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Overcoming Work Paralysis
By Sara Spangenberg
Editor, MindEdge Learning
There’s a problem, long familiar to crossword-puzzle fans, that’s attracting even more attention in a world obsessed with Wordle: sometimes, you just can’t think of a word that fits.
You stare at the letters in the grid for ages, before finally giving up in frustration, only to come back an hour later and—oh, it’s obvious! There really was only one possible answer.
Sometimes, when the options seem endless, our brains have a way of paralyzing us with possibilities. When struggling with productivity or procrastination, you’ll probably hear that you should “just start.” And yes, technically, that is true. But it’s never quite that simple, because what does starting even mean? There are things that need to be done, places to go, questions to ask, papers to read—the list goes on and on, and while the list lives exclusively in your head, it seems endless. We become overwhelmed, and suddenly, we can’t do anything at all.
Call it executive dysfunction, overwhelm paralysis, or procrastination: whatever name it goes by, we have all experienced a time when we became so stressed by all the things that we had to do, that we failed to do anything at all. Instead, we watched the minutes tick by, getting more and more stressed about how little time we had left to do the tasks that we simply could not find it in ourselves to begin. An essential part of learning, then, is learning how to overcome this type of work paralysis.
One way to tackle the problem: try making a to-do list.
You’ve probably written to-do lists before, and the concept certainly does not need a lengthy explanation. But in the current state of the world, I’ve found myself having difficulty focusing amid the constant swirl of things going on, and I’d like to share how I use to-do lists to help me stop panicking, and start acting.
So let’s get it down on paper. Imagine you are a student in your last week of classes before finals. You have three exams to study for, an essay to revise, and another essay that you haven’t even started yet. It’s the stuff of literal nightmares—a couple of days ago I spent the night dreaming that it was SAT day and I’d forgotten how to start my car.
Break through the paralysis by breaking your tasks down on paper. In other words, make a to-do list.
- Essay for class A
- Revise essay for class B
- Study for class C
- Study for class D
The list might still be a bit overwhelming: study how, revise how? But with the words down on paper, they start to feel a little less frantic in your head.
Then choose one task, and break it down even further.
Essay for class A
- Find time to go to library
- Identify sources
- Devise thesis
- Locate quotations that back up thesis
- Write essay
- Revise introduction and conclusion
This, already, feels a bit more reasonable. You have six tasks, and once you finish those six tasks, you will have written your essay. Now, instead of being frozen by the idea that you have the gigantic mountain of an essay to write, you have your pick of molehills: choose whichever task is the easiest for you to do, and start. The task is no longer endless. You are that much closer to finishing.
This doesn’t only apply to school. Employ it at work when you have a meeting to host (book conference room, send out invites, revise agenda). You could use this method to clean your neglected kitchen (take out the trash, load the dishwasher, clean the stovetop), or run errands you have been putting off (make a list, set a time, go to the pharmacy). In trying times, even the simplest activities can feel ridiculously overwhelming. Write down the steps, and suddenly they are concrete and manageable.
One last tip before we go, and it is the most important one of all: be kind to yourself.
Remember that the point is to learn, not to suffer. Listen to a podcast while you research; brainstorm with a friend. Take an hour and do something else, the same way you might take a break from the daily Wordle. Coming back to it later might let you see it in a new light. Getting even one single task done is better than doing none at all. Reading one chapter of the whole book is better than reading none of it. You’ve taken a step, and as we’ve seen, there are only so many steps you have to take until your task is done.
Celebrate the little victories, and be proud of yourself for what you accomplish in these difficult times—no matter how small the accomplishment might be.
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