Simplifying Tasks that Feel Overwhelming: My Confession
Hopefully you, the reader, have gained a lot of knowledge and insight from reading the Anxiety & Stress Center’s blog post. I commend all of the clinicians in our practice for their input. We are all responsible for maintaining this blog by submitting a new blog according to a ongoing weekly rotation, e.g. one clinician posts one week, another the next week, and so on, and so on. That being said, I, a clinician for the Anxiety & Stress Center, have a confession to make: I have not been diligent with submitting new blog posts on my assigned weeks. It’s a difficult confession to make as it compromises my professional facade, however in the spirit of the new year I have decided to take accountability for not pulling my weight. In doing so, I was able to find the topic of my blog post.
This problem is nothing new to me. Historically, I have struggled with completing papers and projects throughout my academic life. I have gone through many trials of procrastinating, writing and deleting, avoiding, and eventually giving up. I will attempt to use this space as a way to process my difficulty with submitting blog posts in the hopes that it will bring me to some sort of resolution, while also using my struggle as a teachable moment for others. Two birds, one stone. Also, in writing out my intro, I have already taken care of step one, which is acknowedging that you have a problem (thank you AA).
Step One: Admitting you have a problem (please see above).
Step Two: Identify the challenges. Before coming to this topic, I had been planning to write on the dangers of Tiktok, a topic that I am fairly passionate about. I have been planning to write this blog for the last 3 rotations. I did some casual online research, brainstormed some thoughts, written out bullet points, wrote out some sentences and paragraphs, etc. However, I could never pull it off. That’s when I realized that one of the challenges I had was that my blog idea was too big and too complex. I have enough material to write an editorial piece for the New York Times, which is a more appropriate platform in terms of size and quality that is more appropriate for a topic such as discussing the effects of tiktok at an individual and societal level.
A blog post is only meant to be a few paragraphs. No one will be editing it, and its likely that no one will ever read it. So if you’re reading this now, thank you for your time and attention. While I consider the discourse on Tiktok to be invaluable to the betterment of society, no one’s paying me for this. Time is money in our society, and I am wasting a lot of my personal time hemming and hawing over what is meant to be a thought or two.
There are other obstacles that also contribute to the procrastination, many of which are personal and beyond the scope of this blog. But my main challenge was the my idea was just too big, and therefore, too overwhelming, so I end up shutting down and avoiding.
Step Three: Pivot. I first heard the term “pivot” from HBO television series Silicon Valley. In the series, a tech startup makes the hard decision to change their business strategy after their idea was stolen by a tech corporation that is eerily similar to Google. Turns out that many real world Silicon Valley companies have achieved monumental success by pivoting. For example, many Gen X-ers and older millienials remember Netflix as a home delivery services for DVDs, and not the popular streaming service/network that it is known as these days.
Pivoting can mean either changing the result or changing the process needed to get there. It can be difficult because it requires requires patience, openness, and mental flexibility. For some, pivoting can feel like a loss or even a failure; after all, we have already invested tons of resources to bring the original plan into fruition. In pivoting, we abandon the grandeur and excitement of our original plan for something that feels watered-down and mediocre. For those who consider themselves as perfectionists, pivoting can be painful because it exposes underlying feelings of inadequacy and fears of rejection. Either we risk losing face or risk losing it all.
In DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy), an emotional regulation skill is to “be effective.” Being effective means to actively do what is needed to be done in order to get your needs met or to move closer to a goal. Our emotions often get in the way of being able to accomplish our goals; similarly, a completed goal would bring about positive emotions. For example, someone who is feeling depressed may isolate themselves and avoid engaging in activities that would be enjoyable, if not distracting from negative thoughts.
In my case, my need to feel competent, accomplished, and useful drove my ambition to write an exceptional and culturally-significant article. However, pursuing this goal was overwhelming which stopped me from completing the task of writing a blog post which, in turn, stirred up feelings of shame, fearfulness, and inadequacy. In order to pivot, I needed to let go of my need for accomplishment and a validation of competency to just get the damn thing done. In order to get to this place, I literally needed to take deep breaths and relax my body and mind. I also needed to be self reassuring that not completing the Tiktok article is not a failure; in fact, it had little impact on my professional image. It also helped to remind myself that I can always work on that article at any other time in the future. Breathe. Reassure. Let go.
Step Four: the KISS method. So I’m back at square one and in need of a new topic to write. Not knowing what to do, I turned to previous blog posts written by my colleagues as a source of inspiration. One thing that stood out to me almost immediately is that many of the blog posts stuck to one idea. Some had resources listed, but many of them didn’t. Some were written objectively and matter-of-fact, while others were about personal struggles or personal reflections. I told myself that I just needed to get the blog post done, ideally within an hour or two, and be done with it. Once I got this article started, I realized that I had forgotten one of my favorite adages to share with my clients: follow the KISS method: Keep It Simple Sucka! (originally the phrase was “Keep It Simple Stupid” but I don’t like using the word stupid).
Simplying the task meant one of several things. First was to stick with one topic, and one topic only. Make it something that I am familiar with and that requires no additional resources or research. Also, write from the perspective that is easiest for me, which is in the first-person. Limit it to a few paragraphs; no heading, chapters, sections, etc. And lastly, I had to consider the amount of time that I was willing to dedicate to this. Could I get it done in an afternoon? If not, then what were the essential and inessential parts?
The KISS method is something I utilize in other areas as well. If I were doing laundry, some days I will only commit to washing black items (which is admittedly most of my wardrobe). When cleaning up a space I will start by collecting all trash, or collecting all used dishes. At first, the KISS method was difficult to implement because, if you were like me growing up, completion was the only acceptable outcome. However, I realized quickly that if I don’t wash my own laundry, then my laundry doesn’t get washed. If I don’t pick up after myself, then I live in clutter. Fortunately, as an adult, I can make my own rules in my own household. Simply put, I need to get these tasks done, but sometimes the thought of completing it from beginning to end was too much to take on. And that’s where KISS came in. Keep it simple, sucka.
As a psychologist with my own unique style and perspective, I have come to adopt the lesson that some progress is better than no progress. This goes against lessons passed down from Gen X who are more concerned with the outcome than the process e.g. give 110%, failure is not an option, no pain no gain, etc. The fact in the matter is that there is a delicate balance between success and burnout, and sometimes we need to stop and listen to ourselves when we feel overwhelmed and shut down. It doesn’t mean that, once recharged, you return to the same grueling pace that got you there in the first place. Something has got to change, but we don’t need to give up on the objective. It helps to simplify things, set your limits on your resources, and only do as much as you are able.
And look, I got my blog post done!
Jazzmin Villanueva, Psy.D.