I think too rigidly about complex tasks

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I think too rigidly about complex tasks

Post by Hirundo Bos on Thu Nov 20, 2014 5:39 pm

This was going to be an update to my thread about the project of moving out. Short version is I haven't. I’ve made it to a certain point, but then no further. I wrote a draft to a post where I tried to figure out why, but as I thought of it, and talked about it in therapy, I noticed how these problems were similar to problems I’ve having with some other projects of mine. For example the project of getting a dating and/or sex life... the short version of which is: I have made it to a certain point, but then no further.

So it will be a free-standing post instead. Possibly a rather long one. Input and advice will be very welcome, whether it is about moving out, dating, or my problems with projects in general. (Or, if there doesn't seem to be any clear answers, maybe some help to articulate the right questions?)

Moving out
In my thread about moving out, to be found here, I received a lot of good advice about how I could prepare to move out from my mother's, and how I could avoid drifting back home, and about the practical issues of finding a place to live. I’ve made some small steps with the first and second, but I’m still stuck when it comes to the big step of responding to ads or going out to look at apartments. That is: Making a move that actually commits me to anything.

ElizaJane showed me a good metaphor here:
ElizaJane wrote:
There's a line from Komarr, by Lois McMaster Bujold, where the protagonist is dealing with someone with his back to a metaphorical wall.  He's trying to find a way to push this person into action, and muses that raising the pressure is just going to squash him.  "Don't raise the pressure," he says, "lower the wall."

And some ways to ease the task would be to bring a friend along, and to look at places I'm not actually planning to rent, but even those steps are too... remote? Impenetrable? I can’t find one word to sum it up precisely. It’s like... I’m nowhere near getting started, I don't even get to the point where I consider it, then get anxious and give up... I stop myself before I've considered it at all.

Flirting
It’s much the same with asking people out, or proposing the possibility of sex, or even basic flirting. I've made a lot of progress on the emotional barriers, and on the social, emotional, and interpersonal skills I need to have any healthy relations at all... I mean, a lot of progress, things are so different now from when I came here about eight months ago. I get out a lot more, I find it easier to start conversations, talk about other things than just myself, drop subjects others are uncomfortable with, ask questions, show concern for people's concerns. And it is very rewarding in itself.

But one of the ways I've accomplished this is by taking flirting out of the equation. By forgetting any such agenda, I feel a lot less pressure when I go into a conversation, and I'm a lot less worried I’ll put pressure on someone else. But now that flirting is out of the equation, I don't know how to put it back in. When I'm out among people, in meatspace at least, what I feel is an active disinterest in flirting. I look around and think ”maybe I should no I don't want to do that”. And when others try to flirt, I usually do little to respond. Unless I panic and withdraw.

Like with moving out, I stop myself before I've considered it at all.

The story of the three letters
There are of course some emotional components to this. Social anxieties, the vulnerability of making a move, the risk involved in any kind of change, the pain remembered from social failures in the past. But there may be a more cognitive bit too, the one I came to think of in therapy... a tendency I have to mash too many things together. Like with the three letters.

There were two, originally. I needed to renew the contract for the patch of sand where I have my Swedish cabin, I had to sign and return it. And my agreement with the Norwegian welfare system had to be renewed, I had to sign a that contract too and return it.

Since those tasks were so similar, I figured I could save the effort of getting started with each by doing both at the same time. What happened instead was that I stopped seeing them as separate tasks at all. So now I couldn’t get started on either until I had found the mental resources to do both.

Then I made it worse by tying yet another task to it: Completing a collection of poetry and mailing it to a publisher. I wanted to send off a physical copy, and that made it similar to the other two tasks, it was about mailing a letter. But I needed to make a physical copy first, and my printer was broken. I could ask my mom to print it at work, but I thought... I needed a new printer anyway, and maybe I’d find the mental resources to go buy one if I tied that task to my poetry collection.

So now I couldn't even sign the contract for renting that patch of sand until I’d found the mental resources to buy a new printer.

