People with anxiety are all too familiar with this phenomenon. So, what can you do about it?
Have you ever felt overwhelmed by the idea of doing something that’s seemingly very simple to do? Has a task ever weighed down on you day after day, remaining at the forefront of your mind, but you still can’t bring yourself to complete it?
For my entire life the answers to these questions have been yes, but I couldn’t understand why. This was still true even after I received a panic disorder diagnosis.
Sure, going on meds and learning coping techniques helped me across the board. But this issue continued to arise for no apparent reason. It came on as something stronger than laziness. These seemingly small tasks felt downright impossible at times.
Then, last year, the feeling I could never understand was given a name that described exactly how I had felt each and every time it arose: the impossible task.
Coined by M. Molly Backes on Twitter in 2018, the term describes how it feels when a task seems impossible to do, no matter how easy it should theoretically be. Then, as time passes and the task remains unfinished, the pressure builds while the inability to do it often remains.
“Necessary tasks become overwhelming, and guilt and shame about the incomplete task only make the task feel larger and more difficult,” Amanda Seavey, licensed psychologist and founder of Clarity Psychological Wellness, tells Healthline.
So, why do some people experience the impossible task while others may be baffled by its existence?
“It’s related to a lack of motivation, which is both a symptom and a side effect of some antidepressants,” Aimee Daramus, PsyD, tells Healthline.
“You might also find something similar, though for different reasons, in people with traumatic brain injuries, traumatic stress disorders (including PTSD), and dissociative disorders, which involve a disturbance of memory and identity,” Daramus says. “Mainly, though, it’s how people with depression describe the difficulty that they have doing very simple tasks.”
If you’re like I was for most of my life, experiencing this without understanding why, it’s all too easy to be down on yourself or feel lazy for your lack of motivation. Yet when I’m experiencing the impossible task, it’s not that I don’t want to do something or can’t be bothered to take action.
Instead, simply put, it feels like to do that thing would be the hardest thing in the world. That’s not laziness by any means.
As Daramus explains, “We all have things we don’t want to do. We dislike them. The impossible task is different. You might want to do it. You might value it or even enjoy it when you aren’t depressed. But you simply can’t get up and do it.”
Examples of the impossible task may be having a desperate desire for a clean room but feeling unable to even make your bed, or waiting for mail to arrive only for the walk to the mailbox to seem far too long once it does.
Growing up, my parents would ask me to do things like schedule a doctor’s appointment or do the dishes. I had no way to verbalize how impossible these requests could feel at times.
While those who haven’t experienced the impossible task themselves may have trouble understanding, being able to name what I’m feeling to others has been really remarkable.
In all honesty, though, so much of overcoming the impossible task has been through releasing myself of the guilt I used to feel. I’m now able to look at this as another symptom of my mental illness — instead of as a character flaw — which allows me to work through it in a new, solution-driven way.
As with any symptom of mental illness, there are a variety of techniques that can help manage it. What works for one person may not work as well for another.
Here are seven tips that may help you, according to Daramus:
- If you can, split it into smaller tasks. If you have a paper to write, write just a paragraph or two for now, or set a timer for a short period of time. You can do a surprising amount of tidying up in two minutes.
- Pair it with something more pleasant. Play music and rock out while you brush your teeth, or return a phone call while snuggled up with a pet.
- Reward yourself afterward. Make Netflix the reward for a few minutes of tidying up.
- If you used to enjoy the impossible task, sit for a while and try to remember what it felt like to enjoy it. What did your body feel like? What were your thoughts then? How did it feel emotionally? See if you can recover a little of that feeling before you try to do it.
- What’s the worst that could happen if you let it go for today? Sometimes making the bed feels great because it looks clean and pretty. Sometimes, though, it helps more to realize that your value as a person isn’t tied to making the bed.
- Pay someone to do a task, or trade tasks with someone. If you can‘t go shopping, can you have groceries delivered? Can you switch the chore rotation for the week with a roommate?
- Ask for support. Having someone keep you company while you do it, even if it’s on the phone, can make a difference. This has really helped me when it comes to doing things like dishes or laundry. You can also seek out the support of a therapist or close friend.
“Try breaking down the task at hand into small steps. Use encouraging rather than judgmental language with yourself. Give your [mental health condition] a name and identify it when it’s impacting your life,” Seavey says.
You can also try “The Impossible Game” that Steve Hayes, PhD, describes in Psychology Today: Notice your inner resistance, feel the discomfort, and then take action as quickly as possible. For comfort’s sake, it may be helpful to try this on minor things first before trying it against the impossible task.
“Being kind and compassionate towards yourself and your experience is critical,” Seavey says. “Watch out for self-blame and self-criticism, which are only likely to make the task feel more difficult.”
“In other words, [remember that] the problem isn’t you, it’s the [mental health condition],” she adds.
Some days may be easier to overcome it than others, but having a name for it and knowing that you’re not alone — well, that makes it feel just a little bit more possible.
Sarah Fielding is a New York City-based writer. Her writing has appeared in Bustle, Insider, Men’s Health, HuffPost, Nylon, and OZY where she covers social justice, mental health, health, travel, relationships, entertainment, fashion and food.