Psychological insights , life coaching tips & tools from Chartered Psychologist and Solution Focused Life coach & author, Dr Gary Wood (includes PsyCentral Blog). Birmingham, Edinburgh, Telephone, Skype
Inevitably at some time in our lives we will experience “stuckness” – the state when we feel overwhelmed by choice. It could be we have to choose between to equally bad choices (the proverbial ‘rock and a hard place’) or two equally positive choices. Alternatively we can be swamped by too many choices. It could also be that we need to take action to generate choices. So how do we break out of a state of “stuckness”? Here are some suggestions to help to create a shift.
Dealing With basic survival needs in decision making
We are better equipped to make decisions if we are fed, watered and rested. So making sure you eat healthily when the temptation is to hit the junk food. Drink some water when you’re more inclined to reach for the coffee. Make sure you get a good night’s sleep. A little fresh air such as walk in the park can do wonders to clear the head. Exercises has also been shown to boost cognitive abilities. In short, look after yourself and your body and a clearer mind will follow. All of these are the basic building blocks for dealing with mental fatigue as well a basis for building confidence.
Dealing with unfamiliarity in decision making
Just asking two simple questions can help to create a shift in perspective when faced with choices. It does help if one of your core values is learning. Do you like to try new experiences? Will the choices ahead contribute to your personal or professional development? When experience demands on my time presented as ‘opportunities’ from other people I always asked these questions. Of course, I try to help whenever I can, but sometimes I just need to set my own priorities. This sets me up for the next tool.
Apply the ‘Absolutely Yes’ or ‘No’ Rule
If I’m trying to deal with competing demands on my time I ask the question ‘Do I want/need to do this, ‘absolutely yes’ or ‘no’? If I can’t say ‘absolutely yes’ then it’s automatically ‘no’. Sometimes I need to ask myself ‘am I just saying no because I’m scared or because it’s a challenge or a new experience?’. This helps me to make sure I’m just saying ‘no’ out of fear. Often the difference between fear and excitement is about perception.This brings me to the next tool.
Which choices best match my core values?
Having a sense of my values helps with decision making. Two of my values are ‘learning’ and ‘making a difference’. Knowing your values can help to eliminate some choices and increase the attractiveness of others. Your values are a statement of ‘what you stand for’ in life. Linking goals and values means that we gain a lot of intrinsic motivation to complete them.
And finally if all else fails. . .
Toss a coin
If you are faced with two equally compelling (or repellent) choices then just toss a coin and try one out. Really commit to the decision and put effort into it to make it work for you.
So there you have a few coaching techniques and a few personal insights to clear a sense of ‘stuckness’.
When we are stuck in the middle of a problem, it’s sometimes difficult to see a way forward. In (life) coaching, it is often helpful to explore exceptions to the ‘rule of absolute hopelessness’. Stress throws us into survival mode and can negatively impact on our cognitive abilities. We don’t process information so well.
Questioning techniques (borrowed from Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy and Solution Focused Brief Therapy) help us to challenge our sense of overwhelm and to seek little glimmers of hope. Here are some suggestions for questions that you can ask yourself. They are also useful in working with others. If you are working with others, the questions need to be used sensitively. It’s important that other people feels as though they have been heard. If you are working on your own issues, you could get someone to ask you the questions, or else get a notebook and spend time writing down your answers.
Consider / Tell me about the times when you did not experience the problem so intensely.
Consider / Tell me about the times when you cope better despite the problem.
Consider / Tell me about the times when the problem doesn’t feel so great, when you feel more in control of things if only for a short time.
Consider / Tell me about the times when you refuse to let it get you down and control your life.
When was the last time you did something enjoyable and refused to let the problem get in the way of having a good time, even if only for a while.
When working with coaching clients, I invite them to take part in an observation exercise. I simply ask them to notice the times, between sessions when the problem/issue is not so intense or when it doesn’t bother them so much. The aim is not to take action or change things but purely to take note.
