It’s likely that the ‘Impossible Task’ has never felt more impossible.

Many people have experienced it. Maybe it’s filing your taxes on time or cleaning out the refrigerator. Sometimes it’s as simple as showering or unloading the dishwasher. The impossible task, while rarely scheduled into our day, is the simple task that while seemingly easy to accomplish, is actually another symptom of anxiety and depression that hasn’t been discussed very much.

One of the wonderful things about the evolution of mental health awareness is that we’ve developed language to describe some of the hard-to-discuss concepts. As someone who has tackled mental illness my entire life, there have been countless times in which I’ve been plagued by a seemingly easy task that I struggled immensely to complete. I didn’t have a name for these experiences until fairly recently. I just thought that when I was depressed or especially anxious that I’d get exceptionally lazy and that I was to blame.

The ‘Impossible Task’, as described by M. Molly Backes in 2018 on Twitter, refers to a task that is rarely difficult to complete but for whatever reason seems impossible to accomplish. You know that it would likely take you less than ten minutes of your time, but your brain drags you away toward more immediately necessary tasks. All the while the impossible task sits in the back of your mind becoming more overwhelming the longer the task is postponed, perpetuating the cyclical nature of anxiety and how difficult it can be to snap out of it.

Some people may hear about the impossible task and think: Well, that just seems like a lack of motivation. And sure, pre-existing mental health conditions can certainly magnify feelings of being overwhelmed and can halt motivation. However, the impossible task isn’t just that one thing you hate doing every week (for me: laundry), it’s usually rooted in something deeper and can even be tasks that we typically enjoy.

Regardless of prior awareness, I’m likely to wager that in the era of social distancing and worldwide isolation: a lot more people know what I’m talking about.

How about this one:

I have so much time now, and yet I still haven’t gone through my 389 emails…

Or:

I always said that if I had more time, I’d run more. I’ll start tomorrow…

Or maybe:

I need to call my parents. I was supposed to call them days ago, but now it’s been too long…

The impossible task, much like mental health itself, takes on a different form for everyone. Nowadays, we have more time than ever to get that task done but it’s not that simple. That’s because we’re experiencing worldwide anxiety and unfortunately can’t see the future. Stress has proven to affect our ability to concentrate, focus, and dedicate attention to the things we love so if you feel like you haven’t been as motivated lately, you are certainly not alone. We’re isolated, stressed, and unaware of when things will “go back to normal”.

Morale is low and motivation has unsurprisingly followed.

While the impossible task is likely not “Make Bread” these days, it may have manifested itself most primarily within the ways we take care of ourselves. A pandemic truly shines a light on people’s motivation levels. People are being forced to motivate themselves for the sake of themselves, which sadly doesn’t always fuel people.

Tips for Dealing with The Impossible Task

Some of us have a lot of motivation all the time, like elementary school kids and certain yoga instructors. Some people have chemical imbalances in their brains that create motivation deficiencies. Regardless of where you’re at within that spectrum, understanding our mental state is key to pulling ourselves out of negative experiences. Times are exceptionally hard right now, and while it’s easy to shrug it off as “stressful for everyone” that isn’t fair to yourself. You’re still allowed to feel low, sad, and scared because suppressing those emotions takes steps backwards from understanding yourself. How are you supposed to battle your mental madness if you don’t allow yourself to become acquainted with it? Sometimes the best thing for your mental health is allowing yourself to take time and understand why you struggle in the way you do so you can set the future version of yourself up for success.

So how do you do that? And how do you finally find the motivation to complete these impossible tasks? Everyone is different so the answer isn’t a simple one. However, some coping mechanisms are well-regarded for a reason, and some that I find helpful include:

Establish Typical Habits

Things are not normal at the moment, but that doesn’t mean you can’t establish a sense of normalcy within your own life. How do you fill your time every day? What hobbies “spark joy” as Marie Kondo would ask? Establishing normalcy is something that you’ll do many times in your life, and knowing what habits are typically expected can help you recognize when something is getting rocky in the future. If you know that every other day you go on a walk, but you haven’t done that in two weeks, there may be something going on there that is more complex than “I don’t feel like it.”

Simplify the Symptom

Once you find language for the ways you experience pain those struggles are way easier to turn into triumphs. When you find yourself in one of these anxious spirals, it’s remarkable what actually naming your problem can do. I always think of the boggart in the third Harry Potter. That thing is next level spooky and hard to defeat until you understand that it’s actually a very manageable monster in the closet eager to show its face at random times. By understanding your condition and identifying it as a problem with a solution, it is much easier to minimize the experience as a symptom, not a permanent state.

Give Yourself a Break

Part of what makes an impossible task so universally difficult is that shame is anxiety and depression’s BFF. Shame makes us feel like we can’t talk to others about these issues and makes us embarrassed over experiencing them to begin with. Shame is not a motivator for getting tasks done, it is simply an isolator. Ultimately, shame is the voice in our head that tells us that we are not enough and that what we’ve done already is insufficient. Impossible tasks become very possible once shame leaves the room because we’re no longer tying our worth to our ability to complete a to-do list. The impossible task becomes a task and we become a human that is struggling to complete it, nothing more.

Baby Steps

Motivation is not an all-or-nothing game and it never will be, despite the many times we’re hyped to be the best version of ourselves. When tackling especially overwhelming tasks you don’t have to do it all at once or perfectly, despite this being a common way anxiety lies to us. Some ways to take baby steps toward accomplishing the task that we recommend:

Distract yourself with something you love (Habit Stacking)

Listen, I actually hate running. However, I love horrible reality television. I’ve made a rule for myself that I’m only allowed to watch Keeping Up with the Kardashians if I’m working out because even though I’m indulging in what I actually want to do (melt my brain, apparently), I’m also doing something good for myself and taking steps toward becoming a healthier person (to be able to watch this horrendous family for as long as I can).

The Chip-Away Method

This is when you can’t get yourself to complete the task, so you commit to complete only a portion of it. If your impossible task is finally doing the mountain of dishes in the sink and you keep finding yourself too overwhelmed to even start, maybe begin with only washing cups (stay hydrated!) The next day, tackle the silverware. Eventually, the task works its way into being much more realistically managed and you don’t have to buy paper plates anymore.

All this being said, we understand that mental health is a complex issue that works differently for everyone. During these fearful times there are going to be many seemingly “easy” tasks that may be more difficult right now. What’s important to know is that your worth and happiness shouldn’t be dependent on your motivation levels, which will ebb and flow with time. Instead, be good to yourself and good habits will soon follow.