Aug 23, 2023

On Task Anxiety

The to-do list in my head is a big source of my anxiety. Sometimes, it just so happens that the number of tasks that I have to complete starts to feel impossible and begins to overwhelm me. That in turn kickstarts a negative feedback loop. I find it difficult to get started because I am anxious. I am anxious because time is flying and I am not getting started. The tasks themselves might be trivial, but once they occupy a chunk of my mental space, it becomes harder to focus on any of them, and having no progress only exacerbates the problem.

In such situations, distractions like Netflix and social media become an easy escape. It’s absurd and ironic. Procrastinating would probably be the worst option here and yet, that’s exactly what I end up doing. Even if I do get started, the anxiety about remaining tasks is still peeping from the shadows.

Of course, it’s not a new thing, and the solutions are aplenty: break down tasks into steps, assign a priority score, and practice time management. However, I feel they are myopic and don’t address the root cause of the problem. Over the years, I have realized that once I start thinking about everything in terms of tasks to be completed in a certain time frame, no amount of breaking down the task, or managing my time, is going to do the trick.

On top of it, it can suck the joy out of even enjoyable things. As Anne Helen Petersen wrote in her famous essay, “How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation”:

That’s one of the most ineffable and frustrating expressions of burnout: It takes things that should be enjoyable and flattens them into a list of tasks, intermingled with other obligations that should either be easily or dutifully completed. The end result is that everything, from wedding celebrations to registering to vote, becomes tinged with resentment and anxiety and avoidance.

So, the lack of progress isn’t the source of my anxiety, it’s merely a symptom of a time-centric mindset, when the thoughts of doing X number of things dwarves the simpler pleasure of existing in the present being in the flow. As Anne further elaborates:

“The modern Millennial, for the most part, views adulthood as a series of actions, as opposed to a state of being,” an article in Elite Daily explains. “Adulting therefore becomes a verb.” “To adult” is to complete your to-do list — but everything goes on the list, and the list never ends. “I’m really struggling to find the Christmas magic this year,” one woman in a Facebook group focused on self-care recently wrote.

“I have two little kids (2 and 6 months) and, while we had fun reading Christmas books, singing songs, walking around the neighbourhood to look at lights, I mostly feel like it’s just one to-do list superimposed over my already overwhelming to-do list. I feel so burned out. Commiseration or advice?”

This perfectly articulates where my sense of overwhelm comes from. When I see life only as a never-ending list of chores, each and everything (no matter how fun), just becomes a task to check off the list. Sometimes, I don’t even know who put the task on the list. Was it me or some social media post I read while doomscrolling through Twitter? It doesn’t end there.

Each task demands the same level of urgency as the other. Whether it’s cleaning your car, your kitchen, or your cupboard. Whether it’s strength training, meditating, or following a diet plan. Whether it’s making time for hobbies, socializing, or doing weekend trips. Time has to be made for everything. Is it a surprise that I find myself overwhelmed?

Humans were never meant to endure such a torturous way of living, of having a list of tasks and deadlines, and feeling guilt and shame when they failed.

The medieval farmer simply had no reason to adopt such a bizarre idea in the first place. Workers got up with the sun and slept at dusk, the lengths of their days varying with the seasons. There was no need to think of time as something abstract and separate from life: you milked the cows when they needed milking and harvested the crops when it was harvest time, and anybody who tried to impose an external schedule on any of that—for example, by doing a month’s milking in a single day to get it out of the way, or by trying to make the harvest come sooner—would rightly have been considered a lunatic.

There was no anxious pressure to “get everything done,” either, because a farmer’s work is infinite: there will always be another milking and another harvest, forever, so there’s no sense in racing toward some hypothetical moment of completion.

In fact, in the rural world, it’s curious to see how people in the rural world think about time and their tasks.

Tea or chai is a staple drink of the Afghan people and the tea house—the chai shop—is a favorite meeting place.

Throughout the day, you will find groups of men sitting around drinking tea and talking, and this is an important and integral part of their social life.

