm being rude by ignoring them in favor of talking to the invisible person on the phone). Having to split my attention, to pay attention to the person on the phone as well as keep my radar up for what's going on in the room around me, seems to be most of what stresses me out.

So when I have to make work phone calls, I either use that phobia to my advantage -- "Ohmigod, my boss can hear that I'm not making the phone calls she assigned me, and she's thinking I'm a fuck-up, so I better start making them so she hears that I'm working" -- or try to figure out ways to change the situation to diminish the phobia -- closing my office door or waiting until everyone else is at lunch to make the calls. If you're more like jeanmari, then you could try to do the reverse of that and make those calls when there are more people around.

For times when I'm really worried about bothering the person I'm calling and that's what's stressing me out, I sometimes try to call at odd hours so that I can leave a voicemail, and then I try to include all the relevant info so the person doesn't have to call me back.
posted by occhiblu at 11:20 AM on June 7, 2007

i hate the phone and find that it sometimes helps me to write out a short script or at least a list of the questions/points i need to mention during a conversation. that helps me feel less overwhelmed or concerned during the conversation.

but i have no problem with email, so your problem may be different.
posted by lgyre at 11:22 AM on June 7, 2007

Although it feels good on paper, I've found that breaking things down into their smallest pieces does more to raise my anxiety than to think of things as clumps of projects. When I break things down, there are more items to keep track of, and therefore, I get overwhelmed by "stuff."

99% of the time I know *exactly* what I want and need to do, but I cannot overcome inertia because I know as soon as I do, I'll start thinking of the 300 other things I need to accomplish. It's this realization that I'm somehow locked into a never-ending cycle of "stuff to do" that makes me postpone my actually "doing stuff" as sort of an internal, passive-aggressive way to create personal time for myself.

Another angle: I'm constantly weighed down by everything I have to do AFTER a given task is completed. For example: I will postpone a prompt email reply because I know my recipient is less encumbered and will respond immediately... which will reassign the burden of action back to me. Therefore, the longer I postpone my response, the longer I can go without having to address the subsequent task.

Getting Things Done is supposed to alleviate this, but I'm not far enough along yet, I guess.
posted by Hankins at 11:35 AM on June 7, 2007 [1 favorite]

Like lgyre, I sometimes write out bullet points before calling. I try to think about what different possible responses to my statements/questions will be, and whether there are any other statements/questions I might then need to make in turn, depending upon what the other person says. It helps me avoid making a second call.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 11:38 AM on June 7, 2007

I have the identical anxiety and procrastination problems with phone more than email. I put off initiating phone calls, whether social or business. In my case I'm scarred from five years of high volume customer service in a call center with a terrible work environment (hall pass to use the restroom as an example). I hated everyone who called me, and now I assume everyone I'm calling will be bothered by me.

Here's the tricks I use:
- keep a separate list of these calls and schedule a block of time to do them all at once.
- tell someone else (husband or coworker depending on context) that I'll be making a call today - I am then obligated to do so.
- gather every bit of relevant paperwork before calling, even when it's ridiculously redundant. Part of my anxiety is that they may ask me something I don't have the answer to at hand, so I over-prepare.
posted by buildmyworld at 11:53 AM on June 7, 2007

I've been having the same thing lately. I need to call the local used bookstore and the local thrift store to find out what items they accept and at what times, and I've been putting these calls off. I don't have the feeling that I'm inconveniencing anyone, I just feel like they'll think I'm an idiot for asking these questions. Now that I type it, though, it seems silly - these are probably questions they get on a daily basis, and they'll think nothing of it. All of the worry and blowing this small thing out of proportion is in *my* mind. I don't if this helps you any, but I think it's helped me. :)
posted by booksherpa at 1:07 PM on June 7, 2007

wow, thanks everyone. Not just for advice--its comforting to know that this is so common. I am going to try to implement many of the suggestions but right now I feel like I am paralyzed with fear and stress.

I need to explain to my boss what's been going on and I have absolutely no explanation. What on earth can I say besides "I am irrationally scared of asking people for things and opening my emails?" Also, has anyone had this become a huge problem in their life and successfully gotten over it?
posted by chelseagirl at 1:33 PM on June 7, 2007

Well, you can't be a star at everything! Does your boss have someone else you can delegate these tasks to? It's OK to not be able to handle every single thing. I totally get paralyzed when I have too many and lose entire days of work. Your boss should be there to help you sort out this kind of thing. I don't think it's irrational, it's a natural response to an environment we're not really wired to handle.
posted by citron at 3:01 PM on June 7, 2007

I've been realizing I do this sometimes, so I'm really glad you asked this question!

