How “Errand Paralysis” Affects us All

It was early January: the season of goal-setting and getting stuff done. I was approached by a BBC producer and asked if I’d like to share my tips on how to overcome “errand paralysis” in response to a twitter storm sparked by an article in Buzzfeed by Anne Helen Peterson.

As you’ll know if you follow my Instagram posts or twitter feed, I’ve got quite a lot to say on the subject of feeling overwhelmed, our favourite self-sabotages, and how our Inner Critic gets in our way. I’d also recently written a blog about why you shouldn’t write New Year’s Resolutions.

At 7:15am the following morning Danny Pike, the very friendly BBC Radio presenter, called and asked me several questions, starting with his one…

Danny: Does Jess Baker, Business Psychologist, agree with me that it’s not just millennials that get “errand paralysis”?

Jess: No I don’t think so, we all feel the overwhelm, we’re all trying to do so much… taking the kids to school, trying to keep our jobs, worrying about global warming, and I don’t even want to mention the political state of the world. I think we’re all experiencing a lot of tension on our cognitive function which leads to us feeling overwhelmed and stressed.



Your To-Do List won’t get Shorter

Danny: Is making a list of the things you should get done a good thing?

Jess: Yes, list building is a good thing. However, there are ways to approach it that can be more helpful than others.

For example, you know how you have a long to do list, well the things on that list will change but the length of that list probably won’t, so do not expect to tick off everything and have everything done at any one point. I think we have unrealistic expectations about having everything done, and this additional pressure is not helpful.


Preventing Overwhelm

The second thing I would recommend, Danny, is that you prioritise the things on your list, and I know it’s easier to say this than do it, because apparently 750,000 of us submitted our tax return late last year, we put things off  …

Danny: Yes and that should have a big star next to it because it’s really important to hit that deadline..

Jess: Yes exactly,  but when we think ‘tax return’ we think “Oh my goodness that’s going to take three days to get all of my paperwork together” which feels like an insurmountable task. So I suggest breaking it down into teeny tiny steps so it feels more manageable.

Then, and this is the best part, reward yourself at the end of it! Imagine how you’re going to feel once you’ve done it. Are you going to celebrate by giving yourself a gold star on the calendar? Whatever your pleasure, reward yourself in some way for every small success to keep yourself motivated.


“Try focusing on how great you will feel about yourself when you’ve done it.”


You see, we often motivate ourselves through fear. We feel anxious and stressed and we can’t push through that fog. But actually, by motivating ourselves through kindness and saying “Actually, it’s going to be a good thing for me to have completed X, and I’m going to feel much better about myself once I’ve done it”.

Danny: So the high priority items might be easier to get done, but what about the smaller things on your to-do list that might get bumped until tomorrow, and they’re difficult to tackle, but they’re on there for a reason…?


Avoiding the Post-Office Queue

Jess:  Sure, and I don’t know about you, but for me that might be delaying going to the post office to return something I bought online. Or delaying going to the charity shop while the pile of things to take gets bigger in the corridor, and I feel more guilty every time I look at it and I think “I really must take that”.

We know these things need to happen, but because making the effort to do it is not that rewarding in the moment, if it’s not immediately gratifying, we’re more likely to defer doing it. This is where errand paralysis sets in: if it’s dull and high effort-low reward, we really can’t muster the energy to just do it.

Danny: So how would you suggest we keep lists, maybe on an app or on a nice bit of stationary with nice pens and pencils…?


Taking Teeny Tiny Steps

Jess: I think whatever works for you, but fundamentally, and of course I’m going to say this as a Chartered Psychologist, it’s your mindset: it’s your attitude to the things on your list.

Firstly, stop criticising yourself for the things you haven’t done and start praising yourself for the things you actually have.

Secondly, focus on taking what I call teeny tiny steps, because the moment you take one small action you find yourself on a virtuous cycle of “I can” rather than “Oh my goodness, this is too much overwhelm I won’t bother”.

Third, reward yourself emotionally, we’re emotional beings and we want that sense of satisfaction. Try focusing on how great you will feel about yourself when you’ve done it. So rather than looking at the actual item and dreading doing the domestic chores or financial admin, think about how you’re going to feel once you’ve actually accomplished it.


What things motivate you to get through your To-Do list? Do you use an app? A paper journal or diary? Are you a completer-finisher or a natural procrastinator? I’d love to know!

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