Break through the cycle of fear and helplessness

Ishita Gupta — №10 with Seth Godin

Most of the time, we’re productive people; we use our time and get our work done efficiently, even throw in some exercise to boot. But what about the days we procrastinate so much we wear ourselves out? Where panic sets in just thinking about our to-do list? I’ve never had that happen to me but for those of you who have, the Fear-Helplessness-Fear (or FHF) cycle is useful to understand.

All cycles aren’t vicious, but FHF is. Fear feeds off of the helplessness that comes from not knowing where to begin. There’s nothing worse than coming back to a task still panicked and overwhelmed, but fear loves this. Its best weapon is that heavy feeling that makes you walk away again.

Instead of reeling in the cycle, we have to access a different one — the Get Stuff Done (or GSD) cycle, which is active and forward moving. FHF’s only goal is to stop you from doing the good work inside you. GSD’s goal is to bring out that work by being ruthless and breaking our pattern of fleeing when the going gets tough.

Since helplessness is the worse feeling in the world, mix and match the below to become the productivity alchemist that you are. I use these tools to combat fear and the paralysis that follows with a mixture that works for me.

Make action steps

Break down the information you’ve gathered and tasks in front of you into ACTION steps (I write “ACTION” in all caps in front of my steps.) For every piece of information or task, there should be one, two or more corresponding ACTION steps. The more ACTION steps, the better. Creating ACTION steps is so necessary for me that if I don’t use them, I become overwhelmed by everything I have to do and shutdown, opting for ten hours in my bed. I also end up doing unnecessary research, whereas with ACTION steps, my research is guided by exactly what I need to know, not everything. Don’t find yourself in that place I’ve often been as I’ve tried to surmount a huge task without ACTION steps: confused, wanting to quit, skipping steps, and hating life in the process.

Here’s an example: “Create” becomes:

Chunk it down, create action steps, and see how you start to move.

Set a deadline

This is a tip so many productivity gurus talk about and that’s because it works. I give myself very short deadlines for tasks I’ve been putting off — the longer I procrastinate the task, the shorter my deadline is to finish it. Deadlines allow me to plow through my censor and focus on getting the task done, even if the quality suffers a little. And even if the quality suffers a little — so what? Either outsource the task, take it off your list, or give it a deadline with the goal of finishing. I find that deadlines improve the quality of my work actually because I get clear and focused.

Get the “GSD” mindset

This is when you’re not focused on how many hours you’ve spent on a task or how much is still left to do. All you’re thinking about is, “I’m going to finish this no matter if someone comes and craps on my head.” There is no thought in your brain except finishing the task in front of you and finishing it as fast as possible. It doesn’t matter if there are a thousand laptops with Facebook open, you can’t be tempted because you are ruthless in your pursuit of getting the task done. I have conquered insane to-do lists because I was able to switch into this mental mode and was so surprised it worked for me. But it did and beautifully so.

Focus on your productivity

The only way to learn about how you operate best is to focus on (surprise) how you operate. What works for you won’t work for someone else, so notice how you flourish. Notice when you work best, when you get tired, with whom you work well and with whom you do not work well, and what inspires you or brings you down. Use this as a driver to be your most productive.

Personally, I work best from early in the morning till 3pm and after that I get restless. If I get a second wind or am in GSD mode, I’ll continue. Otherwise, I won’t. I carve out my working hours like a military officer and don’t answer phones, try not to get distracted (I often fail) and try to honor those hours.

Break the pattern

It’s that important that I’m making it the final step. Breaking out of the “I’m scared, I feel helpless, let’s eat ice-cream” pattern is so important because if each time you have the same knee-jerk response, you’re conditioning yourself to repeat the same patterns of behavior. Start small and each time you encounter this feeling, remind yourself that you’ll work through it and try out one of the tools above. We can change our grey matter and each time you react differently, confronting the uneasiness instead of running away, you win; you’re breaking the pattern each time you encounter it.

You don’t need to remain stuck in FHF if you don’t want to. It just takes some awareness, a dose of ruthlessness, and some courage to break free. All of which you have in droves.

Photo: Flickr / twak CC BY-NC-Sa 2.0

Ishita gupta

Ishita Gupta

Ishita Gupta navigates the divide between traditional and digital publishing. As Head of Hoopla and Media at The Domino Project (by Amazon), she launched 6 bestselling books. She founded and runs Fear.less magazine, lives in New York City, and her eyes disappear when she smiles.

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