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

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Image by George Kelly under CC licence (
Image by George Kelly. Available via CC licence (

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.

Three simple ideas for boosting happiness at work (and in life)

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We often confuse what makes us happy with what gives us pleasure, but in fact, what makes us happy may not feel pleasant at a particular moment. Paul Dolan ( Professor of Behavioural Science at LSE, and author of Happiness by Design) argues a simple but powerful point: to feel happy, we need to attend to both pleasure and a sense of purpose in our lives.

And what gives people a sense of pleasure or purpose can vary; there is no one-size-fits all approach here. The trick is to get an equilibrium that’s right for you.


But in the workplace, a sense of purposeless or futility can be especially toxic, lowering our morale and ability to get things done. Why bother? 

So how do we address this?  A few very simple ideas inspired by Dolan:

1. Attend to your enjoyment of co-workers more than your ‘next career step’

First, we need to spend less time fixated on an imagined future state where things will be ‘better’ (when I get that promotion things will change). Instead we need to attend to the experiences on any given day that make us feel happy – spending time with a co-worker you really like, for example. When considering our happiness, we often overlook these simple everyday experiences, when in fact they have a major impact on our overall happiness. Far more than we realise.

2. Stop forgetting to say thank you

We’re forgetting to say ‘thank you.’ As organisations become increasingly dispersed and digital, and our in-boxes get more out of control, we can often forget the power of a simple acknowledgement. (I know I can be guilty of this). A report or proposal is sent, but due to other priorities, we forget to acknowledge it, and tackle other pressing tasks instead. A day or two goes by and we’ve forgotten about that ‘hey I did this for you’ shout-out from a colleague. And that colleague is now beginning to question the purpose of what they’ve done, and why they even bothered.

A simple recognition of the value of work done can go a long way in preventing that creeping sense of pointlessness that makes us disengage, and can have a real positive impact on motivation.

3. Don’t presume intent

Dolan’s main point is that we need to acknowledge people to make them feel valued and therefore happier. But I want to add that on the flip side, just as toxic to a sense of happiness can be the stories we tell ourselves about colleagues ‘deliberately ignoring’ us.  This is why my other mantra is ‘don’t presume intent.’ Be mindful of when you may be committing a fundamental attribution error – inferring that because you’ve not heard from someone, that they are deliberately ignoring you, and are therefore a bad person. That response is often far more likely to be about you than the other person, who very likely has no inkling of the impact of their behaviour (and if they do, it’s another matter entirely).

So remember…

Next time you have a decent conversation with a co-worker – whether it’s about work or which box-set you’re both currently addicted to – remember this is having more impact on your  day-to-day happiness than finishing that major report, or getting a pay rise (momentarily satisfying though those things are).  Seek out those connections and pay attention to how you feel about them.

Remind yourself to acknowledge others – a heartfelt thank you will do as a start.  And remember that there’s nothing like feeling ignored to make someone feel like their work is pointless.

But if you’re on the receiving end, and feeling like your work is not valued, be aware of whether you are leaping to conclusions about the intent of the co-worker ‘maligning’ you.  Chances are they’re fighting their own battles.

Want to learn more? Here’s a really short video where Dolan gives tips on workplace happiness.

And here’s a much longer one  where he presents at the 2015 ‘Good Day At Work’ National Wellbeing Conference.