There’s probably nothing guaranteed to make you feel worse on a day-in-day out basis than those unfinished tasks we just keep putting off. Unsent thankyou notes, unfolded laundry, bills, making that doctor’s appointment. Whatever. They just hang over our heads like big neon signs screaming “irresponsible”, “lazy”, “unorganized”. I know that a lot of people swear by lists, but that has never worked for me. I am completely unrealistic about what I can get done in a day, I am dissatisfied with anything less than near-perfection and the list thing just puts those two tendencies on a collision course with burn-out and discouragement. But in my relentless quest to be both healthy and happy – at the same time – I have hit on something that works for disorderly, easily discouraged, unrealistic me.
The way things usually work is that in the back of my mind, I will know there’s something I need to get done. Sometimes these things will pop into my head at an inopportune time. And because it’s not done, I just have a gut level reaction to the task which is a combination of guilt and dread. So I put it off again. It’s waited this long, right? Over and over.
What I have learned to do is stop and actually spend a couple of seconds thinking about the task. Why am I really avoiding it? Often what I realize is that I am avoiding the task because there’s some problem: I don’t have the resources I need, I need to look up something online, I’m not sure how to do the job, I’m emotionally unable to deal with something. These are the details that our gut level reactions leave out. Feeling guilty and full of dread is just an unpleasant experience which doesn’t do anything to point the way forward. But actually thinking about what tasks need to be taken care of naturally points me towards steps I can take. Often, the reason I had been putting it off has passed or been addressed. Suddenly what I’d been putting off can be taken care of right away. If I can’t do it right away, I can plan realistically for when or how I will address it later. Sometimes I realize that I need to stop kidding myself – if I don’t just force myself to do whatever I’ve been putting off, it will never happen. Sometimes there are circumstances beyond my control keeping the task unfinished. Instead of an amorphous feeling of guilt and dread, a set of reasons, plans and actions present themselves.
I think that often we can be so busy and caught up in the details we’re attending to at the moment that it doesn’t even occur to us to take a few seconds to actually think. We end up just moving from gut reaction to gut reaction which can be pretty hit-or-miss in its efficacy. I have found it very helpful to just just allow myself the mental space to be more thoughtful. Often I realize that I had been feeling guilty for things I couldn’t do anything about. Or that I had been putting things off out of habit that no longer makes sense. Now, rather than feeling guilt and dread when I remember some unfinished task, I anticipate a good outcome. Unfinished tasks are not longer these dreadful things hanging over my head. They are just part of the ongoing juggling act of life.