What's started to help me is to focus on how calling people is actually less stressful than worrying about or preparing for the call. And so much less bad than worrying that I haven't made the call and now it's so late. So, maybe you could tune in to how stressed you feel before the call, and then how the call itself is actually comparatively easy?
posted by salvia at 3:08 PM on June 7, 2007

Oh wow, I just read the other responses, and it's funny to me that everyone else deals with this by over-preparing. That's part of what stresses me out -- the feeling that I need to be sufficiently prepared! Now, I try to remind myself "I'm just calling to check in." I try to imitate the people I work with who are always calling me with questions like "before I start working, I wanted to make sure we have the same idea about this project." In other words, I have a "we'll figure it out together" approach instead of thinking that they're going to judge me for whether I figured it out well enough.

I would suggest rather than telling your boss you can't do this, either quietly delegate it to partners on the project or tell your boss "I'm really backed up with phone calls that need made, but I'd like to be able to focus on finishing the calculations -- do you think anyone could help me out?" In other words, highlight the things you will do, rather than saying you are incapable of the other stuff. In fact, phone calls about simple stuff are often a great thing to delegate.

You say "social anxiety" stuff doesn't ring a bell -- try googling "avoidant." That was another keyword I came across back when I was looking around the internet for tips on this stuff. I'm not sure keywords and labels are helpful at all, but since you were asking for terms....
posted by salvia at 3:36 PM on June 7, 2007

salvia reminded me of something that I've started doing more often recently, since I have a new job that requires coordinating things with printers, designers, and others who I haven't directly worked with before:

I just tell them, "I'm still a little new at this, so if you have advice or if I left out any information you need, please just let me know." People have been superbly helpful, and I don't have that "in over my head" feeling that I was getting for a bit.

Even if you're not new, something like, "I'm not really sure how to proceed on this, but here's what I have now..." or "My boss doesn't like X about this project, but I'm not sure what the easiest way to fix it is, what do you think?" or "I don't know what's going to be the best way to get you this information, what do you think?" or "Is it at all possible to get something like Z done?"

Make "I don't know" your friend -- other people like being experts, it takes you off the hook for feeling like you need to know everything, and letting people who know more than you do about a certain aspect of the process actually handle that aspect of the process means you'll create a better end result. (And I'm convinced, after years of suffering under a micro-managing boss, that giving vendors the sense that you trust their judgment and are willing to defer to them on most things is a great way to make friends, too.)
posted by occhiblu at 5:17 PM on June 7, 2007 [1 favorite]

Just out of curiousity, I googled "telephone avoidant." I thought, Eureka! There is help out there!

A Social Phobics Anonymous group that offers some help for those with telephone phobias! It's a telephone conference call, available to anybody anywhere in the world with a phone.

Um, huh. Maybe I won't take them up on their offer after all?
posted by jeanmari at 5:58 PM on June 7, 2007 [1 favorite]

Even if you're not new, something like, "I'm not really sure how to proceed on this, but here's what I have now...".... Make "I don't know" your friend -- other people like being experts, it takes you off the hook

Yeah -- occhiblu explained what I was trying to get at really well. And it's funny how well people respond!
posted by salvia at 6:41 PM on June 7, 2007

I can (and have) stand in front of a thousand people and talk off the cuff without breaking a sweat, but I hate, HATE, HATE making phone calls.

I get around it by not making phone calls. I do a bunch of phone call-related stuff instead, and then the calls just happen.

For example, seeing "Call Pete" on my list just freaks me out. "Look up Pete's phone number", "write three things to ask Pete", "put receiver to ear at 11am" doesn't though, and then it seems to be really easy to call once I've done those things. Stupid, huh?
posted by obiwanwasabi at 4:00 AM on June 8, 2007

I have the same issue. To relieve my anxiety, I had to do away with "to-do" lists which tended to make my unpleasant tasks seem like they were looming over me. Instead, I list the tasks I've already accomplished. As the list grows, I feel good and get more and more done.
posted by kellygreen at 4:57 PM on June 9, 2007 [2 favorites]

« Older Where are the Thinkpad stores?   |   Oh where oh where have the hotels gone? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.