After the last post I did more thinking. Sometimes, it is not depression at the root of the problem, but anxiety and stress. If you know me, you probably know that outwardly I’m a pretty cool customer. I work well under stressful situations, in fact often I find that I thrive under stressful situations. So much so, that often I find myself ramping up the pressure so that I do better. When I played baseball I would always swing like a crazy person at the first pitch. If I ever connected that ball was never going to stop, but I hardly ever did. What I did was amp up the internal pressure, thus my concentration, by starting out with one strike. And amazingly for me it worked more often than not. I’m not sure that is a strategy that would take me to the big show but in the eighth grade it meant I hit for average and for power. So how does that manifest in adult life. Well often in manifests into procrastination, waiting till the last possible minute so that stress goes up and productivity skyrockets. Unfortunately, this is a terrible strategy for having a normal job (it does work great for grad school).
I have my own internal stress meter; my thumbs tell me when I’m stressed. Once stress is at a critical level, my thumbs will start to bleed. Yes, I know that this is gross. I unconsciously pick at the dry/dead skin along thumbnail. When I see this, I know that the stress is getting to me. It is not new, I’ve been doing it since before I was in high school. Now band-aids appear before it gets too bad or bloody. The bandaids don’t reduce the stress levels but they make me more conscious of it and try to mollify the effects. Nobody wants to see the gross evidence that you treat thumbs like some sort of skin laden stress ball, nor do I want to spend any time explaining that this is a nervous habit I’ve had for the last 25-30 years, nor do I typically want to explain to random people what I am stressed about. So I cover up my thumbs.
So here I sit. Both thumbs covered with bandaids, protecting the damaged, delicate skin underneath (OK, it is not too delicate, as after all this time it is thick, tough, and resilient), thinking about what is causing the strife/stress in my life. There are things internal and external. The good news is that I think I’ve moved out of the “depressed about it” stage (https://jasonsramble.wordpress.com/2015/12/08/sleepy-word-juxtaposition-leads-to-insight/). The bad news is that my problems are just that, MY PROBLEMS. As such, they are not anyone else’s concern so writing about them in a public forum, while cathartic, is an exercise in getting an audience listen to you complain. Additionally, I do not want to write too specifically about many of the things that are stressing me out because often they involve other people or career issues or things personal or intimate. My thinking is that maybe by writing them in general terms I can come to grip with the specifics. So I’ve come up with a number of things that stress me out/give me anxiety. By identifying the problem I hope to find solution, but for me just being aware of the problem often helps it to dissipate. Maybe by reading this you can recognize some of these same things in you, or maybe it makes you think of other ways that stress manifests in your life. Mostly this is just about me and my issues.
Forest and Tree Problem. The traditional analogy, can’t see the forest for the trees, is about being focused on the minutia without being able to see the big picture. For me it is often the opposite. I see a vast forest (a large overall project), but can seem to focus on the individual trees (small tasks) needed to compete it. True forests are overwhelming, particularly when observed from the outside. They are daunting, dark place and the idea that I could find a clear path through becomes less certain the more I think about the forest as a whole. For me, large projects often become the forest. I see it clearly, and often know what I would like for the outcome, but I have a hard time defining a clear path through.
Prioritization Paralysis. Even when I start to divide up a project into tasks, I can get overwhelmed. Mostly this is because it is never just on project at a time. There are usually 7-10 projects simultaneously on my internal radar, with more just off the horizon. This is a positive consequence of being in demand and busy, but with multiple balls up in the air, it is hard to prioritize. I don’t have a clever old-timey analogy to go with this type of personal stress induction, just know that it is sufficient to keep my thumbs raw. Figuring out which tasks are the most important is critical to success (according to every self-help success guru ever). However, the picture isn’t always so clear. Trying to rank things into simple categories (A, B, C, and D priorities) is never that simple. The more I start to parse out the prioritization, the more complex a prioritization scheme develops, till the whole thing is an overwhelming mess of its own, thus develops prioritization paralysis. I get stuck in a mental loop. Tossing these tasks back and forth in my brain, trying to figure out what to do is exhausting, leading to an overall shut down.
The “How do you eat an elephant” problem. The answer is: One bite at a time. This is another problem with this large, seemingly unsurmountable projects, just getting started. Eating an elephant is likely pretty laborious and disgusting. But it is only going to get worse if I don’t start. It looks overwhelming but one bite at a time there is less elephant. This is another problem for me. Just getting started. Sometimes it isn’t about doing the most important things first, sometimes it is about just getting something done. Take a bite. Repeat. It all has to get done eventually.
