The last few hours were spent doing taxes. I am left with a sense of being overwhelmed, of being unable to come to grips with the information required. There is a sense of “being out of it,” of being disconnected, of being much less effective and capable than I have been in the past, a mismatch between my innate sense of my abilities and the perceived actual day to day expression of those same abilities.

This sense of disconnection is discomforting. It drives me in two different directions: 1) withdrawal; 2) highly repetitive behaviours, behaviours which are simple and straightforward, easily mastered, and open to endless repetition. Chopping vegetables falls in this category, as does the hand-washing of shirts and socks. Computer operations are similar, as is walking. These activities are attractive as they do not promote a similar sense of being discombobulated, or disconnected. It is easy to become anchored in these simple routines. The discomfort reasserts itself when I extend into new task areas, or move past my known boundaries. My walk shed extensions have this characteristic. I become quickly unsettled by the new and the unknown.

The Guardian recently ran an article providing providing suggestions for the overwhelmed. The article can be found at this link. I have copied in the key points below and examined each one to see how I might benefit.

1) Accept defeat

The basic premise is that you cannot accomplish everything and must therefore “accept defeat” and engage in rational time allocation: “You can turn, instead, on the far more manageable question of which things to deliberately neglect. The vacuuming?”

I have done this. The degree of deliberate neglect is enormous. Humongous. Frightening.

My sense of defeat comes not from a failure to achieve desired goals but from a recognition of change which is unalterable – that I will never recover my prior state and will live out my days with varying degrees of incapacity. It is this forced change I find difficult to accept. I retain my pre-injury self-image and do not feel comfortable accepting the fact of the injury. This strikes me not as denial but as a miss-match between self-image and the psychological routines which “worked” for the last 50 odd years, and now operate less well. I want the old me back.

2) Respect your rhythms

“. . . two hours of intense work, when you’re at your most focused and refreshed, can be vastly more worthwhile than six when you’re feeling depleted.”

This precept was discovered through trial and error and has been fully adopted. I treasure the early morning when I am able to deliver a quality of effort that feels close to my uninjured state. I despair at my subsequent decline during the day, the forced need for naps, my inability to sustain the effort, or duplicate it on subsequent days. Less demanding work is shunted to the afternoon and evening periods when I know I am less capable.

3) Practise ‘strategic incompetence’

This is the tactic of fooling your supervisor, or your co-workers, leading them to the belief that you are incapable and therefore no demands should be placed upon you. I tend to follow an alternate approach in which I try and prove to myself, and to others, that I am capable, that I can perform at my prior standard. This is what I want to believe about myself.

Unfortunately, these attempts typically prove to be failures. The magnitude of the failure severely undermines my sense of self worth. It will quickly lead into a depressive phase. There have been a number of these events:

1) The non-profit newsletter
2) Project for W
3) Web project for a 2nd non-profit
4) Rebuff at research group

4) Build in buffers

This is the tactic of leaving blocks of unallocated time between critical events. These free blocks may be used to soak up over-runs. I have been doing this since the accident. For any scheduled event, I will seek to arrive at least an hour in advance. This hour is typically whittled away by the fact I am slower than I was, and by circumstance outside my control. If the buffer remains available, it allows for a transition from the old event to the new event; I require time to shift gears. Without significant time between events, I will feel overburdened. Once the sense of being unable to maintain pace with events takes hold, my functional capacity takes a nose-dive.

5) Beware ‘precrastination’

” . . . wasting a whole day on trivialities, in search of that satisfying sensation of having cleared the decks – when all the while, more important stuff is mounting up.”

This is a trap I suspect I frequently encounter. I avoid confronting difficult tasks and gravitate toward tasks I can successfully complete. I will commit to perform very difficult tasks (the TAQ submissions) but the associated demands leave me beaten and struggling. I manage to get the submissions done, but the cost is high – the associated exertion is aversive, and humbling.

6) Give your time away

” . . . successfully do something useful, and you’ll be subconsciously reassured of your capabilities, making you more confident about the chances of getting further useful things done in future.”

The phrase “subconsciously reassured of your capabilities” strikes a chord. Both walk therapy and blog therapy serve this purpose. The failed projects in 3) above were initiated in an attempt to do something useful. I suspect I was subconsciously seeking to validate my ability to perform. When this attempt blew up in my face, the outcome was doubly negative. The first negative came in the form of direct failure. The second negative derived from the hidden attempt at self-assurance. This backfired in a big way.

7) Watch out for time debts

“Time debt, as the computer programmer Patrick McKenzie describes it, is what accrues whenever you do work that feels productive, but that in reality has the effect of generating more work, later on.”

This was my major failing in the newsletter project. I invested heavily in the creation of a newsletter production system but failed to account for the time required to maintain it, and follow up on user requests. Much of this demand was a consequence of organizational politics of which I was unaware.

I have managed a number of time dependent projects. My current problem is that I apply remembered personal metrics and fail to take account of the fact I operate much more slowly than I did pre-injury.

8) Slow down, however wrong that feels

“But our urgency-addicted culture is at the core of the busyness problem, according to the addiction researcher Stephanie Brown.”

Much to my chagrin, I have discovered the need to slow down. With difficult tasks I will consciously counsel myself to slow down. I can sense an approaching difficulty and will begin to take remedial steps. Two steps are common: 1) Self-dialog to direct myself toward task completion. I will talk my way through the activity, telling myself what to do each step of the way; 2) 5-2-5 breathing technique in which a time-out is injected into the process during which I attempt to re-orient myself while also slowing things down. The ultimate slow down is to down tools and go for a walk.

9) Try the five-item to-do list

” . . . instead of an open-ended list, use one capped at just five items, so you’re forced to complete (or consciously abandon) a task before adding another.”

My variation on this is the one item list. At the beginning of the day, I identify the one task that I must complete that day. Sometimes there will be two tasks, but never more than two.

10) Stop busy-bragging

“Your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.”

I don’t believe I have ever “busy-bragged,” or used being busy as a means to self affirmation. What I experience is negative self-affirmation due to an inability to properly execute mundane tasks, and an inability to maintain task focus. The other aspect of negative self-affirmation is the discovery of prior error. I undertake a task, place a great deal of effort into achieving accurate performance, believe I have achieved adequate performance, but, after an interval, discover the work is riddled with error. In programming, there is no need to wait. The discovery of error is immediate.