One of the side effects with anxiety is avoidance. Worry and overthinking and overwhelm almost become a regular way of being...and suddenly it feels like making a decision or getting started on tasks is just too much. We often label this as procrastination, but many times the emotion of anxiety (fear) is what lies underneath.
First, know that this avoidance is normal with anxiety and you are not weak or lazy.
Second, know that there are some strategies you can try to help decrease your avoidance.
Third, truly know that having some compassion for yourself that you are feeling overwhelmed or avoidant will give you much more ability to cope with it than you will feel if you are criticizing or belittling yourself for being stuck.
We tend to avoid doing things for a handful of reasons, and maybe some or all of these apply to you: the task feels overwhelming; the task is just an unpleasant thing to do; the task feels too difficult; it’s hard to prioritize what to do out of all the things that need your attention; you’re just feel unmotivated; or you are distracted by things that are more trivial in nature. The good news is that there are specific strategies to address each of these reasons....keep reading.
Problem: The task feels overwhelming. You need to do it and you are worried about doing it correctly or messing it up or not being able to sustain motivation long enough to finish it.
Solution: Break it down into smaller pieces, identify the parts that seem the easiest and start with those to increase your feelings of accomplishment. Ask others for an outside perspective on ways to break it down or even if they will help you out in areas that seem especially overwhelming to you. Change your personal goal for the task from “completion of task” to “completion of 30 minutes working on the task.” This way, you score a win for reaching your goal of working on it for 30 minutes and whatever you accomplish in that 30 minutes moves you closer to completion of the whole task. Progress vs. completion.
Problem: The task is just unpleasant. Some tasks are unavoidable and have aspects to them that are absolutely unpleasant. Very few people like filing taxes, yet we typically end up doing them because we fear the consequences of the additional fines or jail time. When distaste or disinterest is high, it’s particularly challenging for us to find any drive for highly unpleasant tasks.
Solution: Sometimes just taking a moment to remind yourself of the potential negative outcome can kick you into action (“if I don’t pay this bill, I will have a late fee,” “if I don’t work on this assignment, a low grade will bring down my average”). Other times, it helps to set up a reward system for yourself to make the unpleasant task more worthwhile to complete. Folding all the laundry for your family of 6 doesn’t feel quite as painful if you promise to treat yourself to a guilty-pleasure show on Netflix afterwards (or during!). If the task is both large and unpleasant, you may need to give yourself several small rewards along the way to keep your momentum going (ex: "I'll get 10 minutes on Instagram for every 45 minutes I study for my Chem exam.").
Problem: The task seems too difficult. It’s common to imagine the task will be too challenging if you think you may not have the skills needed to do it. This is especially true if it’s something new you need to tackle or you haven’t attempted anything very similar in the past. Like trying to find a therapist, for example. Where do I even start and how do I know if they take my insurance and how long will I have to wait before I can get in and what if it doesn’t work or I don’t really gel with their style? All the unknowns make the whole idea just seem too hard.
Solution: Reach out for guidance, support, or tips from someone who is skilled in the area, has some insight, or can point you to resources. Research about it online and see if there is a video explaining more about it. You may also be overestimating the difficulty of getting the task done if it is new to you. Write out each small step of the job and determine what you will need to know or accomplish for each independent step. Then start with just one step.
Problem: You have trouble prioritizing what to do first. Possibly you struggle to decide which of the several high-priority tasks on your list to do first. Everything seems crucial and everything has pressure around it. Or possibly you feel pushed to work on someone else’s high-priority task when you have one of your own that is more pressing.
Solution: If the decision-making step is where you get stuck, then you have an option to make the decision itself easier. Assuming you have several tasks that seem equally important, assign each of them a number 1 through 6. Roll dice (or a pair if you’ve got many tasks!) and whatever number you roll is the task you do first. If you’re just caught between two tasks, flipping a coin works great too. Take the decision-making worry out of it and save that energy for actually getting started. Another option is to consult with a friend, colleague or therapist to talk through the various tasks and obtain some outside perspective on an ideal place to start. You can also reflect on which of the tasks will have the greatest (largest or most immediate) impact if completed or if not completed.
Problem: General lack of motivation. Maybe you are just having a “lazy day” or feeling drained. That’s normal! Except what if the timing of this lethargy happens to be smack dab in the middle of your task deadline...and you need a quick remedy. Ugh.
Solution: Hop in the shower and make it on the cold side. This will give you a quick boost of physical alertness and energy. Or you can engage in some quick high-intensity exercise like jump rope, running, climbing stairs, squats, or push-ups to increase adrenaline and the flow of oxygen to your brain for enhanced concentration. You can also try engaging a buddy to increase your accountability. Commit to a friend that you will work on the task and ask them to check back in on you after a certain period of time. Or even ask them to join you, if sharing space gives you some calm or motivation. Also reflect on your basic self-care and assess if you are lacking in the areas of nutrition, sleep, hydration, or physical comfort, since deprivation in any of these has a direct impact on your energy level.
Problem: You keep getting distracted. If you feel a high level of anxiety most days, you may be used to distracting yourself with less-important things to make the worry stop. Distraction is a helpful tool when emotionally overwhelmed, but not an ideal lifestyle. In our age of 24-hour access to news, entertainment, and stimulation of every kind, it’s increasingly challenging to maintain focus on just one thing at a time, let alone activities that require an extra dose of motivation.
Solution: change your environment into a less-distracting one. Set yourself up in a location that promotes focus and progress. This typically means that it is a pleasant spot, fairly uncluttered, with ideal lighting, and your preferred music or white noise. Remove distractions like your phone (put it out of sight or turn it off), close unnecessary web pages, and separate yourself from the TV and fridge. Remember the concept of giving yourself a TIME goal rather than a completion goal and just aim to be in your “productive spot” for a certain amount of time.
If avoidance seems like a is a lifestyle habit for you, it may take some effort to turn that around. Be patient and encourage yourself as you make positive efforts. Pay attention to your progress and notice the way your self-confidence can grow each time you successfully interrupt your initial desire to avoid. And if your overwhelm and anxiety are too high to be shifted by these strategies, it may be time to reach out for some professional support.
If you experience intense anxiety and want to better understand yourself and learn new ways to manage anxiety & other emotions, check out my 8-week online course to see if it's a fit for your needs.