The Looming Unfinished Task

(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.

check-list 200
With some things on my To Do list, if I put them off, they start accumulating this load of guilt. The fact that it’s late and I’ve put it off makes me feel bad about it. Then the fact that I feel guilty and bad about it makes the task seem both more unpleasant and more daunting. And because it’s now seeming more unpleasant and more daunting, I put it off for longer… and the longer I put it off, the more guilty I feel about it… and the more guilty I feel about it, the more unpleasant and daunting it feels… so I put it off for longer… until eventually, the unanswered email is looming in my consciousness as both The Most Unpleasant And Upsetting Thing Anyone Could Ever Do, and a prime example of Why I Am An Irresponsible And Generally Terrible Person Who Lets Everyone Down.

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.

overdue stamp
I’ve been doing this for literally decades. The first time I can clearly remember was in sixth grade, when I had an overdue library book. (I can still remember the book: it was a biography of Sigmund Freud, who I’d done a report on in class.) The book was overdue; I felt embarrassed and ashamed about it being overdue; and I didn’t want to face the librarian when I returned it, and deal with the shame and guilt and censure I was sure they’d heap on me. So I kept not returning it… and the longer I didn’t return it, the worse I felt about it… and every time I got an overdue notice, I felt more guilty and ashamed and panicked… which made me even more scared to just return the damn book. So the book sat on my bookshelf, pulsating with this terrifying, radiating glow, beaming out the message, “You Are Bad, You Are Letting People Down, People Think You Are Terrible And Will Never Forgive You.” It finally got resolved when my father literally said, “Okay, we’re returning that book now,” told me to get it, drove me to the library, and walked me to the library desk to return it. At which point the librarian said (if I recall correctly), “Thanks for returning it,” and waived my late fee.

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.)

dont be late post it note
I don’t know if there’s any particular pattern about which tasks I do this with. It’s almost always things I’m late with, but I don’t do it with everything I’m late with, or even most things. Most of the time when I’m late with something, I just do it — or put it off for a while longer, and then do it — and my guilt about the lateness is very moderate, entirely proportionate to the seriousness of the misdeed, and manageable with a simple apology. I can’t figure out why some late tasks take on the Evil Pulsating Glow of Guilt, and some don’t. There doesn’t seem to be much rhyme or reason to it: it’s not about how objectively important the task is, how important the relationship is, or anything. I’m not sure that it matters: a pattern might help me identify the tasks that are more likely to Loom, so I could do those things first, but I don’t think there is a pattern, and I don’t think it matters that much.

So — do you do this?

And if you do — do you have any strategies for dealing with it?

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The Looming Unfinished Task
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17 thoughts on “The Looming Unfinished Task

  1. 1

    So well expressed. I do this too. One technique that sometimes works to break the spell is to give myself permission to do one single starting task, but no more. “Just open the file and make that one change,” I say, “then you can close it and ignore it some more.” Of course, once the file is open and the the change made, the initial activation energy has been expended and continuing is much easier. But somehow giving myself permission to bail out makes that first obstacle easier to overcome. Doesn’t work every time but it’s better than nothing.

  2. 2

    I find if I can bring myself to discus it with someone who can he with the underlying task somehow that makes it better. If something at work has gotten made into that big thing and I talk with someone who can help with that thing somehow that makes it ease for me to do it, and if I can’t there is someone there who can help me with getting it done. For me it is easier if someone else helps me start, once I get started I can usually get through.

  3. 3

    I’m a great believer in the power of deadlines. If someone asks me to do them a favor, the first thing that I try to remember to ask them is “When do you need this done by?” And if they say, “Oh, I don’t care, whenever,” then I say, “No, really, give me a deadline or it’ll never happen.”

    And I try to always make myself stick to those deadlines, even if they’re arbitrary. I try to scare off my students from asking for paper extensions, not for my sake (I’ll probably put off grading the papers for a week or so anyways), but for theirs, to avoid creating the looming cloud you mention. I have a little speech I give my classes: “When I was an undergraduate, I never asked for extensions because I knew they were a trap. The lousy paper you’re looking at the night before it’s due won’t magically become less lousy if you take an extra week to work on it — it will just start ruining every other good thing in your life. I can remember many occasions when I’d be madly typing away at 3 am. the night before a paper was due, and I’d tell myself ‘This paper may be a pile of crap, but twelve hours from now, it will be a turned-in piece of crap.’ That is the attitude that I want to recommend to all of you. And you know what? Sometimes the teacher liked the paper that I thought stunk, and perhaps I will like yours.”

