What’s in your “too hard” basket?

Learn how to tackle head on all of the things you’ve been avoiding, with psychology expert Alice Boyes 

By Dr Alice Boyes

Most of us have a tendency to avoid tasks that feel overwhelming. This avoidance can create stress, strain relationships, and erode your sense of being a competent person. On the flipside, tackling tasks that you’d usually avoid is a great way to boost your confidence and sense of self-efficacy. How can you approach something that feels overwhelming? How can you break it down into something that feels more achievable? Try these cognitive and tips. 

1. Take a ‘ready, fire, aim’ approach

If you’ve been avoiding a task, your goal isn’t to get it done perfectly, it’s just to get it done. This is especially true if you’re doing something for the first time. You can optimise the process later. High achievers often want to perform perfectly right out of the gate.  People who are prone to hesitation try to learn everything there is to know about something before trying it. Instead, try recognising that the process of taking action is likely to be the best learning experience. 

2. Look for ways to tackle the activities that suit your strengths

When people are anxious or overwhelmed, their mind often jumps to the most anxiety-provoking version of the activity they’re putting off. For example, if you know you need to network more but you’re nervous about doing that, you’ll probably imagine being at a huge conference or event in a room full of people you don’t know. Even the most confident people can feel intimidated in that scenario. If you’re good at forming strong one-on-one relationships, how could you network in that way? If you’re generous, how could you use that to your advantage in a networking context? Write down what you see as your top five strengths. How could you apply them to the activity you’re putting off?

4. What advice would you give someone else?

There are a bunch of research studies showing that people make better decisions if they think about what they’d tell someone else to do in the same situation. Thinking about someone else helps us get psychological distance from the issue at hand. If a friend was facing the same overwhelming task you’re facing, what would you tell them? What would you say was the best way to get started?

5. Embrace excitement

Excitement and anxiety feel very similar physiologically but are different cognitively. Sometimes the tasks we avoid are both anxiety-provoking and exciting, such as attending a job interview or giving an important talk.  Ask yourself, “How anxious do I feel?” and answer using a scale of 0-100. Then ask, “How excited do I feel?” (0-100). The aim is to consider your anxiety and excitement separately, and recognise that you can feel both. Seeing your physiological arousal as partly due to excitement rather than only due to anxiety can make it feel more manageable. You can trigger an “opportunity mindset” and calm your “threat mindset” simply by saying “I am excited” out loud. 

6. Recognise when you’re catastrophising 

Sometimes the reason people put something off is fear it will be a disaster. However, if you try something and blow it, it’s more likely to be a minor negative experience. In most instances, hiccups will just be frustrating, you’ll move on.

7. Focus on the first few steps.

Sometimes we put things off because we have difficulty seeing the big picture of how we’re going to complete a large task. This is because anxiety tends to constrict thinking. Just getting started will help make constricted thinking more expansive. Once you’ve accomplished Steps 1 and 2, it’ll be easier to see what Steps 3, 4, and 5 are, even if you can’t see those clearly now. 

Dr Alice Boyes is author of The Anxiety Toolkit: Strategies for managing your anxiety so you can get on with your life (Piatkus, 2015).

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