With the busiest part of the holiday season behind us, many people are now looking towards the future—including tackling their constantly growing to-do list. But why is it that the more you have to get done, the harder it is to actually start?
It’s something known as “overwhelm freeze,” and as much as it can impact your productivity (and mental health), it’s also something you can overcome. Here’s what to know.
What is overwhelm freeze?
Also known as “task paralysis,” overwhelm freeze is when you know that you have a lot to do, but feel helpless when it comes to getting started. It’s not necessarily that you don’t know where to start—though that can certainly factor in—but how to start. That’s because your brain perceives your mounting list of tasks as a threat, and responds by freezing (as opposed to fighting or flight).
“With a big overwhelming task list, that threat could be the threat of failure, or it could be the threat of letting others down,” Ellen Hendriksen, a clinical assistant professor at Boston University’s Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders recently told the New York Times. “It could be the threat of feeling stupid or incompetent because we don’t know where to start or how to do things.”
How to overcome overwhelm freeze
Fortunately, there are strategies for overpowering overwhelm freeze, including:
Write it out
There’s nothing groundbreaking about making a to-do list, but it can make such a big difference that it’s worth mentioning. And we’re not talking about a mental list: We mean actually writing down a list of tasks you need to complete.
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As you’re doing that, break down any of your bigger jobs into smaller, easier-to-complete steps, and check them off your list as you complete them. For example, instead of writing down “clean the kitchen,” break it down into things like doing the dishes, cleaning off the counters, vacuuming the floors, etc.
Seeing a long written-out list of things you need to accomplish may feel even more overwhelming at first, but because you’ve broken down bigger jobs into smaller steps, there are more to check off as you go—which provides you with a mental boost, and an incentive to keep going.
On the other hand, it may feel less overwhelming to be able to clearly see what you need to do, instead of facing whatever you’ve built it up to be in your head.
Don’t try to be perfect
If you’re a perfectionist, this may be a challenge, but make an effort not to linger on projects making “final touches” as a way to put off moving on to other tasks. Nothing will ever be perfect (at least in your eyes), so do each job on your list thoroughly and well, but once it has reached the point of being good enough, move on.
Build it into your schedule
Schedule an hour (or half-hour, or even 15 minutes) on your calendar each day to chip away at your to-do list. If possible, make it the same time every day, so it becomes more of a habit.