(Content note: some discussion of depression, although it’s very much not the main focus. Also overdue library books.)
So for the most part, I’m a pretty responsible person. I take promises and commitments seriously, and I mostly keep up with them. But there’s this thing I sometimes do that throws a giant monkey wrench into my ability to do the things that I’ve promised to do, even things I actually want to do. I’m wondering if other people do this thing, too. (Actually — no, I’m not wondering, I am 98% positive that this is a common human phenomenon, but I’ll feel better when I see other people say, “Great Caesar’s Ghost, I do that too!”) And I want to hear from other people about your strategies for dealing with it.
It’s the Looming Unfinished Task.
I don’t just do this with work, by the way. I do it in personal relationships, with unanswered letters or emails from family or friends. I have actually let relationships drift away because of this: I’ve felt so guilty about the unanswered email from three weeks or six months or two years ago, I not only couldn’t bear to reply to the damn email — I couldn’t bear to contact the person about anything else. I was convinced that if I dropped them a note saying, “Hey, we haven’t been in touch for a while, how are you doing?”, they would reply with, “HOW HAVE I BEEN DOING?!?!? I’ve been stewing about that unanswered email, that’s how I’ve been doing! Every time I think about you, I think of what a terrible person you are!” It’s absurd and irrational. After all, I don’t react that way when people don’t reply to me: I assume they’re busy and overwhelmed, and I just write them again. But somehow I’m convinced, not that my colleagues and friends and family are WAY more harshly judgmental than I am, but that my own misdeeds are somehow much worse than theirs. The terrible judgment I’m imagining from them seems entirely proportionate.
The thing is, though — there have actually been a handful of people in my life who did judge me this way. One of my grandmothers, for instance, was very fixated on the issue of which of us had written last. If she wrote me and I didn’t reply promptly, she’d write me again, with a scolding, passive-aggressive comment about how she was pretty sure it was my turn to write, but she hadn’t heard from me recently, so okay, fine, she was writing to me again, even though it really wasn’t her turn. It made me feel both guilty and pissed-off — and thus, actually less inclined to keep up the correspondence (which did, in fact, fade). So my anxiety about people judging me about this stuff isn’t entirely unwarranted. But I know that most people, most of the time, do not do this. I’m definitely embiggening it in my head.
And when a correspondence or relationship does drift away, I take all the responsibility for it on myself. Oddly, the only time I think, “Hey, you know what, there are two of us here, I’m not the only one who hasn’t been keeping up” is when someone actually does blame me and judge me about it.
I can still remember the immense feeling of lightness and relief when it was over. I always feel an immense feeling of lightness and relief when it’s over, when I finally take care of one of these things. It is always, always, ALWAYS easier and more pleasant to just Do The Thing than to keep putting it off. Intellectually, I know this. Every time I do this, every time I’ve transformed an unfinished task into a Looming Unfinished Task, I remind myself of this. And it doesn’t do a damn bit of good. Well, sometimes it does a bit of good — it sometimes helps me get over myself and just buckle down and Do The Thing. But often, it makes no difference. If anything, it sometimes makes me feel worse about the thing. Voice in my head: “You know perfectly well that just Doing The Thing will be easier and make you feel better. So why aren’t you doing it? What the hell is wrong with you?”
And of course, if I’m dealing with an episode of depression, a Looming Unfinished Task can feed into the self-perpetuating depression cycle. When I’m depressed, I have a terrible time getting motivated to do anything at all. And a Looming Unfinished Task often becomes a big part of the self-perpetuating depression cycle: the worse I feel about the Thing, the more depressed I get, and the more depressed I get, the harder it is to be motivated to do anything at all. (Not to mention the fact that, when I’m seriously depressed, almost anything can become a Looming Unfinished Task: showering, getting dressed, leaving the house.)
So — do you do this?
And if you do — do you have any strategies for dealing with it?