Destressing the Task List


Human beings are easily stressed, and the pressures of work are a constant source of anxiety. In order to take on and accomplish the myriad tasks that make up much of our jobs, we need to be able to deal with both ends of the lifetime of tasks: starting and finishing. The two endpoints have their own challenges and we need to destress both of them.

Getting started is the first problem, which is my topic today. In a later meditation, I will look into ways to make finishing tasks less stressful.

Nearly everyone has experienced the dread induced by a long task list, which can cause a sense of helplessness, and being so overwhelmed we can literally freeze like an animal being hunted by a predator. We feel threatened by the looming shadow of the task list, and fear can lead to brainlock.

Dana Smith recently interviewed Ellen Hendriksen, a clinical assistant professor at Boston University’s Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders, about this freeze response:

Our bodies react to threat the same way, whether the threat is external, like the proverbial saber-toothed tiger, or the threat is internal. 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.

Internal threats are just as real as external ones, and in both cases our bodies react by flooding the mind with hormones that literally shrink neurons in the prefrontal cortex, decreasing our executive function, and enlarging the neurons in the older parts of the brain. Researchers Amy Arnsten, Carolyn M. Mazure, and Rajita Sinha point out that deeper centers in the brain, the basal ganglia and the amygdala, are the source of this fight-or-flight response:

In the presence of norepinephrine and cortisol, the amygdala alerts the rest of the nervous system to prepare for danger and also strengthens memories that are related to fear and other emotions.
These studies have begun to show that some people seem more vulnerable than others because of their genetic makeup or because of a previous history of stress exposure. After dopamine and norepinephrine switch off circuits in the prefrontal area required for higher cognition, enzymes normally chew up the neurotransmitters so that the shutdown does not persist. In this way, we can return to our baseline when stress abates.

The freeze response that saves the rabbit from the fox, without any higher-order thinking, may be good for the rabbit but inappropriate for a professional confronted by the fear of letting down colleagues by a delayed project update. The worst aspect of this stress response is that chronic stress can lead to cumulative shrinking of executive function, making people "more vulnerable to stress and, in some cases, mental illness". Stress can drive people crazy, so this is serious stuff.

It may help in the moment to remind ourselves, as the researchers point out, "This is just my brain trying to save me from a tiger". And, of course, knowing that the stress is physiological in origin, we should take steps to counter the effects: try to relax, take a breath, and apply some well-known methods to make the big pile seem more manageable.

One technique that I rely on is to take a big job and break it into a list of smaller tasks, and do the first. It turns out that's how survivors operate when confronted by catastrophe: they focus on doing the next thing necessary and put other considerations aside until later, to keep down the fear response.

Rene Descartes, in Discourse on Method, was one of the first to make this case in the 17th century: "Divide each difficulty into as many parts as is feasible and necessary to resolve it."

Since we are seeking to destress while getting started on our task queue, it may be helpful to pick out a task that feels like fun to do. Or maybe you are motivated to take up a task that will help someone else make headway, which may alleviate your stress and theirs. Or just pick the shortest task to accomplish, which will create an immediate sense of achievement.

Playing on the value of novelty, I often pick out two tasks that are quite different -- for example, writing versus testing out some new technology -- and alternate between them every half hour or so. The alternation seems to satisfy my curiosity or desire for shaking things up.

The foremost goal, however, is not really getting the tasks done. Tasks come and go. The most critical need is to train yourself to manage the stress that comes with the flow of work and apply methods that allow you to calm your brain, so you can sidestep the deer-in-the-headlights brainlock that can cause long-term negative effects on your thinking.

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