When a Big Project Feels Overwhelming

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Reader’s Question

I’m 98.5% graduated from college, which isn’t ‘graduated’ at all. I had an independent study due this past summer, but didn’t do the work. Now I have an incomplete and have until the end of the spring term to complete the course. All I have to do is sit down and do the work, but I can rarely bring myself to do it. I have been trying to do this for at least six months.

The way I think about it is that I am afraid to open the bag — the bag being about 90 hours of independent study work. I always enjoy the work when I do it, so I wonder if I am afraid of success or failure, or am sabotaging myself, or if I am just lazy. It could possibly be that I am afraid that if I finish this task I won’t have an excuse for failure. I’ve been looking for a job, and one excuse for not being successful is that I don’t have a degree.

I feel I need a self-help book or something. What is holding me back? How do I overcome it?

Psychologist’s Reply

The general dilemma you describe is a common one that applies to many tasks we know we should do, but never seem to get around to doing. The psychologically-minded among us frequently wonder about deeper issues and underlying motives. Then there is the L-word (lazy), which implies that it’s a characterological problem. I think the situation can be much more directly explained by simple behavioral principles that apply to all of us.

When we think of a big project hanging over our heads, we feel anxiety or dread. Because the task is so large, it’s usually easy to rationalize doing some other, smaller task first (“I’ll tackle my dissertation/taxes/garage after I work out at the gym.”). When we make that decision, we suddenly experience relief from the anxiety or dread related to tackling the big job right now. So, avoidance of the big task has been reinforced. When we encounter that anxiety or dread next time, we’re even more likely to jump to the same ‘solution’ of putting it off.

As you noticed, often once we do begin work on the big task, it’s not nearly as terrible as our sense or dread had made it out to be. The key is getting past that point of procrastination that has been reinforced by our past avoidance. So, instead of letting avoidance be the more reinforcing option (at least in the moment of deciding what to do next), we want to explicitly reinforce any and all behavior involving steps in the right direction.

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A good first step is to break down the big task into smaller pieces, so that tackling the next piece is not nearly as overwhelming as thinking about tackling the entire project. We also want a small, defined piece of the project, so that it is clear when we’ve accomplished it. At that point, we earn our reward (reinforcement). The reward doesn’t have to be large, or something out of our ordinary life, but it has to be something we want. The important thing is that we don’t allow ourselves to have it until the next step in the project is completed.

Suppose we’ve recorded a television program we enjoy, or we’re looking forward to dinner with a friend later that day. These make perfect reinforcers as long as we are ruthless in letting ourselves have them only after the next step in our project is complete (even if that means disappointing ourselves and our friend with a cancellation). Usually we also reinforce ourselves with a feeling of self-satisfaction at having accomplished a step toward completion, and we enjoy our reinforcer more because we don’t feel guilty that we should be working on the project instead.

It’s frequently surprising how quickly we begin chipping away at the larger project with this behavioral strategy. Of course it takes planning: How many pieces is it reasonable to get done tomorrow? What potential reinforcers are available and important enough to us to motivate our behavior? With practice, incorporating this behavioral strategy becomes second nature. At that point, other people are liable to commend us for our apparent ‘self-discipline.’

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