(How did I finally manage to send the three letters? I think the printer turned out to be the catalyst after all, as if buying it gave me the momentum to carry me through all those other tasks... as it’s sometimes easier to mobilize for big tasks than for intermediate ones.)

Rigid vs. flexible chains
When I look over all the things I want to or ought to do but don't, the same pattern turns up a lot. Sometimes it strikes me that ”oh, I can actually do X without having to do Y at the same time,” and it’s a great relief, sometimes enough to send me straight off to do X. Other times, I forget what the relief was all about, or... this may be important:

I forget the identity of X and Y, because though it was clear to me at one point, my habit is to think of it all as HTBJXHKY, and I fall back into this habit (and think something like #%!!&). So ”What was the thing I could actually do without again? It might have something to do with stamps. But wait, I do need stamps to post a letter, don't I”?

I don't know if it’s unusual or not, maybe everybody does a bit of it. Maybe it's common to chain things together more than you have to. Or maybe autism, which means problems with separating figure and ground, the whole from the parts, and means greater reliance on habit, and a certain rigidity in habit, makes me uncommonly vulnerable to this.

There’s a right way to chain things together, I think. I mean, any prolonged action is a chain, one small act after another... and some of them has to be done in order. I need to get a stamp and an envelope before I post a letter. (But it doesn't matter which one I get first.) And the right kind of planning can make the tasks fit more efficiently together, and take up less of my cognitive resources. When I don't chain tasks together at all, they became just as daunting as when I overchain.

But what I did with the letters was not so much chaining things together as I created one chainlike piece of solid metal. Or rigid, that would be the word here. I forgot to think of the task as separate at all. Then I had to pick it up all at once, a twenty feet long irregularly shaped pole, rather than piece by piece.

That's how it is with moving out. There are a lot of things to be done between responding to an ad and going to bed in my new apartment. Like waiting for a response, handling rejection, negotiating, signing things, packing stuff, carrying it, finding a car and someone who can drive it (I can't even ride a bike), carrying some more, packing out, and probably a lot more... and when I think about responding to an add, I imagine it will take the effort of all those things combined, all in a single moment, and that’s something I can't consider at all.

When it comes to Flirting, I've managed to break the irreuglarly shaped pole into two: 1) Get out, meet people, engage with them, 2) feel attraction, read signals, escalate, read boundaries, do things within boundaries, or maybe not, if either I or the other person isn't attracted to the other like that. I’m learning 1), but 2) has become even more remote than before. I’ve broken off the bit with starting a conversation from the bit where I either flirt or not, and now I can't seem to fit them back together.

Now, if I had a more flexible way to chain together the separate tasks of a prolonged action... I could pick up one part of the chain at a time, deal with it, then leave it behind as I pick up the next. Or to change metaphors, I would see a structure of bricks that could be dismantled where I’m now seeing a solid wall.

Tl;dr
With several things I'm trying to get done I know what the next step will be, but to take that steps feels almost impossibly hard. I think I’m rather rigid in how I think about multi-step actions. The steps all seem so interrelated, I get confused when I try to pry them apart, and it feels like one step will take as much effort as it would to do everything all at once. I'm looking for ways I can train myself to be more flexible with planning in general, and in particular for ways I can pick apart the projects of moving out and flirting with people I'm attracted to.
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Re: I think too rigidly about complex tasks

Post by Guest on Fri Nov 21, 2014 5:46 am

Hirundo, I do the same thing, or at least I used to. I now have a job where I am required to juggle deadlines on several complex tasks at once, so as you can imagine, I got over it! This may be the stupidest suggestion ever because you have already tried it, but LISTS ARE YOUR FRIENDS.

Lists allow you to break a task down into as small a set of components as you like. When my depression was at its worst, I even did this with grocery shopping (Write list, get bags, drive to supermarket, get trolley etc.) and I would check them off as I did them. This is helpful also because it allows you to really think through how to complete a task.

