When I talk with prospective coaching clients about their current situation, I’m often struck by the sheer physicality of the language many of them use. Days are described as ‘wading through treacle’ or ‘a constant uphill battle’. Tasks are described as ‘backbreaking’ or ‘a weight on my shoulders’.
It’s this last description that I’d really like to focus on today. The tasks ahead of us so often feel like literal weights, either mentally or physically, especially if they’re tasks that we know we don’t enjoy.
When we describe a task as a mental or physical weight, that’s exactly what it is. We start to think more sluggishly, without the energy to take tangents of thought or to explore new ways of working.
If you were out walking in a cool woodland unencumbered, you might veer off the path, wander to have a look at a glade you saw just over there or see where a trail took you, just because it might go somewhere interesting. You’d cover more ground, see more interesting things and generally enjoy the experience and the exploration.
If you have a huge backpack on though, your energy would be significantly more limited. From my time in the Army, I can assure you that yomping with all the gear I had to carry did not leave spare energy for exploring an interesting-looking glade or stream. Long to-do lists or pending tasks have a similar effect on your mental energy.
This isn’t just a creative way of describing what’s going on. Keeping a long to-do list, in particular, actually does take mental energy. When you make a mental note of the things you still have to do, your brain understands that this is important to you and that you mustn’t forget any of them.
To make sure that you don’t forget them, your mind will regularly go through the whole list, over and over. This repetition does help to make sure that all of your tasks stay available and easy to access when you need to recite them, but it comes at a cost.
The mental energy it takes is a distraction from the tasks you are currently working on but there is also an emotional aspect to it. If you imagine the effect on your morale of spending the whole day with someone standing beside you listing all the tasks you still haven’t gotten to yet, you’re not far off the mark.
Your brain is only trying to help, but sometimes it’s hard to remember that it’s on your side.
However, it isn’t all doom and gloom. There is hope!
Small adjustments can make a huge difference to whether the way your brain deals with information is helpful or harmful. In the case of making lists, writing them down minimises the tendency towards repetition and there are other tips and tweaks that can help (far too many to outline here).
Regardless of the tips, hacks or techniques that are available to you, the most important thing is to recognise that the words we use to describe the way we are feeling can be significant. Pay attention to the analogies and metaphors that you instinctively use.
They can often carry some helpful information about the best next steps. After all, the one subject you are truly guaranteed to be the world expert in is yourself!