In general, the Afghan has time for himself and others. He’s not tied to a 9-5 routine as most people in the West are. Here time has quite a different meaning and it’s one thing that even the poorest man is a master of.

— From the documentary, Afghanistan Before the Russian Invasion (Documentary, 1979)

I am probably arriving at the same boring truth, of being in the present. But maybe the root of all problems is the failure to abide by a simple principle. In the modern world, cultivating such a sense requires constant effort.

Containing the Overwhelm

I don’t believe I am lazy, I am just burdened by expectations—self-imposed or otherwise—about my time. I am overwhelmed because of the sheer number of things I have self-assigned myself to do. Undoing those expectations, and trying to focus on what’s important is a gradual process. I haven’t figured it all out myself, but I know “being in the moment” matters and there are a few things that help.

  1. Waste time mindfully: I feel every one of us should waste some part of the day, but “mindfully”. Not reading, not watching, not scrolling, not doing anything that engages the mind. This could include taking a walk, just sitting in the park, or back-floating in the water. It achieves two things: a) It gives the mind time to breathe. It’s no wonder how some of the greatest ideas have been conceived while walking. b) It convinces us that we don’t need infinite control over our time. That not every moment needs to be spent doing something.

  2. Do things the slow, long-winded way: The habit of rushing and finishing things off pervades everything we do. The best example is reading. I often find myself more worried about finishing off the book than actually enjoying it at my own pace. Sometimes, I catch myself reading while my mind is daydreaming elsewhere. Isn’t it foolish? What’s the point of reading if you’re not focused on the book?

I advocate doing things leisurely, truly trying to savor the moment. Read books as slowly as possible. After a shower, take time to relax and moisturize your body. Listen to slow music.

  1. Practice gentle discipline: Being carefree and relaxed is a wonderful attitude. However, I feel it’s also important to nudge yourself to do things. That’s especially important for a person like me, who has a tendency to fall into a rut of lazy entertainment that makes me miserable. At the same time, you must also avoid being too hard on yourself.

I call it “gentle discipline.” It involves urging myself to do something—reading, writing, or coding, but also listening to my mind, and realizing when I am not liking it.

  1. Practice gentle routine: Routines provide predictability and a sense of control. When individuals know what to expect from their day, their mind is less anxious and chaotic. It should be gentle, however. Something like a walk and a shower in the morning, to begin your day. Meals at predictable times. And an evening ritual to call it a day, and head to bed.

  2. Disrupt your life: I have noticed that disrupting your life can affect a positive change in life just by virtue of being disruptive. Challenging or novel experiences disturb our set patterns and thoughts. They help us give a fresh perspective. This can include travel, retreats, or a short-to-long-term break from work.

  3. Focus only on what you want to do in the day: We all plan our time and there are various ways to do it. It can be done in terms of a decade, a year, a month, a week, a day, or even an hour. The last one is funny and majorly comes from productivity gurus, who think that each day has to be planned in advance down to the hour. I abhor this concept of leaving yourself little-to-no flexibility.

I have come to the conclusion that it’s wise to focus only on one major thing you want to complete in the day. When you start thinking in terms of a week and beyond, there’s an urge to fill the time bucket with more and more tasks because you feel it’s big enough. You won’t think that you can make a trip, complete your tax return, and clean your kitchen, in a single day, but it’s not difficult to believe it can be done in a week. Naturally, a feeling of being overwhelmed with work will follow, leading to the paralysis I talked about.

I also think that when the time bucket is larger, we tend to fill it up with inconsequential tasks. When it’s smaller, we care about the more important stuff. Although I have convinced myself of the immediacy of every task, most of them can be delayed.

An added benefit of focusing on a single major thing is that it builds momentum to do other tasks as well. It’s surprising how much I can do in a single day when I have had a good, productive start.

Most of us don’t realize that our thought patterns have been shaped, to a large extent, by the society we live in and the stories we have consumed. Having a travel wishlist, or being ambitious, is not inherently wrong. At some point, though, we overwhelm our life with too many things we wish to do, often not because we genuinely want it, but because we think it’s expected. This cycle needs to be broken. That task on your list can wait. But “living life” can’t.

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