Lists also give you permission to do only one thing at once as an entirely separate entity, because the Rules of Lists means you CAN'T move onto worrying about the next thing until you have completed the first.

Otherwise you have broken the UR-LIST and are DAMNED FOR ALL ETERNITY.
Wink

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Re: I think too rigidly about complex tasks

Post by Hirundo Bos on Fri Nov 21, 2014 10:45 pm

Lists, yes. Not a stupid suggestion, I've been thinking the same myself. Only I didn't mention it because in my head, posting about the problem had become a precondition for thinking of solutions. But with the moving thing at least, it might work to break down all those steps between "replying to ad" and "going to sleep in my own place".

I'm thinking also I might rate the steps for uncertainty. For some steps, like packing, the outcome is given. For others, like responding to ads, it's more uncertain, it depends on outside factors. I think the uncertainty will be less confusing if I have it written down on paper.

About lists in general, my experiences are mixed. Maybe someone have some list using skills to share? I've tried a couple of times to keep running to do-lists, but it's never lasted very long. At first I get this elated feeling, of seeing things actually get done, but after a while, items in begin to outnumber items crossed out, and the list grows and grows and becomes a reminder of helplessness rather than agency.

I've had more luck with a more limited kind of to do-list... The ones I only make when I'm particularly stressed. Then I just write down everything I feel I ought to do, whether urgent or less so, whether simple or complex tasks, because when it's on paper, I don't need to spend the mental resources to keep everything in my head at once And usually it turns out to be around 20-30 items, and I think "no wonder I'm feeling stressed," and relax a bit. (I usually manage to do 8-10 of the things before I forget about the list for a while.)

The third kind... maybe the one you're talking about... is where I break down complex tasks into components. I've only really tried it once... a list of the different steps to take when changing at the gym... which also ended up with around 20 steps I think. That was actually a big help, for as long as I went to the gym at least.
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Re: I think too rigidly about complex tasks

Post by Kaz on Sat Nov 22, 2014 10:21 am

Oh maaaan do I hear what you're talking about here. Sad I need to buy stamps mail tax letter call tax place call utilities place go to dentist investigate report from old flat figure out whether to object to what's happening to my deposit etc. etc. etc. myself and the number of things keeps growing and they keep merging together and it's getting impossible.

Making lists has also never worked for me - I end up getting panic attacks when I look at the list which is extremely counterproductive, or if I don't do something long enough I think the list actually makes me less rather than more likely to do it because my brain transforms it into part of the mental background scenery or something. It also absolutely doesn't help that my brain's immediate reaction to crossing something off a list is panic and fear rather than success (because what if I made a mistake and screwed something else if this is done I won't be able to go back and fix it!!) which is hell on motivation. Limited to-do lists are possibly easier - I'm thinking of maybe trying to separate things out by subject or something so I don't have EVERYTHING AT ONCE. And then break it down into components. But then that ends up being paralysing sometimes too. :/

...I think what I am trying to say here is: if you find a method that works to deal with this I would be very very interested too. Most of what I do is stopgap and only works sometimes. The best thing I've found so far is outsourcing but that's not often an option... for a while I got to meet with a support worker from the National Autistic Society once a week via the university disability service and she'd help me go through things and figure out what I actually needed to do and sit next to me as I did phone calls and so on. (Yep, this is really a pretty classic autistic issue I think.) I really miss that sort of support and want to see if there's any way of getting it again outside uni, possibly in exchange for money, but - you know - one more item on the to do list!

