Most of the time, our to-do list is our friend. It helps us stay organized and on task. It gives us a place to prioritize projects. And crossing accomplished tasks off the list can be truly satisfying.
But sometimes, our to-do list is a source of stress. This is especially true during those all-too-common periods when it seems like we’re only adding tasks to the list. A lengthy list of to-dos that does not include any completed tasks that have been crossed out can be extremely daunting.
In fact, your long to-do list may cause something known as “task paralysis”—and that can be bad not only for your general productivity, but for your mental health as well.
So, what is “task paralysis,” and how can you overcome it?
A recent New York Times piece titled “How to Save Yourself from ‘Task Paralysis’” talks about it this way:
Instead of logically working through your list or slowly chipping away at that behemoth task, your brain acts like it’s a rabbit that’s just sensed a dog in the yard — it stops dead in its tracks.
Ellen Hendriksen, a clinical assistant professor at Boston University’s Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders, says the freeze response — of “fight, flight or freeze” fame — arises when we view the task (or many tasks) in front of us as a threat. “Our bodies react to threat the same way, whether the threat is external, like the proverbial saber-toothed tiger, or the threat is internal,” she said. “With a big overwhelming task list, that threat could be the threat of failure, or it could be the threat of letting others down. It could be the threat of feeling stupid or incompetent because we don’t know where to start or how to do things.”
That might sound familiar, particularly if you are a perfectionist. Task paralysis (which is sometimes called “overwhelm freeze”) and perfectionism can both have a negative impact on your overall mental health—and perhaps especially so in combination. When you feel ineffectual and unable to catch up with everything you have committed to do, you are more likely to experience burnout and symptoms of mental health disorders like depression and anxiety.
So how can you overcome task paralysis? We have a few ideas.
Make Each Task Smaller, Make it a Game, Get Dedicated to Delegation
When it comes to freeing up your executive function when you are experiencing task paralysis, there are a number of strategies that might help.
First among them? Breaking big tasks down into smaller steps. Now, at first, doing this will make your to-do list longer rather than shorter. But those smaller tasks are easier to accomplish—and offer the reward of scratching something off your list each time you complete one.
Next, consider gamification and/or incentivization. It is often helpful to set small goals with specific rewards. Say your inbox is overflowing with email and you just can’t seem to bring yourself to dive in. You might try something like giving yourself permission to spend five minutes reading something you enjoy (or to take a short, brisk walk) for every 10 emails you take care of. After a while, you may discover that you are in an email conquering groove and don’t need the reward to keep going. (We should note that you want to be careful that the reward you give yourself won’t steal your attention and energy. For example, scrolling through social media for a few minutes each time you hit a goal may lead to mindless scrolling that actually keeps you from your task.)
Our third suggestion is tough for a lot of people—especially, again, for those who tend to be perfectionists. It can be extremely helpful to delegate tasks on your to-do list to others. When you do so, you will likely have to accept that the person who is helping you out might not approach the task in question exactly as you would. That can be hard to do at first, but soon enough the benefits of delegation are likely to exceed your discomfort.
Sometimes (Often!) Good Enough is Good Enough
The idea of perfectionism has come up a few times in this blog entry. That makes sense given that perfectionism can cause you to spend excessive amounts of time on a task in an effort to make sure it is perfect.
Of course, doing good work is always admirable. But sometimes good enough really is good enough. If the projects on your to-do list seem too daunting to even attempt, ask yourself whether you are so worried about doing them perfectly that you are preventing yourself from doing them at all.
Sometimes—maybe even often—the best thing you can do for yourself is to take an honest look at your to-do list and decide which tasks could be done well without having to be perfect.
Put ‘Improving My Mental Health’ at the Top of Your To-Do List
At Peak View Behavioral Health in Colorado Springs, our to-do list is fairly straightforward. We help people improve their mental health and maintain those improvements over time. We provide personalized treatment for a range of mental health disorders. If improving your mental health is a priority for you, we are ready to help you check that box.