Reactions to staying focused: Conflict and avoidance

Does the following scenario sound familiar? The start of the day reveals a day of promise. The realisation that the possibilities are infinite. You are energised with the thought that the tasks set-forth will be completed. You make a mental lists and are determined to tick all the mental boxes. It is time to begin. You start working on the first task. After about 10 - 15 minutes, you suddenly develop the urge to begin task two. At first you resist the temptation to drop what you are doing. However, the thought occurs that “this is important/may be crucial if not started right-this-minute." You start to become distracted given the continued thoughts that task two absolutely cannot wait. Finally, you oblige and task one is left partially completed to enable to commencement of task two.    

While working on task two, the thought occurs that attention should be placed on the other. You begin to feel an overwhelming sense of shame and guilt given the abandonment of task one. You are distracted from engaging in one task because the grief of leaving the other is unbearable. The attempts at continuing task two renders unimpressive results.  

Suddenly, while working on task two, you notice that task three needs attention. However, the thought of task three feels frustrating given thatthe previous tasks are far from completion. Given the frustration of this, task three seems to be a reasonable break. Once task three starts, you begin to think, “Why can’t I complete what I need to do? I must be stupid”.

The combined feelings of anxiety, panic, shame, guilt, and self-deprecating punishment becomes overwhelming. Finally, the decision is made to distract oneself by doing nothing.

This is an all-too-common phenomenon plagues many individuals. For the moment, I will call this phenomenon Transitional Task Management (TTM). TTM develops when a person continues to move between tasks without completing the prior task. As demonstrated in the above example, neither task has been completed. However, there are both psychological and behavioural components to this phenomena. In what follows, I will explore the dynamics of this event by identifying the psychological manifestations whilst highlighting the associated challenges. I will present this essay as part one of a two-part exploration.    

Psychological Manifestations of Transitional Task Management  

The psychological motivations surrounding TTM are subtle whilst complex in its manifestation. Consider the above example as a reference point. Upon waking in the morning, the person feels confident that “today will be the day” all tasks will be completed. There is an overwhelming feeling of accomplishment and determination. For a brief moment, the intrinsically motivated self can bask in the glory that is the thought of getting the job done. Thus, in a proud and confident voice the doer proclaims, “I will finish the job”.

At this point, the excitement begins to fade and the burning fire of motivation becomes no more than an ephemeral twinkle in the distance. The person is let with the daunting reality of the task-in-itself. Finally, the thought occurs that it has greater complexity and depth than we originally planned. In addition, there are significant obstacles standing in the way of success. The thoughts began to creep to our minds: “what if I fail”, “what if I can’t finish on time”, “this job is too massive for me to handle, I can’t do this”.

The feeling that passes through the mind relates to a general anxiety state. The mind begins to struggle between significant fears of the unknown outcome. The choice of continuance overwhelms and frightens. The initial instinct is to escape and avoid. As such, there is the act of switching to another task. The thought of switching represents itself as a momentary imperative. The mind magnifies the alternative option to highlight its importance. The feeling of anxiety becomes too great for the mind to handle. As such, the attention is now attention is now redirected towards the second option rather than the first.

Whilst starting the second task, the feeling of shame and guilt begins to creep into the mind. The questions, “what is wrong with me”, “why can’t I finish what I started” and “I should have controlled myself” continues to circle thoughts. Added to the moment, the same thought developed in task one surfaces once more. At this point, the mind reveals an interesting conflict between the first two tasks. On one hand, task one produced an overwhelming sense of anxiety and on the other, there is the feeling of shame and guilt whilst working on task two.

The psychological manifestation of the conflict reflects the common avoid-avoid scenario within the selective or decision making process. In essence, the activity in-itself does not pose any psychological threat or distasteful option. The conflict to be avoided is the decision to feel anxious, shameful or guilty. The feeling of anxiety produces the fight, flight, or freeze reaction.

The feelings of shame and guilt however, produces a significant range of reactions and manifestations. In reference to the above example, the shame-guilt reaction mimics a depressive position. Whilst the person reflects on task one, the shame-guilt reaction produces the language of self-deprecation and punishment. The person may refer to themselves as stupid, silly or crazy. Such linguistic abuse becomes internalised and believed as true. If the person thinks of the self as dumb or stupid, the mind suffers narcissistic injury and begins to develop a low self-worth. Given the reaction from both the anxiety and shame-guilt reaction, a pattern evolves. At the point of choice, the decision between self-loathing and perpetual fear presents the moment to avoid.  

Transitional task management (TTM) represents a common problem in productive and efficient action. The challenges of engaging in committed action within task management presumes the ability to silence the voice of mental fortune-telling and self-defeat. In the second part of this essay, I will discuss the role of committed action and share some techniques on engaging in effected and committed action.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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