“Instead of thinking we have too much to do, can we see the joy in each task? And see that a pile of tasks, then, is an abundance of joy and possibility?” — Leo Babauta
“Yeah, I’ll write that book this year.”
“It shouldn’t take me more than a few months to write that journal article and have it accepted.”
I’ve heard these phrases from clients and from myself. Clients truly believe it when they say it. Almost inevitably, overwhelm sets in, manifesting itself in avoidance, procrastination, and ‘‘workcrastination.’’
Reducing overwhelm on a specific project can be tackled with planning strategies that break down a fuzzy-yet-specific goal such as writing a book.
I want to discuss what happens when we have a plan with manageable, bite-sized tasks, but we still cannot move forward.
Besides checking in with yourself around resistance to the project (is there something specific about this project that makes you avoid it?), there is a way to reduce daily overwhelm even when you’ve addressed global overwhelm.
What’s the difference? Let’s take a look.
Though I’m interested in daily overwhelm in this article, we need to differentiate it from global overwhelm which comes in two forms.
First, it could be existential overwhelm where everything is running smoothly, yet you feel completely off-kilter.
The second form of global overwhelm is an energetic overwhelm in the form of rushing. Dr Judith Orloff describes symptoms of rushing as the following:
- Your energy feels scattered
- You have little or no awareness of your body
- You experience a subliminal or overt sense of panic
- Your ability to listen is impaired, as is a memory for details.
If these are chronic feelings, Dr Orloff offers solutions to rushing through pacing.
Let’s move on to a more familiar feeling of daily overwhelm and what to do about it.
Unlike global overwhelm, I’m convinced much of our daily overwhelm is due to increased decision fatigue:
“No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price. It’s different from ordinary physical fatigue — you’re not consciously aware of being tired — but you’re low on mental energy. The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, and eventually, it looks for shortcuts.”
This is why President Obama famously said he simplified his wardrobe choice every day:
“You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,” [Obama] said. “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.”
Think about all the decisions you need to make as a writer. When to write, what to write, how long to write, what genre to write, and whether you should write at all. And that’s just for the writing tasks — revision, editing, and publishing aren’t included!
So what happens when we have decision fatigue as a result of asking all these questions? According to the New York Times, two things can happen:
“One shortcut is to become reckless: to act impulsively instead of expending the energy to first think through the consequences. (Sure, tweet that photo! What could go wrong?) The other shortcut is the ultimate energy saver: do nothing. Instead of agonizing over decisions, avoid any choice. Ducking a decision often creates bigger problems in the long run, but for the moment, it eases the mental strain.”
As you can see, this spells disaster for accomplishing writing tasks. You either do nothing or you act impulsively — which probably involves eating, scrolling, or watching Netflix. The idea you act impulsively, however, may explain why some writers write better in the evenings because their analytical muscles are relaxed and the impulsivity of their imagination pushes through the inner critic voice (the inner critic can become tired, too). If this is true for you, it doesn’t let you off the hook! You can still avoid writing in the evening if you don’t plan previously to write in the evening. If you don’t plan to write in the evening before the evening, you’re likely to succumb to the “do nothing” shortcut.
Task decoupling to the rescue!
Task Decoupling to Tackle Daily Overwhelm
Imagine you have a beautiful plan for your book and how you’ll write it over the next year. Kudos! You’ve dealt with global overwhelm.
But when you sit down each day, you feel frustrated and still overwhelmed. You putter around, check email, water the plants, and write a few sentences. By the end of the day, you feel defeated by your lack of writing progress.
What can you do?
You can decouple your tasks. This involves decision decoupling and emotional decoupling.
1. Decision Decoupling
This involves decoupling the decision to do something from the action to accomplish that task.
Decision decoupling is really the basis of morning routines. I set an alarm for the coffee maker the night before, so I don’t have to decide when I’m going to have coffee. I make a habit of a set of a series of tasks in a row, so I don’t have to decide whether to do them or in what order: make the bed, brush teeth, and take a shower, for example. You make these tasks the default, as Tara Mohr says.
With non-routine tasks, you follow the same principle: tomorrow I’ll spend an hour editing my Medium article. That’s it. I won’t then wonder if I should write another Medium article because I already decided not to do that. As soon as I engage in that kind of decision-making, fatigue will set in. In fact, I may be too tired then to decide what I’ll write tomorrow. Keep it simple.
Decouple task decision from task accomplishment.
2. Emotional Decoupling
Emotional decoupling is just as important as decision decoupling. Let’s say you received difficult editing feedback. It not only involves a lot of work, but it also involves a lot of emotional labour because the critiques hurt. A normal human reaction would be to shove this away in a hidden folder on your desktop and pretend it doesn’t exist. But the longer you let it sit, the longer it festers in your subconscious. Let’s not do that, shall we?
OK, you’ve decided you’ll revise the article based on the critiques. Don’t decide the night before you’ll spend 30 minutes working on it the next morning. Yes, you’ve decoupled the decision to work on it from working on it, but you’ve underestimated the resistance you’ll feel as you stare at the words like “insipid prose,” or “unclear argument.”
Here’s what you could do:
Sunday night: Decide on a weekly plan for revision
Monday: Read critiques and sort into actionable tasks
Tuesday: Address critique task 1. Do not move on to task 2.
Wednesday: Address critique task 2. Do not move on to task 3.
Thursday: Address critique task 3. Do not move on to response memo.
Friday: Write a response memo outlining your revisions.
This may seem simple, but what you’ve done is decouple the emotions from each critique (task) from each other. I don’t know about you, but if I have to address insipid prose and an unclear argument simultaneously, I’ll just go back to bed. It’s too much to handle at once. Give yourself a break. Besides, you’ll actually finish it because you’re giving yourself an emotional container for each critique.
The fear of the task in its enormity is the challenge, not the actual task itself. Decoupling allows you to be kind and gentle with yourself, while still moving forward.
“Fear makes us come up with a solution that is way bigger than the problem — a solution that is too big for the problem.”— Tara Mohr