It’s fall and school is back in session, and for many people, that seems to mean a rise in stress, worry, and tension. In my clinic, I’m seeing greater than usual number of stressed out people who are avoiding important tasks. When we talk about the avoidance, they wince and say, “I know, I know, I just need to get it done, but I can’t.” Students have homework and projects. Parents have paperwork to fill out and welcome sessions to attend. At the same time, all the responsibilities of work and home continue. Suddenly, there is more to do and it all starts to feel impossible.
In the face of increased responsibility, it can be tempting to bury our heads in the sand and avoid the things that make us uncomfortable. High school seniors put off their college applications. College students know they need to start reading their textbooks, but don’t. Someone fails to take action on a speeding ticket. Taxes go unfiled.
But avoiding what stresses us often results in more stress. Late fees, missed opportunities, and the physical and emotional affects of chronic dread take a toll and we wonder, “Why didn’t I deal with this problem sooner?”
So for those folks avoiding something, try these steps:
1. First give it 5 minutes
If you’re avoiding something that’s stressing you out, try taking just 5 minutes to plan your very first step toward getting the task done. Tell yourself: even if it’s the worst, it’s just 5 minutes.
2. Start small
Need to contact the IRS and don’t know how? Not sure where to start? Begin with a quick Google search. Most dreadful tasks feel too big, intangible. Gather a little information and the level of distress might come down.
Break down the task into a few short steps. Or maybe just determine the first three steps. Organize it in an easy-to-conquer list.
4. Schedule time, not tasks
Decide how much time you can devote to the dreaded task today. Block the time off on your calendar (or in your mind). Give the task the time you reserved, and see where that leaves you.
5. Sometimes 20 minutes makes a big difference
Your reserved block of time doesn’t have to be 10 hours. Even if you know you won’t get the job done in 20 minutes, scheduling 20 minutes a day may help you get rolling out of your avoidance.
6. Adjust the plan
Once you’ve begun, re-assess your initial plan. Did you include all the necessary steps, or did you leave something out? After beginning, did you learn that it might not take as long as you imagined? Re-work your plan accordingly.
7. Now schedule an hour or two
Now try a longer block of time on your calendar. You’ve got a little success under your belt, and your avoidance is shaking loose. Maybe you can get that essay finished, or that project completed.
8. Ask a friend for help
Still having trouble? Maybe it’s time to ask someone for help. Get someone you trust to sit down and review the task with you. Can your coworker proofread your paperwork, or come over and help you re-organize your workspace? Having a less-stressed person to support you can get things moving.
9. Make yourself accountable
Tell your boss or your best friend (or anyone) how much work you plan to complete on your project this week. Schedule a call on Friday to check-in. This keeps you accountable and decreases the chances that you’ll hide the fact that you’re struggling.
10. When you finally finish, be mindfully aware of how your success feels
When the dreadful task is finally complete, you’re bound to feel relief. Pause and take notice of your experience. How does your body feel? What thoughts are in your mind? What will you want to remember about this feeling the next time you have the impulse to avoid something?