You’ve left an important task undone for weeks.It’s hanging over you, causing daily anxiety. And yet instead of actually doingit, you do a hundred other tasks instead.
These self-sabotaging patterns maintain a cycle ofalways having too much to do (or at least feeling like that’s the case). If you’re chronically tapped out of the immenseamount of mental energy required for planning, decision making, and coping,it’s easy to get lured into these traps. Let’s unpack the problems inmore detail and discuss solutions.
1. You keep ploughing away without stepping backand prioritizing.
When we’re busy and stressed, we often default toworking on whatever has the most imminent deadline, even if it’s notparticularly important.Stress causes our focus to narrow to the point where we’re just keeping going,like a hamster on a wheel. We go through the motions of getting things done,without actually stepping back and considering what’s most important to workon. You might find yourself spending several hours on a task that wasn’t thatimportant to begin with, even though you have a mountain of other things to bedoing.
The solution is to step back and work on tasks thatare important but not urgent. Use the “pay yourself first” principle to doitems that are on your priority list first, before you jump toresponding to other people’s needs. You might not be able to follow thisprinciple every day, but aim to follow it for several days of the week.
2. You completely overlook easy solutions forgetting things done.
When we’re stressed, we don’t think of easysolutions that are staring us in the face. Again, this happens because we’re intunnel vision mode, doing what we usually do and not thinking flexibly.Especially if you’re a perfectionist, when you’re overloaded it’s likely that you’llfind yourself overcomplicating solutions to problems.
To get out of the trap of overlooking easysolutions, take a step back and question your assumptions. If you tend to thinkin extremes, is there an option between the two extremes you could consider?
On a broader level, breaks in which you allow yourmind to wander are the main solution to the problem of tunnel vision. Evenshort breaks can allow you to break out of too narrow thinking. Sometimes, abathroom break can be enough. Try anything that allows you to get up out ofyour seat and walk around. This can be a reason not to outsource some errands.They give an opportunity to allow your mind to wander while you’re physicallyon the move, an ideal background for producing insights and epiphanies.
3. You “kick the can down the road” instead ofcreating better systems for solving recurring problems.
When our mental energy is tapped out, we’ll tend tokeep doing something ourselves that we could delegate or outsource, because wedon’t have the upfront cognitive oomph we need to engage a helper and set up asystem.
Remedies for recurring problems are often simple if youcan step back enough to get perspective. Always forgetting to charge your phone? Keep anextra power cord at the office. Always correcting the same mistakes? Ask yourteam to come up with a checklist so they can catch their own errors. Travel forwork a lot? Create a “master packing list” so that trying to decide what tobring doesn’t require so much mental effort. Carve out time to create and tweakthese kinds of systems. You might take a personal day from work to get started,and then spend an hour once a week on it to keep up; author Gretchen Rubincalls this her once-a-week “powerhour.”
When you start improving your systems, it creates a virtuous cycle in which youhave more energy and confidence available for doing this further. By graduallyaccumulating winning strategies over time, you can significantly erode yourproblem, bit by bit.
4. You use avoid or escape methods for coping withanxiety.
People who are overloaded will have a strongimpulse to avoid or escape anxiety. Avoidance could be putting off an importantdiscussion with your team. Escape could be rushing into an important decision,because you want to escape needing to think about it further. This can lead toa pattern of excessively delaying some decisions and making others impulsively.Avoidance and escape can also take other forms — an extra glass of wine(or three) after work, binge-watching TV, or mindlessly scrolling throughFacebook. It might even be ticking less-important things off your to-do list toavoid the urgent task that’s making you anxious.
If you want to deal constructively with situationsthat trigger anxiety for you, you’ll need to engineer some flexibility andspace into your life so that you can work through your emotions and thoughtswhen your anxiety is set off. With practice, you’ll start to notice when you’rejust doing something to avoid doing something else.
If you can relate to the patterns described, you’renot alone. These issues aren’t personal flaws in your character ordeficits in your self-control. They’re patterns that are very relatable to manypeople. You may be highly conscientious and self-disciplined by nature butstill struggle with these habits. If you’re in this category you’re probablyparticularly frustrated by your patterns and self-critical. Be compassionatewith yourself and aim to chip away at your patterns rather than expecting togive your habits a complete makeover or eradicate all self-sabotaging behavioursfrom your life.
Adapted HBR Sept 2018Boyes
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