Overwhelmed by a task? Stop thinking about it and try this instead

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Image by George Kelly under CC licence (https://www.flickr.com/photos/allaboutgeorge/)
Image by George Kelly. Available via CC licence (https://www.flickr.com/photos/allaboutgeorge/)

This week I started working a proposal and plan for a major piece of strategy work.  The more I worked through what needed to happen, and all the people who needed to be involved, and all the potential issues that might emerge, and a deadline that seemed ridiculously tight, the more I had a mounting sense of anxiety rise in me.  This task followed me around in my head as I walked the dog, went to sleep and woke up in the morning.

When I sat down to ‘start work’ on the thing I found my chest tightening and procrastination and diversion tactics kicked right in on cue (let me just check my linkedin, email, facebook, twitter, email one more time, and then another…).

I then remembered this great piece by Oliver Burkeman last week.  He reminded me of two key things:

1. Contrary to popular view, often the more you spend thinking about something you want to achieve, and ‘envisioning’ what success looks like, the less likely you are to actually achieve it (the brain confuses ‘imagining’ with ‘doing’)

2. We become overwhelmed by the enormity of our imaginings, so much so that we avoid doing anything to achieve them.  Perfectionism kicks in, and so we dither (and then we self-flagellate).

So what to do?

This is what I did yesterday.

I put on a timer for 15 minutes, and I just started writing. I poured out of my brain all the thoughts, ideas and stuff associated with this Big Task.

I set no expectations for myself regarding the outcomes of this work.  The only outcome I was attempting to achieve was to focus for 15 minutes on this topic.

I wasn’t thinking. I was doing.

What I ended up with?  A document with a lot of stuff on it. But also just a bit more clarity, a better sense of what questions I needed to answer, a bit more confidence on what I needed to do next.  I’d shrunk the enormity of the task, removed some of the anxiety, and now felt properly motivated about spending more dedicated time on it (I even looked forward to it).

Will the anxiety and potential paralysis return?  Very likely.  But if it does, then I know that that 15 minute timer will likely help dig me out again.

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