It’s time to lower the bar. Lower… no, keep going. There.
Raise your hand if this sounds familiar: A swirling to-do list in your brain. A list so long that even the simplest task becomes overwhelming and all-consuming.
Even as I sit here writing this article, I’m overwhelmed with the points I want to make and how to phrase them. It leaves me wanting to throw up my hands and deal with it later.
Getting things done or let alone getting organized when you struggle with anxiety can be overwhelming.
It’s this sense of overwhelm that feeds one of the common patterns that people struggle with: the perfectionism-procrastination-paralysis cycle.
For many people, the idea of doing a task in a less-than-perfect way may be grounds enough to say, “Forget the whole thing!”
Whether that perfectionism stems from a fear of judgment or judgments you have of yourself, the anxiety likes to convince you that if you can’t do everything and do it perfectly? You should probably do nothing at all.
But inevitably, there comes a point when that avoidance has gone on for far too long — and just when it’s time to pull it together? You freeze.
And along comes anxiety’s best friend: shame. Shame wants to constantly remind you that the task didn’t get done, only reinforcing your perfectionism… and perpetuating the cycle.
Getting organized has now become not only a monumental task — it’s now an existential crisis, as you begin to wonder what could be so “wrong” with you that you keep getting stuck.
Am I just lazy? Is my brain broken? Why do I do this to myself? What’s the matter with me?
Rest assured, you’re not alone. And there are very practical ways to overcome anxiety so that this cycle is not only something you can manage, but something you can conquer.
“The good thing about cycles is that they can be reversed in an equally cyclical way,” says Dr. Karen McDowell, clinical director of AR Psychological Services.
“When you tackle perfectionism, you’re less likely to procrastinate,” she says. “When you procrastinate less, you don’t get that sense of panic and paralysis, so your work ends up looking and feeling better than it would have otherwise.”
But where to begin? To break the cycle, follow these 7 steps:
The first step to breaking that cycle is to recognize that often times, accomplishing tasks is a slow process, and an imperfect one at that — and that’s normal and totally okay.
It won’t happen all at once. It’s okay to take your time. It’s okay to make mistakes (you can always go back and fix them later!).
In other words, it’s okay to be human.
It’s easy to forget this, though, when so many of the expectations we have of ourselves are lurking just below the surface, fueling our anxiety.
As a writer, it’s my job to write every single day. One of the best pieces of advice someone gave me was, “Remember, not every single piece needs to be a gem.” Meaning, don’t shoot for the Pulitzer Prize with every assignment I have. Nothing would ever get done and I’d wind up challenging my self-worth on a daily basis. How exhausting!
Instead, I’ve learned to separate which tasks deserve the bulk of time and attention, and which ones are okay to ease up on. This doesn’t mean accepting laziness! It just means understanding that B-level work is so very far from failure — and a normal part of life.
Before diving into your work, make a conscious decision to lower the bar. Free yourself from the expectation that you have to give 100 percent of yourself to everything you do.
“Tackling perfectionism requires disrupting all-or-nothing thinking,” says Dr. McDowell. “For example, if you’re trying to get your inbox organized, it’s not going to help if you consider that as one single task. Figure out what the components of the task are, and take them in bite sizes.”
Breaking down tasks into their smaller pieces not only makes them more manageable, but leads to more frequent feelings of accomplishment as you cross each one off your list.
Let’s look at it this way: You have to plan your wedding. You might be tempted to write “get flowers” as a task, for example, but that could invoke feelings of overwhelm.
Sometimes the very act of crossing something off a list instills motivation to get more done. This is why no task is too small for your list! It can be as simple as, “Google florists in my area.” Cross it off, feel good about accomplishing something, and repeat the positivity.
Small victories build momentum! So set up your tasks accordingly.
It’s important to remember that when a task is looming over us and we’ve built it up to be a behemoth, we often overestimate the time it takes for us to complete it. When you think an anxiety-inducing task will take the entire day, you also tend to not schedule any time for self-care.
“Balancing priorities is important,” says Dr. Supriya Blair, licensed clinical psychologist. “This is why we include time for social and self-care activities during our daily and weekly schedule. Holding oneself accountable to follow through on work and fun activities takes practice, patience, and self-compassion.”
Not sure where to start? there’s a technique for that.
Tracking time can be made easier by using the ‘Pomodoro’ technique:
- Choose a task you’d like to get done. It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as it’s something that needs your full attention.
