Are you the type that may leave an important task undone for weeks, but even though it’s hanging over you, you complete a hundred other tasks instead?
Or maybe you feel guilty about an unanswered email, even though responding would just take 10 minutes.
Or perhaps the last time you needed stamps you only purchased a single stamp because you couldn’t find the 100-pack you bought a few months ago. You know it’s tucked away somewhere …. but you simply don’t have the time to tidy up your desk to find it.
These are the kinds of self-sabotaging habits that maintain a cycle of always having too much to do (or at least feeling like that’s the case). If you’re endlessly short on the mental energy required for planning, decision making, and coping, it’s easy to get lured into these patterns. Alice Boyes, author of The Healthy Mind Toolkit, digs into the problem in more detail and discusses the four solutions below.
1. You keep ploughing ahead without pausing to prioritize.
When a person is busy and stressed, they often default to working on whatever has the most imminent deadline, even if it’s not especially important. Stress can lead us to narrow our focus to the point where we’re just keeping going, like a cog in a machine. We may reply to emails and go through the motions of checking things off our list, without stepping back and assessing what’s most important to tackle. Perhaps you find yourself devoting several hours to a task that wasn’t really important to begin with, despite the fact that you have a huge pile of other things that need attention.
The solution here is to pause and focus on tasks that are important but not urgent. Use the “pay yourself first” principle to finish items on your personal priority list first, before jumping to respond to other people’s needs. You may not be able to follow this principle every day, but aim to stick with it for a couple days each the week.
2. You overlook simple solutions for getting things done.
When we’re stressed, we often don’t consider easy solutions right in front of us. Once again, this happens because we’re in tunnel vision mode, doing what comes to us an automatic habit and not thinking flexibly. Particularly if you’re a perfectionist, being overloaded can result in turning to overcomplicating solutions to problems. For instance, many busy people don’t keep enough food in their house. This leads to a cycle of stopping in at the grocery store almost every day to buy one or two things, or to a restaurant habit that’s expensive, time consuming, fattening, or all of the above. The solution seems horribly complicated: hours of meal planning, shopping, and cooking.
To get out of the trap of overlooking easy solutions, take a step back and question your assumptions. If you tend to think in extremes, is there an option between the two extremes you could consider? (To solve her empty-cabinet conundrum, Alice Boyes purchased a $150 freezer and now keeps at least a dozen or so healthyish frozen meals in there, as well as frozen bread and other staples. As she explains, “I’m not Martha Stewart, but neither am I grabbing takeout for every meal.”)
On a more general level, breaks in which we allow our brains to wander are the best solution to the tunnel vision trap. Even short breaks can help us break out of the narrow thinking cycle. At times, even a simple bathroom break can suffice. Try anything that lets you to get out of your seat and stroll around. This can be a reason not to outsource some errands. Those provide opportunity for your mind to wander while you’re physically on the move — an ideal scenario for generating insights.
3. You “kick the can down the road” rather than implementing better systems for addressing recurring problems.
When our mental energy is drained, we often keep doing something ourselves that we could delegate or outsource, simply because we don’t have the cognitive juice needed to engage a helper and establish a system. For instance, imagine you could really benefit from some help cleaning your house, but tracking down someone trustworthy, agreeing on a schedule, and training them on how you like things done feels more taxing than you can handle right now (or ever). And so you delay acting on this, week after week, doing the work yourself — even though reallocating the time spent on a single cleaning session would be enough to hire someone else to handle it every week going forward.
Solutions for recurring problems like this are often easy if you can step back enough to gain perspective. Always forgetting to charge your phone? Why not keep an extra power cord at the office? Always correcting the same mistakes? Request that your team to uses a checklist to catch their own errors. Constantly traveling for work? Create a “master packing list” so that deciding what to bring doesn’t require so much mental effort. Make the to establish and refine these kinds of systems. It might require a personal day off from work to get started, and then an hour every week to keep up: life and career coach Gretchen Rubin refers to this are her once-a-week “power hour.” But once you start improving your systems, they create a virtuous cycle that gives you more energy and confidence for doing this further. By gradually building winning strategies over time, you can chip away at your problem, little by little.
4. You use avoid or escape methods for coping with anxiety.
People who are overloaded often have a strong impulse to avoid anxiety. Avoidance might entail putting off a discussion with your boss or avoiding telling a friend you’re not available to make her wedding shower. Escape could also be a matter of rushing into an important decision because you want to avoid thinking about it further. This might lead to a pattern of excessively delay on certain decisions or impulsive behavior on others. Avoidance and escape can manifest in other ways as well — an extra glass of wine (or three) after work, binge-watching Netflix, or mindlessly scrolling through social media. It could even be ticking less-important things off your to-do list to avoid the more urgent project that’s making you anxious.
To deal constructively with situations that generate anxiety for you, you’ll need to carve out space and flexibility in your life to work through your emotions and thoughts when your anxiety ramps up. With a bit of practice, you’ll may notice when you’re only doing something to duck out of something else.
If you can recognize any of the patterns described, you’re not alone. These issues aren’t character flaws; they’re merely patterns that are very relatable to most of us. You may even be highly self-disciplined by nature but still struggle with such habits. If this describes you, you’re probably especially frustrated by your patterns and self-critical. Be compassionate with yourself and set a goal to chip away at your patterns rather than expecting to entirely overhaul your habits a or eliminate all self-sabotaging behaviors from your life.