Task Paralysis

February 26, 2018 by guidj

What do you do when you have several things you think you should be doing, but aren’t sure which of them you should do next, either right now or at some other point in the near future?

This is what is called task paralysis. And it happens to all of us, at one point or another. You look up from your screen and you suddenly realize there are sticky notes filled with things you need or want to do on your desk, from checking out that presentation about market places to reviewing a pull request. It started off small with three items. Just reminders, so you wouldn’t forget anything important you wanted to do.

Suddenly, it grew to 10 and then 20 items, and it covers a wide range of things from writing a blog post about the mess you’re in to submitting a candidacy application. Next thing you know, you find yourself numbing your senses through eight hours of television series, because they manage to make you forget that life is waiting for you.

And I’m not even referring to a work context, where you have deadlines from your managers or stakeholders. I’m talking about your life outside work, where most of your dreams take flight or flop. Fear not, for there are things that we can do to help us gather ourselves in such times.


First, get rid of things you wish you had done. These are things that pose as things you should do, when they’re actually wishful thoughts of the type it would have been nice if I had taken a course on baking, when you really have zero interest in learning how to bake and really you just wish you knew how to so you could use that to impress your future dates. Sometimes, these tasks can present themselves as useful things, like reading the third and final volume of that novel you started two years ago, so you could close the cycle. The truth is, you didn’t love the first two, and you’re probably not gonna love the third one either. It’s okay to skip it. It creates room of the things you really should and want to be doing. The single most important thing we can do is figure out the things that we shouldn’t do, and stop doing them.


Second, scrutinize the things you believe you need and want to do. You have to be systematic about it. What do I achieve in doing this? Is it to become more proficient at doing something else? Is it to improve my leisure time or is it just for fun? For instance, say you want to learn to speak a new language. What level of proficiency do you aim to achieve? Do you want to be able to order food from a restaurant or write an official court record? The two require vastly different levels of commitment and perhaps even approaches to learning. Then, ask yourself what can you achieve in the next 3 months? What about the next 6 months? And go from there. Having a definition of done and/or an approval criteria along with a timeframe makes you think about concrete steps you need to take to get there and let’s you focus. Focus is good because it makes you keep your to-do list to a bare minimum and makes you move forward.


Third, you need to prioritize. Depending on whether the goals are long term or short term, you should prioritize things differently. If they are long term, break them into things you can do in the short them. It will help you decide what you really want (and should) be doing. Once you have this figured out for your shorter list of items, you can start going over each of them and deciding if you really wanna stick with them. Anything that fails to be compelling can be thrown away. If they are really important, they will come back, eventually. One way of doing this is to measure the level importance you place on each activity. Qualitative reasoning will have to come to play here, though of course you should quantify things whenever possible, as long as you’re not short selling any potential experiences you might have. Only you can decide what’s important to you, and that you can do something about in the immediate and near future. For instance, you have a strong desire to travel to a continent you have yet visited. Right now, what you can do is to start looking for things you could do there, checking alternative ways of traveling, and start saving money for the trip. This turns a desire into action steps. Do what you can now, and leave it at that.

With these three steps, you should be able to focus on the things that you have decided that matter for the next couple of weeks or months. You can go as far as schedule time on your calendar for some of them, and do others in an ad-hoc manner, depending on the task. Just remember to track yourself regularly. If you suddenly find yourself with idle time in your hands, thinking about watching 2-3 episodes of CSI, check your list and see if there is something you can do now instead. A weekly sync with yourself may be enough to keep you on track.

Remember to give yourself time to relax. Scheduled fun can turnout to be enjoyable, but don’t force yourself into a routine that does not work for you. Try different approaches and see what works best for you, striking a good balance between creativity and getting things done.