- Set the timer for 25 minutes, vowing that you’ll devote 25 minutes (and only 25 minutes) to this task.
- Work until the timer goes off. If another task pops into your head, simply write it down and return to the task at hand.
- Put a checkmark next to your task after the timer goes off (this will help you tally up how much time you’ve spent working on something!).
- Take a short break (a short one, like 5 minutes or so).
- After 4 Pomodoros (2 hours), take a longer break for about 20 or 30 minutes.
Using this method overtime helps you to recognize how much time an activity actually requires, building confidence in your ability to complete your work while also cutting down on interruptions.
It also makes space for self-care by reminding you that you do, in fact, have room in your schedule for it!
Power in numbers! Tackling anything alone is more overwhelming than doing so with a support system.
One of the best ways to get organized when you have anxiety is to partner up with a supportive, hardworking companion, whether it’s your significant other, friend, parent, or child. You can also reach out to a therapist or life coach to get some much-needed perspective.
“You are not alone. There are people out there who can help,” says Briana Mary Ann Hollis, LSW, and owner/administrator of Learning To Be Free.
“Write down what you need support with right now, and next to that write at least one person who can help you with that task,” she says. “This will show you that you don’t have to do everything by yourself.”
It’s impossible for one person to commit to absolutely everything, but we often feel the need to please everyone.
Taking on too many responsibilities is a sure-fire way to become overwhelmed and to then fall into the similar self-destructive cycle.
“Think about where you can streamline your schedule, delegate to others, or even say no to events and tasks that are not immediate or urgent,” says Angela Ficken, a psychotherapist who specializes in anxiety and OCD.
“The idea is to add some limits into your schedule. Doing this can clear your mind and your time so that you can actually do some activities that bring you joy. It really is OK to say no,” she adds.
How do you know what your limits are? Have you ever heard the expression, “If it’s not a ‘hell yes, then it’s a no”? While there are exceptions to any rule, this is a good template to follow when it comes to taking on responsibilities.
We’re all busy and we all have obligations, so if you don’t have to take on a project or catch up with that acquaintance from college you haven’t spoken to in 14 years, then don’t feel guilty about saying no.
You’re never too old to reward yourself, and often setting up small rewards can be one of the most effective ways to motivate yourself to get organizational tasks done.
“Focus on how you will feel when your home is organized and clean, how exciting and fun it can be to plan your wedding, how responsible you will feel when you complete your taxes,” says Dr. Nancy Irwin, a psychologist with Seasons in Malibu.
“Then reward yourself for a job well done. Positive reinforcement ensures the next project can go as smoothly and informs you that you are bigger than the anxiety,” she says.
Each day, I make a list of the assignments and household tasks I want to accomplish. They’re as mundane as “take out the trash” to important ones like “complete edits” or “submit invoicing.”
No matter the size of the task, after each one I treat myself. I go for a walk, or allow myself to watch 30 minutes of television. When I finish the list I might even have a glass of wine.
It’s giving myself these fun treats to look forward to that breaks up the day, and turns my overwhelming to-do list into something of a game!
Staying in tune with your body and mindset as you practice breaking patterns can be extremely beneficial.
Self check-ins are critical, especially if you’re prone to honing in on the smallest details. To avoid feeling overwhelmed, it’s important to take a step back to give yourself breaks and reminders.
“Mindfulness is key,” says Ficken. “A relatively easy mindfulness skill is to take yourself outside for a walk or to sit out on your stoop. Being out in the elements can be an easy visual and sensational cue to bring yourself into the present moment.”
Keeping grounded is an important part of keeping your anxiety in check. Don’t hesitate to take a breather when you feel your anxiety building — your body and brain will thank you later!
In fact, anxiety disorders are the most common U.S. mental illness, affecting 40 million adults each year.
If your anxiety is building up walls when it comes to organizing your life or day-to-day tasks, rest assured there are millions out there struggling with the same issues.
The good news is that anxiety disorders are highly treatable, and the patterns that keep you in a negative loop are breakable. The first step is deciding that it’s okay to cut yourself some slack.
You’ve got this!
Meagan Drillinger is a travel and wellness writer. Her focus is on making the most out of experiential travel while maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Her writing has appeared in Thrillist, Men’s Health, Travel Weekly, and Time Out New York, among others. Visit her blog or Instagram.