  4. 4

    Hell, I’m doing it right now. My phone and internet service is due to skyrocket in price a week from now. I’ve known for more than a month, have attempted to initiate renegotiations, which I did last year, and I’m writing this instead to calling the bastards this morning.

    At the same time, I’ve been catching up on a computer project that I’ve ignored for a couple of YEARS. This all seems to be another way for my depression to re-assert itself and subvert the quality of my (already limited) life.

    And, of course, its All My Fault.

  5. 5

    You know, someone somewhere must have written something about how this habit of the brain – of weighing down an uncompleted task with more and more emotional baggage until it begins to feel like the most monumental labor anyone anywhere could ever hope to attempt, let alone accomplish, even though the actual work required to complete it may not have changed at all – might apply to something like, say, social change.

  6. 10

    *nods* Yep, I do this too. And yes, once I actually get started on the task, it’s usually much easier than I expected. So it’s really just a matter of getting that nudge to get started.

    I find one thing that helps me is writing a list of everything I need to do, including the looming task (broken into chunks if possible). Sometimes I include a few chores I did recently just so I can have the satisfaction of crossing them off. Once I’ve done a few of my other tasks, I find I’ve usually built up the momentum to tackle the hard one.

  7. 11

    Well, I don’t have it as severe as you, and it’s even easier now that I’m not in school, but I have been trying to work on that problem of “intellectually I know this is the best option, but…I really don’t feeeel like it…AT ALL”

    My recent realization is that this situation is more like learning to ride a bike than learning a fact about the world, though the facts are important of course. It turns out that I can cause myself to “feel like it” using various techniques.

    I’ve had some success. And yay, now I have an opportunity to write a huge bunch about it 🙂

    (I wrote a long post, sorry!)


    For an example of something I know I shouldn’t do: I have trouble with tiredness in the middle of the day, so much so that I sometimes have difficulty keeping my eyes open (I bitterly note that I never have such fortune at night when I’m supposed to actually sleep). This leads to laying down. Which leads to naps. Which leads to feeling weirdly empty when I wake up (3 hours later), messed up sleep schedule (so the nap doesn’t fix anything, it will just repeat the cycle the next day), more tiredness, not getting stuff done, etc.

    And yet it’s so tempting to lay down. And when I do, it can be so difficult to get up before I totally fall asleep! No matter how many warning signs there are that I’m drifting in and out of sleep.


    Several months ago I had a little breakthrough: after laying down, I questioned my feelings and lack of motivation all the way down, past every seeming bedrock of “I can’t, I’m too tired”, and I found myself astonishingly motivated to get out of bed. So I did, and felt wonderful doing it. Though that one is difficult to remember and put into words.

    I’ve handled this situation (and some others) successfully a few times now, though now the techniques are easier to put into words:

    One part of my new technique is establishing a specific activity as a factually confirmed thing I should or should not do. After I make the mistake and suffer the consequences, I go “ok is there something for certain I did wrong?” and if so I memorize it. Pieces of certainty are nice to have, they remove at least a bit of indecision.

    Then there’s also the “bike riding” aspect. I have to view the whole thing as a skill to be mastered, a set of intuitions and feelings to train. I’m not exactly sure how to do this, but thinking things over and evaluating my feelings and doing my “please try to learn to ride the bike” thoughts might have helped put some of it together. Also reading this updated “growth mindset” research (Miri Mogilevsky’s posted that on tumblr). Also reading Richard Carrier’s writings and comments on the mind, morality, and choice/free will. Also reading about “Flow” (and how to achieve it) on wikipedia, and assuming that it was a spectrum not a binary. And learning to break tasks down into small pieces, and value my efforts even if I just get a few small pieces done of something per day. Also sometimes committing to just a few minutes of work (even if that “work” is just some attempt to calmly and clearly think about the situation) can either be celebrated, or might even lead to motivation to do much more (because starting is often the hardest part of something) And so many other readings and experiences.

