Facing Everything We Put Off as Autistics
There are so many things I want to write about. Trouble is, I’m in the middle of moving across the country and so there isn’t much time or energetic capacity for such endeavors. So I just keep adding all of my essay ideas to my growing list.
When there is time, the size of the list is intimidating. There is SO MUCH on the list that when I sit down to write, my brain short circuits in some way. It thinks it is too much, doesn’t quite know where to start, and therefore kills all enthusiasm.
This isn’t the only area of my life where this happens. When my paper box (which is a literal box in a drawer where I put the mail and all other official paperwork) becomes too full, it exponentially impacts my inertia to do anything about it. My head whines, “There is soooo much in thereeee! I don’t wanttttt tooooo.”
The trouble is, this then leads to the box becoming more and more full. It’s a nasty cycle.
Others might refer to this as procrastination, but I don’t think it is that. I think it is tied to my autistic way of thinking. My mind likes things that are clear, consistent, and predictable. It wants to know how long something will take and all the steps involved. A full box of mail is not clear or predictable. It could contain a myriad of things that lead to subsequent tasks and who knows how long those will take.
I should really name this nasty little cycle. It happens frequently enough in my life that a name for what is occurring would help. Sometimes naming something, reminding myself what is happening, helps me to break out of the cycle.
I see the same cycle in my autistic clients.
They tell me of some looming project they need to do, and how they’re avoiding it. They then explain how their avoidance contributes to more problems and the project becoming even bigger… which makes them avoid it even more.
For example, I had a client who needed to apply for a graduate program. She wasn’t sure of all of the necessary steps, but she knew there would be many. She kept putting it off, which only increased her stress and made her more worried.
Maybe a good name for it is the Avoidance Loop. We’re avoiding all of the unknowns. We don’t know how long things will take. We don’t know how many steps will be involved. If it was one clear task, we would get it done right away.
For me, it manifests as a fear of getting sucked in. I just want to get the thing done and move on, but I have no idea how long that will take. Furthermore, what if it makes me feel worse because doing the thing actually reveals I have 10 other things to do?
The only way out of this loop is to face the unknown. For me, it usually takes a few mind tricks.
I set a timer and tell myself that I will work on the project for just 20 minutes. This is usually long enough for me to see what the project actually entails. If I’m lucky, it’s sometimes long enough to get the task done (and of course to then feel embarrassed that I put off such a simple thing for so long). Other times, the momentum of working for 20 minutes is enough for me to continue working past the twenty minutes and complete the project.
That’s how this essay started. I was overwhelmed by all of the essay ideas, so I told myself to just sit and write about that. The momentum of starting this essay led to me fleshing out my thoughts in full.
If I don’t actually feel like working past the 20 minutes though, I then repeat the same 20-minute timer trick the next day.
Sometimes I don’t have the luxury of multiple days. Sometimes there is a looming deadline such as when a license renewal is due or I want to submit a proposal for a conference. In these instances, I try to tap into my hyper-focus abilities and get it all done at once. You can read about that in my essay: 6 Strategies to Harness the Hyperfocus of An Autistic Mind.
Regardless of the strategy used to tackle the unknown project, it helps that we know WHY we’re avoiding it. Autistics tend to want to understand everything - including ourselves. We can self-analyze ourselves to death, wondering why we are behaving in a way counter to what we want.
When we realize the cause, we can let our minds rest from trying to figure it out and actually tackle the task at hand.
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