We all know the feeling: Just as your to-do list continues growing longer, your motivation to get it all done grows shorter. Then, instead of being a productive boss babe, you're frozen and utterly overwhelmed at your desk. This frustrating form of self-sabotage is called "productivity paralysis" or "task paralysis" (though members of the ADHD community may refer to it as "ADHD paralysis"). While it's sometimes a symptom of neurodivergence, it can happen to anyone, from perfectionists to highly sensitive people.
As if an overflowing agenda isn't hard enough, becoming mentally paralyzed only adds to the pressure. Dr. Chandni Tugnait, a psychotherapist and personal coach, told Hindustan Times, "Task paralysis can have a significant impact on your productivity and well-being. Whether it's a looming work deadline or a messy home project, the sense of anxiety and dread can be paralyzing." Then, once procrastination strikes, your stress only worsens, she says.
If productivity paralysis is getting the best of you, here's how to give your brain a reboot and get back to business.
Even if productivity paralysis can happen to anyone, we all have different reasons for experiencing it. Consider what thoughts and feelings might be triggering you to shut down. As Ellen Hendriksen, a clinical assistant professor at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders, told The New York Times, productivity paralysis is often the result of a perceived threat. "With a big overwhelming task list, that threat could be the threat of failure, or it could be the threat of letting others down. It could be the threat of feeling stupid or incompetent because we don't know where to start or how to do things."
Perfectionism is also a common culprit. "When you find yourself spinning in the illusion of perfectionism and fears that you (or your work) won't measure up, I encourage you to identify that feeling, pause to gain some perspective and remember that task paralysis is transient," Mary Kingsbury Enquist, assistant vice president of strategy, planning, and business development at NYU Langone Medical Center, shared with ClearVoice.
Challenging your fears and reminding yourself that this feeling is only temporary may give you the push you need to chip away at that to-do list before it gets any longer.
When you're stuck in an overwhelm spiral, the last thing you should do is procrastinate longer. However, a small, structured break (like a 30-minute walk or relaxing shower) to clear your mind can go a long way. After your break, it's time to get back to work.
Take a look at your to-do list and consider if any items can be eliminated. Thanks to toxic productivity, you might feel obligated to complete tasks that won't matter much in the long run. Downsize your list to only the essentials. Then, Ellen Hendriksen suggests breaking tasks into smaller, manageable steps. When tackling these baby steps, keep in mind that — in the words of Sheryl Sandberg — done is better than perfect. If flawlessness has always been your standard, swap it for "good enough" instead.
Finally, don't be afraid to reach out for support. "If it's too daunting to get started on your own, it's worth speaking to a trusted colleague, friend or family member, or maybe seeking professional help," productivity coach Juliet Landau-Pope told Stylist. Delegate at work when possible or ask your partner to pitch in more around the house. And if productivity paralysis is still leaving you feeling immobilized, talk to a therapist or doctor about your concerns.
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