Unfreezing from Task Paralysis

After the bustle of holiday activities settle back down into a more normal routine, and love-ones return to their homes and work schedules, there is often a long to-do list to bring order back to daily life. Sometimes a great number of important tasks that need doing can be overwhelming and cause people to experience “task paralysis” and freeze up, unable to take necessary steps to tackle their must-dos. 

According to a recent New York Time Mind article, the brain can respond to a long list of things to do, or even just one monumental task, by freezing up, unable to make a plan to move forward.  The mind can perceive the task at hand as a threat, causing a freeze response known as task paralysis.  We may fear failure, feeling incompetent or being a disappointment to others and find it impossible to begin working through a to-do list – especially if we tend to be a perfectionist. 

The good news is that there are strategies that can calm stress and allow the brain’s decision-making center to regain control and start planning.  Taking several slow, deep breaths can help lower the body’s production of the stress hormone cortisol, letting the mind start taking small, concrete steps to move forward, allowing for a few mistakes.  

People tend to respond well to a reward system when working through difficult problems.  To help move ahead with difficult tasks, plan to take breaks and provide yourself with incentives to get a chunk of work accomplished.  Maybe it’s watching a half-hour sitcom, taking a soak in the tub, or walking around the block; pairing an unpleasant task with a positive experience like enjoying a fresh cup of coffee while paying the bills, can also help reframe the activity. 

Setting yourself up for success by removing distractions like the television or smartphone from your work area is important.  Deal with any potential issues that may interrupt your progress, like feeding or letting the dog out, moving the laundry to the dryer, or preparing yourself a snack, first, before getting started.  

When all else fails, try to delegate a difficult task to a friend, family member or co-worker who you trust to get it done properly.  When you do accomplish a task and are able to check something off your list, take it as a win that will make each next job easier to start and to finish.  Sometimes “eating the biggest frog first” – tackling the hardest or worst item immediately is the key to success, while others find that starting with the easier jobs makes for greater progress.  Either way, the path to productivity and success is paved with small steps in the right direction over time.