Feeling Overwhelmed While Working?

After our recent productivity webinar, I did some one-on-one IFS work, and I (again) ran into what I think is actually a pretty common not-so-uselful belief:

“Until I’m finished, I can’t feel okay.”

I used to think this way too, that I had to feel overwhelmed and guilty until I got all my important things done. I distinctly remember the IFS I did on myself to address this issue. If you notice yourself running into the problem where you feel bad and overwhelmed even when you’re actually in the middle of doing work, I’d recommend reading on and seeing if anything I say clicks with you.

I revisited a scene freshman year of college, when I was up late at night working on my CS 51 homework. I didn’t know how to solve whatever programming issue was happening. I may or may not have emailed one of the course assistants for help, but it was late enough at night that I couldn’t expect to hear anything back before the next morning, and I pretty much knew at that point that I was going to be late submitting my code. I felt incredibly guilty, awful, and tired.

After witnessing and processing my story and emotions, I realized a few things:

  • When I know I’m working on the most important thing, there’s never any reason to feel bad! Working on the most important thing is the very best I can ever do in any moment.
  • It’s much, much easier to do work when I’m feeling relaxed and focused.
  • Sometimes, the most important thing to do is actually to rest, relax, and recover.
If you feel resistance to believing any of those things (if they intellectually make sense, but you get the feeling not all parts of you would trust those statements in all situations), I’d take the time to think it through and figure out why.
You may have a very ambitious part, or a part that cares very much about you doing everything on your to-do list. It makes all the sense in the world that a part like that would make you feel overwhelmed, anxious, and guilty when you’re working on something that isn’t the most important thing. So, if you’re feel bad about what you’re doing, check in with that part and see what it thinks you should be doing instead!
It may want you to do more than one thing at once (parts can be a little simple-minded), and in that case the answer might be to write things down in a trusted system, or schedule time on your calendar. 
When working, try making it your first priority to get in the optimal mental state. Most of the time, it shouldn’t take longer than a few minutes to get into a relaxed, focus state where you feel good because you’re doing what you need to be doing.
  • Vinney Cavallo

    I thought it through. The reason I feel resistance to believing this:

    “When I know I’m working on the most important thing, there’s never any reason to feel bad! Working on the most important thing is the very best I can ever do in any moment”

    Is because sometimes the most important thing is something that I should have already made more progress on, and while catching up is *now* the best thing I can do, it’s still relatively bad to have not *already done it*, so I am engaged in an activity that is underlining my previous irresponsibility throughout.

    Furthermore, since that Most Important Thing (in the described scenario) is a task that is late, other future Most Important Things are being neglected in favor of the late thing, so from the point of view of whoever is waiting for their currently-neglected task, I am not doing The Most Important thing (which would be *their* thing). Our two conflicting perspectives on what is most important is a source of stress that isn’t entirely in my hands to alleviate.


    • So, what are you afraid would happen if you let yourself feel good while working on the most important thing when you’re behind schedule? Are you using feeling bad under those circumstances to disincentivize future procrastination? If so, is it consistently working as a disincentive?

      And in the second case, are you afraid the person who wants you to be working on something else would notice that you weren’t feeling bad and judge you more because of that? What bad outcome would come from being happy as you work, despite the other person’s worry?