    One of the feelings I produce in myself sometimes is faith in myself, that I can do good, that I can reach a better state of mind. It can even just be a positive evaluation of myself for simply wanting to change myself for the better, to learn, and do the right thing. It helps (even sometimes just a bit, but sometimes a lot) to combat the feeling that I’m doomed forever to be my old bad self. Even if progress away from my old self is slow or imperfect. This technique helps me feel better in the hours that are the most difficult! (It even quiets my own minor forms of the feedback loops of guilt etc. that you describe)


    More recently, yesterday I laid down without really thinking. And then it was “oh no, I’m in this situation again”. I remembered that this was clearly a confirmed thing that I should never do. But that didn’t make me leap out of bed, I was still tired, and trying to quickly changing a choice doesn’t always work. But I knew nothing terrible would happen if I took a few seconds or a minute to re-orient myself. Therefore I could drop some worry. Then, with confidence in my recognition of what the right choice was (and a few other logical confirmations that I should get out of bed), I decided to imagine what it would feel like to genuinely want to get out of bed and admire myself for it. It turns out that it’s fairly easy to slip from merely imagining such feelings to actually feeling them. And then they can stick because my brain knows they are the correct evaluations of the situation. So I was able to happily and energetically jump out of bed. This is nice progress for me.

    A few previous times (though later than the first time) my success was less happy and energetic, but hopefully I can learn to more often experience the more pleasant way. And also I’ve been working on simply not laying down to begin with, but that’s easier, and simply doesn’t help when I mindlessly accidentally give in to that urge.

    That’s one example of what I think is slow but measurable progress for me. I’ve even had fun washing dishes at home, and changed my attitude at work (a restaurant) to be better at peace during rushes when normally I would be very stressed and upset (this required knowing why I’m doing the thing I’m doing, my purpose to serve, knowing I literally can only do my best and can only be judged for that, making decisions about how I should feel, and sometimes imagination to kickstart or maintain that feeling, though remembering everything and putting it all into words is difficult).

    I would hope that these things become easier over time as my brain becomes more trained.


    And I hope that this lasts, sometimes in the past I’ve had a day or two of random success or good feeling, but then it disappeared, and sometimes I have made techniques that just aren’t suited for situations like laying in bed.

    But this time I seem to have a system that has had measurable successes (at least a bit) over the span of weeks, not days, doesn’t require me to already feel good, is in my own head, and engages with the core motivation problem. So I have some hope.

  8. 13

    Oh boy, is this me. Here I am reading blogs instead of tackling three things that are pretty important that I keep mentally hitting snooze on… and feeling guilty about at the end of the day. I’ve always struggled with procrastination, but this aspect (paralyzing guilt from a long-unfinished task) seems to be getting worse lately.

    In David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” (GTD) book he talks about the importance of breaking things up into bite-sized pieces, and always asking: What’s the next (small) thing I can do to move it forward? And many other people (including in the comments here) have talked about how if you just get started, even a little bit, sometimes that leads to finishing.

    I believe these things are true, intellectually, but far too often I just cannot make myself take that first step. And that’s even at times like now when I’m getting enough sleep, diet and exercise are where I want them, etc.

    I’m going to post this and then try to do the next thing on just one of them.

  9. 14

    This came up in conversation to my therapist, and it turns out to be a whole thing. Procrastination is not laziness, it’s a behaviour that derives from numerous different sources, including fatigue, fear of failure, fear of uncertainty (including that of success), control issues, low self confidence, and more.

    She referred me to this sequence of workbooks which really help to understand it and take control.

  10. 15

    This pretty much sums up my biggest flaw. My earliest memory of this was also in sixth grade. I was a good student, but we had this one writing assignment that I procrastinated on and didn’t have in time for the due date. My teacher seemed to have forgotten that I hadn’t turned it in and I felt it would be too awkward to bring it in late, so I just kind of sat on my half-finished assignment hoping that he’d never notice it.

    And right now, I’m writing this comment as I put off cleaning the mountain of dishes that’s been sitting in my kitchen sink for the last five days. I guess I should do myself a favour and get to it as soon as I hit “post”.

  11. 17

    I recognize this too – am doing it right now in fact. I know full well that I should be studying for my finals this week and the next, and that in everything I’ve spent the last 5 years working towards, these exams give the greatest weight to my final marks. Rationally, I know I should be sitting at my living room desk, reading through the notes I’ve made throughout the term. memorizing, learning, re-learning… problem is, as with all revision, there is no “end” apart from actually taking the exam. A (physics) teacher of mine once remarked that “you can never do too much revision. If you think you’ve learned it all, you haven’t” – that’s the worst advice to give an impressionable 15 y/o, in retrospect. If I go and spent the next two hours learning, with a few 5 minute breaks here and there – I could have done three hours learning. If I do three, I should do four! This is quite paralysing.

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