Don’t Keep All Doors Open

Most of us have been at that point where we took on too many things at once, whether it was client projects, feature requests, new ideas or simply saying yes to assorted favors and the overall outcome felt overwhelming. We probably caught ourselves saying “I need to cut back on some of these things” or “I need to focus on one thing at a time” because we later realized we needed to de-stress ourselves, and often times the best way to do that is by focusing on one thing (or action) at a time, based on priority level. But what about things that are less tangible, like emotional states? This question led me to the following questions:

  • Should emotional states be treated like tasks, projects, or work?
  • How do I identify & separate these emotional states?
  • Do emotional states share similar effects on us?
  • How many emotional states can I handle at once?

Just as working on too many projects can be overwhelming, I’ve noticed the same is true for emotional states related to situations or the sharing of certain information. I like to think of these emotional states as “doors” in contrast to “projects” or “tasks.” The more doors we have open at any given time, the more overwhelmed we will feel, and this includes the people around us.

Imagine this analogy: It’s a cold winter night and you just climbed onto the couch, half asleep but cozy, and you start to read your favorite book but your dog knows how to open janky doors and he pushes the kitchen side door open. Now you’re cold but you think “the door will close by itself, it will be fine” but the wind is strong tonight and the door remains open, you continue to read but notice the feeling of the cold wind is distracting you from your book. Every page you turn needs to be re-read several times. You continue like this for 15 minutes until you get up and shut the door. Finally, you can get some actual reading done! You finish a couple chapters and put the book down, and just as you start to fall asleep, your brain goes “Wait, where’s my dog!?”

Have you ever caught yourself saying something and then hearing the other person say “Why are you bringing that up now? This is not the appropriate time.” or put off something important and try to focus on something else instead? Sounds familiar, right? I am super guilty of the former. Here are some examples of when multiple doors are open:

  • going to bed without working on an essay that is due in 3 days
  • breaking up with your significant other on their birthday
  • trying to focus on everyday busy work while avoiding high priority tasks
  • scolding your child about their bad grades on the way to their sports game
  • not rescheduling date night after you realize you are feeling depressed, angry, or distracted
  • attempting to resolve issues at work 5 days after a family member dies
  • announcing your sex reassignment surgery at your friend’s wedding

It can be tempting to say your thoughts aloud in the heat of the moment, to simply get them off your mind or to get the ball rolling quicker, and often times this is a good practice but if the thoughts could be perceived negative or distracting by others, you should ask yourself “is right now the best time to say this or is there a better time later?” I am in no way advocating that you avoid honesty with others. Communication plays a crucial role in our daily lives and it would be irresponsible to hold back any information that could be potentially useful. But just like a song’s tempo, pacing is one of those factors that can make or break a song, or in this case, a moment.

It can also be tempting to avoid saying something altogether so you can bypass the pain of hearing another person’s response, which sounds like a solid plan at first but then you find yourself having trouble sleeping, having trouble focusing day-to-day on simple things, and overall sinking yourself into an anxiety bath.

My proposed solution: we need to start handling emotional states like we do with our other projects, we need to treat them as visible, tangible things that carry just as much weight as a term paper or client deadline. You know you shouldn’t be answering client emails during your anniversary dinner, then why are you bringing up your “strategy” for dealing with your kid’s bad behavior? Focus on one door at a time. Tomorrow is fine.

It can be difficult to know when you should or shouldn’t say something, here are some questions you should ask yourself before making a decision:

  • What level of stress/anxiety does this make me feel?
  • Who does/will this affect besides me?
  • Could the information be considered negative, shocking, distracting, etc?
  • Does this need to happen right now or can it wait?
  • If I can wait, for how long? (you can’t wait forever)
  • Is there a day where I have little or no overlap with other projects?
  • How should I collect/visualize the current problem? (lists, charts, etc)
  • Are there any simple/free tools that I can use to help me?
  • Who can I seek advice from?

Usually, the best time to do something is now (I’m sure you’ve heard the cliche before) but in this case, the best time might be tomorrow.