Article / 03 November 2020

A Shortcut Around Executive Paralysis

Executive paralysis is a term to describe the mental state where a person is struggling greatly to begin tasks that they know are vital or important. It's a common symptom of depression, but can be caused by many other circumstances. Personally, when my depression was at its worst, I could find myself sitting for hours screaming internally about how hungry I was without getting up and spending a couple of minutes preparing food. Even while I was consciously aware of this issue, I found it very difficult to overcome.

I did eventually find a bit of a shortcut though. I call it the "5 Minutes to Quit" rule. The rule is "I am allowed to decide not to do a task, but I am not allowed to make that decision until I've spent 5 minutes doing it." This carefully subverts several of the snares of my executive paralysis and often eliminates it entirely. For starters, it gives me permission to quit the task. This may seem counter-productive, but part of the trap is the crushing pressure that the task is mandatory and inevitable. Having an out, even if it's mostly theoretical, helps me not feel quite so trapped. Secondly, it does not give me permission to worry about when to start the task. As soon as I recognize that I need to do a task, I begin the task out of adherence to this rule. Starting the task is how I earn permission to decide whether or not to complete it.

The reason this works so well is momentum. Once I've begun a task, even ones I don't particularly enjoy or want to do, it's much easier to keep doing it than it is to stop and start again later. 5 minutes into most tasks is enough for my brain to switch gears, at which point the task usually doesn't feel so daunting. I also start to feel the excitement of having the task done and not needing to worry about it further, and I can chase that feeling to completion. Sometimes though, 5 minutes doing a task will illuminate more clearly why I shouldn't be doing it. If I can't keep my eyes open, I need to sleep. If I can't stop chewing my tongue, I need to eat. If I can't figure out a step, I need to seek help. All of these factors become apparent when I start a task and being able to specify the particular factors in my way can help me make a better plan to succeed. If I have to stop, I don't feel as guilty about it because I know I gave it a serious effort, and I'm stopping with a plan to do better, making it easier to succeed next time.

Obviously, this won't always work. Some tasks simply can't be delayed, some tasks are hard to get started in 5 minutes, and if you wind up half-assing a job while staring down the clock you'll probably not wind up finishing the task. But with a little practice, this is a pretty good fallback strategy for kickstarting your motivation.