One tip I do have re: flat-hunting... I found a new place and moved very recently. In my case I basically did it because I had to (my letting agency was kicking me out of my old place) and this is often easier when you have to do a certain thing or else the WORLD WILL END. (One of the most useful things I've learned for getting shit done is to artificially induce that state of mind, but so far that only works for routine stuff like washing dishes every day at 9pm when an alarm goes off and not things like "mail this letter"). But one of the things I found helpful was to sort of treat flat-viewings as... a class of self-contained things following the same format. By which I mean, they all basically followed the same script:

- I look for flats in my price range and area that satisfy my criteria online
- I call "Hi my name is [Kaz] and I'm interested in the flat you have available at [place]. Would it be possible to arrange a viewing?" (I would've preferred e-mail, but the housing market is really bad in my city and you really had to get there immediately to have a chance; e-mail introduces too much delay.)
- They either respond "sorry, it's been taken" or "sure, our next available viewing is at [time], do you want to attend?" I say yes, they probably take my name and phone number. Either they say they'll text me the exact address later or they give it to me then.
- I turn at the appropriate date and time and loiter outside the flat. Most likely there are other people there looking as well. Someone will come in to show us around and answer any questions we have.
- now there are basically two options: either they say to contact them (and will let you know their e-mail address) if you're interested in the place, and then they'll look at all the applications and decide. Or they say it's first-come first-serve - I always noted down the address of the letting agency with me so that I could do a mad dash across the city to their office and plonk down money to reserve the place should it be the case (and this preparation is in fact how I got my current flat!)
I always went with letting agencies because the overall process was more predictable.

My point is that any flat viewing would follow this format, and as a result it was easier to deal with Flat Viewing D after having gone through and arranged A, B and C since D would just be a variation on a known theme, and also easier to keep "arrange and go to flat viewing" from merging into other stuff I had to get done the way you describe because they were now sort of self-contained things in my head. (Plus I had a friend who was willing to take over some of the initial phone calls, which was a great help.) Details may vary for you, but it should still be true that flat viewings are basically of a piece.

I do think the whole idea of "moving" feeling far-off and alien even as you're going through the process is pretty common especially if you haven't moved in a while - I know the whole thing basically didn't sink in until I was actually standing in the new flat with all my boxes having just handed in the key to the old place! But it does make it harder. Would it maybe be possible to book a few viewings telling yourself you're not actually considering getting this place, you just want to suss out what the housing market is like? (So: what sort of places are available for what sort of prices, how many other people are at the viewing, how much of an application process there is and what sort of references they might ask for, etc.) That might lower the barrier to starting a bit.

One last thing: if you can I think it does *really* help if you can decide to finish working on X thing completely before you start work on Y thing, even if you can't tie that into a list the way embertine suggested. Like: I am currently finishing a PhD. I have not done a single thing in direction of job-hunting and I will not do so until the thesis is handed in. This is in some ways a luxury on my part (since many people need to go straight from PhD into jobs because finances) and only possible since I don't want to keep on in academia (since most academic jobs have very early application processes.) However, I am pretty certain that if I *did* try to write a CV and look into the applications process and jobs available and talk to the careers service and whatnot this would end up merging with the final-PhD stuff and I would get so stressed I'd end up neither able to work on my thesis nor able to look for a job - aka, disaster. So I'm separating them out so they won't get into each other's way, which is the only way I can see to cope.

*looks up* whoops I wrote a novel sorry.

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Re: I think too rigidly about complex tasks

Post by Hirundo Bos on Thu Nov 27, 2014 1:17 pm

I just did something that might be relevant... I messaged a friend and asked if he wanted to go to a concert with me. Since summer, witht help from you forum people and at a specific suggestion from kleenestar I’ve made contact with one friend each week with a proposal to get together. I've mostly made unspecified suggestions though: ”hey, how about a coffee one of these days,” or at most ”how about activity X one of these days”. Whereas a concert happens at a specific time and date, and there’s always a risk that my friend will be unavailable.

Here comes the relevant part: I think the possibility that he might be unavailable blands together with the possibility of going to a concert, making Going and Not-going into a joint mental image, a confusingly impossible one. This works together with the usual emotional components of fear of rejection and don't want to be a bother, but I still think it's a thing in itself

and when I think further about it those other components are probably also blended together with the mental image of making contact with someone. Whether it’s to make plans with friends, to show my interest in an apartment, or to ask someone out.

I can't think of the different outcomes separately, I have to imagine them all at once, and that’s not so... possible.