Often these observations form the basis of ways forward. Inevitably throughout our lives we will experience a sense of ‘stuckness’. Often it’s a sign that we are in new territory and learning something new. Exploring the exceptions can help to draw out the seedlings of transferable skills including coping skills. If there’s a sense of having been there before, exploring the exceptions can help instigate new learning and new ways of coping.
At times in our lives were are faced with a heap of tasks that seems insurmountable. It’s one big amorphous blob of potential misery with not enough hours in the day to tackle it. Invariably this seemingly unmanageable blob of perceived misery is usually made up of smaller blobs of stuff that are reasonably manageable that we’d prefer not to do. Overwhelm is a form of cognitive overload. There’s just too much information to take in. We simply can’t process the enormity of the task and so we don’t bother. We just sit there and look at it. We become transfixed by it. We can’t possibly start anything else with the blob staring us in the face. And so, the blog gets bigger. We protest that we don’t have enough time to do everything and at the same time we don’t do anything at all.
The cognitive overload (overwhelm) distorts our perception of time. The problem is that we don’t have objective data to counter our subjective response. Here’s an idea, from my coaching practice, to help break the viscous circle. The aim is to find accurate timings for tasks and instil confidence that your abilities to complete tasks.
Break the big blob up into smaller tasks. It’s not going to make them any more appealing but it each one will seem more manageable.
Pick one task, preferably a smallish one that you think you may be able to accomplish relatively quickly.
Do the task and time yourself.
Make note of the timing in a note pad, that you will keep. This becomes the objective evidence that you can look at when you feel overwhelmed.
Repeat the process with other sub-tasks.
What you will find is that the smaller tasks are often completed much quicker than you’d expected. You will also have objective data to call upon next time you are faced with the task.
As a psychology lecturer, it has not been unusual for me to be faced with a pile of more than 100 or 200 student essays to mark (grade). I simply split them up into batches of five, and then tackle those. I put the big pile out of sight and just focus on five at a time. I make a note of how long it takes me to do each batch of five. What usually surprises me is that the essays don’t usually take as long to mark as I first expected. You can apply the same principle to mundane things such as the ironing. Look at the labels in the clothes and create three piles based on the dots on the label. Three dots need a hot iron. Tackle those first, switch the iron setting down to two dots then have a little break to allow the iron to cool. Then tackle the two dots and final the one dot clothes. Make sure you make a note of the timings. Ideally do it a few times until you get your average timings.
What this “break-it-up and time-it approach” does is it creates smaller more manageable tasks and it provided objective data.
I now know that after an elaborate dinner party where I’ve used used just about every utensil in the place, it only takes about half an hour to wash them. When I first look at the pile it looks as though it’s going to take a three times that. Now that I have the data, my perceptions have changed and my feeling of overwhelm has reduced. Conduct your own personal experiments to see how it works for you.
How you view the world influences what you do in the world and vice versa.
So a huge pile of paperwork seems insurmountable and may cause you to think ‘I’ll never get through that’. And of course, for as long as you see it as a huge, insurmountable pile of paperwork, then you will struggle. However if you break it down into a series of small, manageable piles of paperwork, you perception of the task will change.
When you are under stress, your perceptions are distorted, including your perception of time. You will underestimate what you can achieve in a given time and you’ll overestimate the amount of time a task will take. The problem is, you don’t really have an accurate idea of how long the task will take – you’re just guessing. What’s more, your guess is negatively distorted.
There is only one way to counter your distorted perception of time and that it to get some accurate information. This is where the idea of personal development experiments comes in useful. Firstly, break the large task in to smaller, manageable chunks and then time yourself to see how long it takes to complete one chunk and make a note of this. Do this for a second equally sized chunk and make a note of the time, and again for a third chunk. If you add the times up and divide by three, you’ll get a more accurate (average) timing per chunk. This will allow you to make a more precise assessment of how long the whole task will take to complete.
By this time your stress level will have decreased too and your perception of the task will have changed. Doing will have influenced the viewing and now you’ll have a new reference point on which to base future experiences and you will have completed part of the task too.