Tackling a Long Avoided Task

We’ve all been guilty of putting something off because it is hard or boring, or worse—both. Recently I put off sending in my passport to update my name… for about 9 months. It wasn’t a surprise, I knew this was something I would have to do, changing my name and all, and yet I still just kept re-writing that item on the list and migrating it with me. Although boring, this task wasn’t difficult—all I really needed was the passport pictures. I got stuck on this and my mind whined at me. Last time we got passport photos at Walgreens, and they messed up and post office wouldn’t accept them. Yes. I remember brain. It was annoying. Something that small was a big enough speed bump for me to just not drive there for 9 months! It doesn’t take much to weave a thought pattern that relieves me of immediate responsibility. The problem is the passport is for my own benefit, allowing me to travel abroad! I didn’t get the kick in the pants to complete this task until I changed jobs back to touring and I knew I would need my passport. Literally within 24 hours of accepting a gig I had my photos and check in the mail. For that task I needed the motivation. 

Tasks you may have been avoiding for months or years (and you’re not alone)

  • Cleaning out the garage
  • Going through a storage unit
  • Going through a loved one’s clothes
  • Having coffee with an acquaintance
  • Going to an event you’ve been invited to so many times it seems crazy to go at this point
  • Getting rid of a piece of furniture
  • Organizing a filing system, or let’s be real, making one!
  • Going to a school reunion
  • Organizing your digital files
  • Finishing reading a book
  • Making a scrapbook or photo album
  • Going to the Doctor
  • The DMV
  • Finishing editing a paper or project
I can’t believe I’m cleaning the kitchen again – Photo by Ivy Weede

I started to really pay attention to this phenomenon when large swaths of my to-do list would go undone. When 15 items were completed that week, except the one that’s been on the list for 4 weeks…. Something about that task or that week was triggering my avoidance. There are plenty of tasks we must do in our world that are not fun, motivating, or engaging, but they need to be done. Everyone responds differently to this kind of forced executive function. At some boring tasks, like dishes or laundry, I barely bat an eye, but some tasks are just stubborn. The more I let those undone tasks wear me down, the less I noticed when other things were not done. Having that undone item on my list took power away from my list! It would be better just to shut the door to that task and not see it pop up every week…. 

You’ve got to face the fact that shame and guilt about not doing this task have made it harder and harder to do. All the emotional weight and judgement you may have had about not doing this task are between you and completing it. Start by forgive yourself for not doing it in the past. Visualize how good you will feel, and how unburdened, when it is done. Release the tension around the task. 

Now be painfully honest with yourself about why you haven’t done this task. If I have been avoiding doing something, then I have also been avoiding thinking about why I haven’t done that thing. Avoidance is one of my go-to protective behaviors. When I’m feeling overwhelmed or chaotic, I will choose an avoidant behavior because it feels like temporary escape. But the power in those shadows is being unseen, when the light of day is shone on those shame monsters, they lose power. To acknowledge that I avoided dealing with my passport because I was annoyed at having to waste my time on someone else’s potential mistake—somehow relieves the judgement and pressure from the task. All that to say that being direct and honest with yourself about why this task is hard or has been put off will diffuse some tension for you. 

Now, let’s tackle a task that I’ll bet almost every single person reading this has avoided or struggled with! Cleaning out the garage. For our family, this is often where we put backstock, memories, actual trash, and things we didn’t have time to think about right then. The problem with having a space to stash stuff, is that we use it to stash stuff. And then there’s all this uncategorized stuff. If at first you don’t know where to put an item and so shove it in the garage, how easy is it going to be to go through a pile of 15 things, none of them with clear homes? Sounds exhausting. Garages and closets seem to be the hardest because they do such a great job of containing things and letting us forget about them. 

So, the goal is the “clean out the garage.” First, I would get really clear about the goal:

 “Open up one shelf on the left side.” 

“Get rid of baby clothes.” 

“Clear space to park my car.” 

“Organize tools.”

Anticipating Cleaning the Garage – Photo by Ivy Weede

Give yourself something specific and measurable. A way to know that you are done! You did it! Otherwise, you will never be done, and it will be demotivating. Don’t make your task too hard or too big. If your goal is to clean everything out of the garage or convince your husband or wife you to get rid of a sentimental item, you could be aiming your sights too high. Break it up in chunks. Remember, this is a mental minefield, it is not just going through stuff. Every item in your garage is a series of thoughts and actions that lead you to acquire that item, to keep, and to put it in the garage. I bet that you’ve seen these items in the garage and felt bad about them for some reason or another. There’s a lot of emotional energy stored in our stuff. Expectations about what we will or should have done with these resources. So be kind to yourself and understanding as you layout the game plan for this task. 

Let’s say you’ve tried this task before; it’s been on your to-do list as “clean the garage” for a month. You got yourself out to the garage with some cleaning supplies, and looked around, only to turn tail and scamper for the hills. Break it up! Make planning and setting the stage items of your to-do list that you get credit for doing. Pick one item a day for a few weeks. 

  • Gather empty bins and boxes and place them in work area
  • Change the lightbulb in the garage so you can see
  • Get yourself a special hydration beverage for when you are cleaning 
  • Open door and dust off all the boxes and bags
  • Take out any identifiable trash
  • Decide what categories you will have (i.e. tools, athletics, memories, etc) and write on boxes 
  • Spend 30 minutes going through tools

And on and on. Until I’m ready to sink my teeth into a project for 1-2 hours, I will make these smaller moves. Anything, even just dusting things off so I don’t get distracted doing this in my later organizing sessions, will help me. This also gets me in the practice of showing up and doing something in the garage space, for the garage space, that I come away from feel good about. It’s almost like re-training your brain to associate coming to this area of your house with positive feelings and results instead of feeling guilty for ignoring it. Because let’s face it, you aren’t gonna spend 2 packed days cleaning your garage and be done forever. You are going to have to come to the garage, use things, store things, and get rid of stuff again and again. It’s not just about getting through this one to-do item but using your to-do list to help you develop a more positive relationship with keeping your garage tidy. 

Stop anxiety in its tracks! — Photo By Ivy Weede

My final three tips for you in dealing with tasks you’ve successfully avoided for over a month:

Acknowledge that the task got increasingly harder each time you avoided it. Tackling it now will be easier than tackling it later. 

Do yourself the service of calculating your workload in emotional weight, not in hours or boxes. If you have spent a long time avoiding something and it is emotionally dense, it will take a lot out of you to move through that item. Be kind to yourself. 

Ask for help! Even if they aren’t doing actual work, having a buddy there to support you as you move through these heavy tasks can be the boost you need to make it through. 

Cheering for you! — Photo by Ivy Weede

#taskmanagement #planner #todolist #tiddyingup #avoid #avoidance #mentalhealth #recoveringperfectist #boringtasks #dmv #bulletjournal #goalsetting #goals #executivefunction #goalsbreakdown #shame #faceyourfears 

2 thoughts on “Tackling a Long Avoided Task

  1. Thank you for this! I love what you said about the emotional energy stored in our stuff. And thanks for the reminder to be kind 🙂


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