It may be due to unforeseen circumstances or just to our own bad planning or procrastination, but we all sometimes get to the point where we have so much work to do that we have no idea where to begin. We are seized with paralysis - we can’t start on anything because of all the other things pressing on us. Of course doing nothing makes the problem even worse. So we get into a vicious circle: we can’t act because of our sense of panic; the fact that we’re not acting makes the situation worse - and therefore our panic increases.
It’s at times like this that we may do some really stupid things. These may range from the relatively mild, like snapping our colleagues’ heads off, to the disastrous, such as resigning from our job or having a nervous breakdown. Once we lose control what usually happens is a crash of some sort. If we’re lucky we will escape with just bruised self- esteem, but we may have irretreviably damaged a project or our whole career.
So what can we do when we first start feeling that sense of panic? We want to be able to get back in control. It may seem impossible at the time but in fact there are several things we can do.
Basically there are two things to remember when we get into this state. Firstly, it is motivated by fear, so anything we can do to reduce the fear will help. The best remedy for fear is always action. So we need to stop running around like a headless chicken and start taking purposeful action.
The second thing to remember is that in this state of panic we are being driven by our primitive mind, not our rational mind. We are in the “fight, flight or freeze” state that we inherited from the days when our ancestors were lizard-like creatures sitting on rocks. We perceive a threat and we tend to react to it, rather than approach it in a rational way.
In my book “Get Everything Done and Still Have Time to Play” I suggest writing down a list of everything that you have to do and then grading it “Must Do”, “Should Do”, “Could Do”. Concentrate on the “Must Dos” and you will quickly increase your sense of control so that you get out of the vicious circle.
Another thing you can do is to identify the one thing that you are most resisting doing. Very often if you can get this moving you will free up all the other things that you have to do. You usually know perfectly well what this is, even if you avoid thinking about it as much as possible! Ask yourself what the very first step would be to get this job done and concentrate on that. Once you’ve got started it is much easier to keep going.
Finally, remember that procrastination is often caused by perfectionism. We make tasks unnecessarily large because we can’t accept that we are going to do them anything less than perfectly. The result is that we often don’t do them at all! Counteract this by asking yourself “What’s the minimum I can do here that’s good enough?” Concentrate on getting that minimum done and you will start to regain control again.
(This article appeared in the latest edition of my newsletter)