Task Paralysis: Why We Sometimes Freeze in the Face of Tasks

Laura Graichen

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VIDEO With english subtitles

Think back to a time when your desk was overflowing with tasks: payroll was piling up, orders needed to be sent out, a heap of emails awaited your response, and the phone never seemed to stop ringing. Suddenly, you found yourself unable to think clearly, only able to stare at the mountain of work before you. This is what is known as task paralysis. What it is and what you can do about it, you're about to find out!

What Is Task Paralysis?

Task paralysis, occurs when faced with challenging tasks or when your to-do list seems endless. Our brain essentially "freezes," rendering us incapable of starting or working on a task. This, in turn, leads us to start tasks much later than we should—or worse, avoid them altogether.

How Does Task Paralysis Occur?

Two parts of our brain play a crucial role in task paralysis: the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala. The prefrontal cortex is our rational human control center, while the amygdala is responsible for our emotions.

A research team from the Yale School of Medicine discovered in 2012 that the prefrontal cortex loses influence under significant stress. This means we can no longer process thoughts and feelings rationally. Instead, the amygdala takes over our thinking, which is guided by emotions and impulses. Essentially, we lose our cool!

And this is precisely what happens in task paralysis: a task is perceived as a threat, causing our brain to shut down. According to clinical psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen, this tends to happen to people with a penchant for perfectionism. Such individuals cannot tolerate making mistakes and may fear being perceived as incompetent or disappointing others.

What Can You Do About Task Paralysis?

There's only one solution for task paralysis: tackle your tasks. Once you get into a workflow, your brain realizes there's no reason to panic. The best way to do this is by breaking down a big task into smaller ones. According to Dr. Ellen Hendriksen, this reduces the resistance to even starting the work. Additionally, start with the task that presents the fewest "starting difficulties."

Let's go back to that stack of tasks we mentioned earlier: payroll, emails, and orders. You can quickly complete the orders, so start there. Then, break the task down into smaller subtasks, which might look like this:

  1. Find the request from the warehouse
  2. Open the order software
  3. Enter the product and quantity
  4. Submit the order
  5. Notify the warehouse

Then, move on to the next task and proceed in the same way.

Overcoming Task Paralysis

As you've discovered, task paralysis is a common challenge, but it's not insurmountable. By breaking tasks into smaller, manageable steps and starting with the less intimidating ones, you can regain control over your workload. Remember, everyone faces moments of overwhelm, but with the right strategies, you can conquer the feeling of being stuck and tackle your tasks effectively.

Keep these tips in mind as you navigate your work, and you'll find yourself better equipped to face the demands of your daily responsibilities. Good luck, and may your productivity soar!


Laura Graichen

Laura Graichen is Product Marketing Manager at Masterplan. She is responsible for the market positioning of our platform and occasionally gets in front of the camera for our tutorials and Masterplan Shorts.
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