A crucial part of the suggestion I got this summer was to make Asking a friend, not Actually getting together, into the task I set myself each week. It helped uncouple action from uncertainty of outcome. Next sted will be to find ways to do this with other tasks.

Kaz: Thanks for your post, it gave me some ideas. I’ll get specifically back to those later. (See, I'm uncoupling again. Perhaps it's not so difficult after all.)
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Re: I think too rigidly about complex tasks

Post by Kaz on Fri Nov 28, 2014 7:36 am

I'm glad I helped at all! I feel frustratingly useless here because I know what you're talking about and I *wish* I knew how to fix it because I struggle with it a lot too. And then sometimes things work out and I manage to do something and I go "hooray! let's repeat that!" and then it doesn't work again. Gah.

I hear you on the problem with different outcomes blending together and becoming some confusing anxiety-inducing impossible thing that makes action impossible... the trying to uncouple action from outcome thing sounds like a good idea and I am going to have to try this myself!

Glad to hear you're making some progress on getting together with friends (or, at least, doing the preliminary stuff). I've been trying to go to set events like meet-up groups more because that doesn't have the outcome independence, but of course I'm more trying to *make* friends than meet with ones I already have - and going to an unfamiliar place with unfamiliar people in it has its own problems.

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Re: I think too rigidly about complex tasks

Post by Hirundo Bos on Tue Dec 09, 2014 4:08 am

Kaz: This response comes a bit late because it has taken on more and more things I wanted to say, and so it has grown out of hand. So well. I'll try to just pick out a few of those things:

1) Oh, reading your thoughts on this is helpful. For one thing, you have some ideas I want to try out. But also, you describe this thing, that I don't quite have words for myself, in such a recognizable, relatable way. Just having it said out there makes it loom less above me in here, in my head.

2) I have been thinking of some of my own strategies, and that's the list that has grown to a size a bit too big to turn into words. So I'll mention just one now, maybe come back with some more later.

And I'm not even sure if this one is really about components getting mixed together, but it may be related. It has mostly to do with the aversion to initiating task X. To change from the state of procrastinating or doing nothing to the state where I'm working on the task... The way I used to deal with this was to shut off my mind for a little while, so I didn't have to experience the transition. I would lay on my couch, gather strength, give myself a hard push, and then, suddenly be on my way to do the task. (Or alternatively feel so tired I had today back down on the couch.)

My new strategy is to do the opposite, to pay as much attention as I can to the those moments of transition. I have discovered there first a fairly low-level burst of anxiety, and second a feeling a bit like vertigo... where all components of task X, as well as thoughts of all the other things I could have been doing or ought to have been doing, swirl around in my head before I manage to catch hold of "task X stage 1" and go do that. This is where the general problem of mixing things together comes in.

By letting myself be aware of those feelings, I am beginning to get used to them, I have been learning how to navigate them, to catch hold of stage 1 sooner. And I'm already feeling more confident about getting things done. Rather than something I'd prefer to avoid, each task that I have to initiate is now an occasion to get even more practice.
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Re: I think too rigidly about complex tasks

Post by Caffeinated on Tue Dec 09, 2014 3:09 pm

Hirundo Bos wrote:
My new strategy is to do the opposite, to pay as much attention as I can to the those moments of transition. I have discovered there first a fairly low-level burst of anxiety, and second a feeling a bit like vertigo... where all components of task X, as well as thoughts of all the other things I could have been doing or ought to have been doing, swirl around in my head before I manage to catch hold of "task X stage 1" and go do that. This is where the general problem of mixing things together comes in.

By letting myself be aware of those feelings, I am beginning to get used to them, I have been learning how to navigate them, to catch hold of stage 1 sooner. And I'm already feeling more confident about getting things done. Rather than something I'd prefer to avoid, each task that I have to initiate is now an occasion to get even more practice.

That is a very good strategy. I think sometimes what we are avoiding is the feelings about doing a task, rather than the actual task itself. When you let yourself pay attention to those feelings instead of trying to push them away, I think you're doing a really key thing.
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