Fear of success/failure. It is hard to know if you are going to succeed or fail. I’ve educated the bejesus out of myself. I’ve been surrounded by many smart and talented people. I am also smart and somewhat talented. Those are key elements to success. Yet often as I get closer and closer to the finish line I get more and more stressed out. That is pretty normal, stress increases as deadlines loom, but occasionally I find the anxiety building to the point of in activity. I can’t make forward progress out of fear. Fear that I will be judged as unworthy, despite all evidence to the contrary. This is something I’ve constantly had to fight through for any measure of success. At each step along the way in my life and in my career I’ve had to beat back the anxiety and just deal with the blood thumbs in order to overcome. There are two paths to this for me. In the first, I have to stop caring. Most of the success and failure is based on someone else’s metric and I have to realize that if my best effort does not measure up, then fuck it. This is a hard row to hoe when you have put lots of time and effort into something. It is hard to get to that point without giving up caring at all. The other way is to have a priori knowledge of the success. Sometimes this happens. I knew that I would most likely have a successful PhD defense because most of my research had already been published in peer-reviewed journals. I could have done better, but knowing that I had a high likelihood of success lowered my anxiety to manageable levels. The problem is when I must/still care and I have no idea of the outcome. It is then that things ramp up and I find bandaids start to appear on other fingers.
Directions Please. Often I find the source of my stress is a lack of direction. Not a cool lack of direction like “not all who wander are lost”, more like being told that destination and a route exist and must be followed, but then being given no address or map. Often I find myself involved in projects that are someone else’s vision. Sometimes that vision comes along with good instructions, what the product should be, what the best way to get there is. Other times the vision is nebulous. That nebulocity induces my stress. It is hard to work on something when you don’t understand what it is supposed to be or how to get there. Work as hard as you want but without a little direction or feedback or explanation it becomes an exercise in shooting arrows in the dark. Sure you may be hitting the target with some of them, and if you have good muscle memory you may be pretty precise in your placement, but sooner or later someone is going to have to turn on the lights. What sucks is when the lights come on to find you with a wall full of off-target arrows and bloody hands. When this is occurring it makes everything else harder and my anxiety grows.
Focus and the attraction of distraction. When I focus, I get more done in a few minutes or an hour than I can in an unfocused day. The problem is finding focus. It is a daily struggle. There are many reasons for this; many tasks at hand, hard to switch between. As I said before the stress helps me focus, but often that active brain is just itching for anything. This is especially problematic when the task is boring but critical. I start looking for distractions. The internet, tv, music. When I need to work, I have to shut off the outside world. TV pulls my focus away. Most of my work and many of my home projects are computer based and the internet is a killer. The internet is to Jason as squirrels are to dogs. Way more interesting and able to command my full attention much quicker than the task at hand. The problem is that I know this. I know when I click onto MSNBC and delve into some political minutia that really I should be writing or work or researching. That internal stress meter starts to go up just with a few clicks.
I find your lack to completion disturbing.
Sometimes even with everything going well, tasks prioritized, some completed the anxiety still starts to eat at me because the I can get the project completed. Today I knocked out six tasks, why then didn’t my stress go down. Oh, I know because the project is still not done. There is so much more to do and the slow ratcheting of completed tasks does not seem to be getting me any closer to the finish line. It reminds me scene from “The Holy Grail” where the two guard just watch Sir Lancelot running at them but not getting any closer. The analogy quickly fall apart though because eventually Lancelot is just there and starts murdering everyone with a sword. But the running without getting anyplace analogy still holds. All that effort to just seem to stand still, my thumbs itch just thinking about it. When everything is working well stress exists but it is mollified by the progress. When it doesn’t seem like I am ever going to get this done it just keeps amping things up.
Deadlines, smedlines. The price of prolonged procrastination is that eventually deadlines become meaningless. You try to put artificial pressure on yourself to meet these deadlines, but you know most of the time the deadlines are artificial and of little consequence. When deadlines are real and consequential, high anxiety and stress help fuel the productivity. But the fake deadlines and schedules I set in my head just add anxiety, knowing they are not real means the pressure to produce does not grow, but knowing that they are not being completed causes anxiety.
THE FUTURE. If there is anything that really gets me going it the future… wait no not really. My anxiety and stress tend to focus on the here and now. The future is complicated, a bit nebulous, and somewhat worrisome, but it does not make my thumbs bleed. I just worry about the things in front of me. How do I accomplish these tasks. It isn’t like I’m not thinking about the future. Almost everything that does cause me anxiety has implications for the future. Get this done, so this next thing can happen. Just keep plugging away and do good things and the future will take care of itself (sort of).
There are so many more things I can write, but I think I’m done for the moment. I am going back to the actual project and the to-do lists that I have generated. Over the years I have kept small book of lists and projects and things to do. They initially were little memo pads with duct tape covers (to keep them from falling apart). These have now migrated to Moleskin style note books. I have kept all of them and someday I will look back and be able to piece my life together one task at a time. For now me and my bandaged thumbs are going to try to cross a couple of things off the list.
A note on the artwork. I am a terrible artist. I was just tired of posting things without pictures and just text. Hopefully they made you laugh. Someday when I am more famous I will hire a real artist to illustrate my ramblings.