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Debilitating inability to even start "complex" tasks

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Debilitating inability to even start "complex" tasks

Postby Clive1 » Fri Sep 01, 2017 5:27 pm

I just joined the forum, as something of a desperate effort for insight into what has become a very difficult situation for me. I am not expecting a solution here but I hope for suggestions that might lead to something.

I am a 54 year old guy, have a beautiful family, had (see below) a challenging and interesting job and life was good. Then, about 2 years ago I recognized my performance at work and my ability to focus was dropping. In Fall of 2015 I approached my manager to express my concern. I didn't want me being on the defensive, so decided to be proactive. Let me explain what happened from that point.

. I tried "working through it", with my manager's support
. In Jan 2016, I agreed against my initial inclination to go on Short Term Leave to investigate the problem, as recommended by my manager and others.
. I was immediately diagnosed with depression (literally 5 mins into my first meeting with a psychologist!). That floored me, but whatever… I had an open mind at that point and know that folks often don’t see that in themselves.
. I was placed on a number of medications through 2016. I felt very uncomfortable with this.
. Then there was ADHD and then OCD and all sorts of things. I was not comfortable with these as explanations but did try a few medications as I became more confused and desperate.
. I tried to return to work in May 2016 (insurance had denied my Short Term Disability claim and being unpaid was creating it’s own stress). Insurance approved my claim (retroactively) two weeks AFTER I returned to work.
. Work was a disaster. I worked from home and tried to ease into it but it was extremely difficult and, frankly, embarrassing.
. In Sep 2017 and on the advice of my manager and HR, I returned to Short Term Disability
. This changed to Long Term Disability on December 2016 and I remain on that, even now. I am astonished, saddened and somewhat embarrassed that I have still not found a solution (before this I had not taken a single sick day in my time with my company)
. I have met with a ton of folks and had all sorts of tests, across various disciplines. No-one has pinpointed my issue.
. I took the decision to quit all medication in January 2017. In terms of mood, etc I have felt MUCH better since I came off meds.
. I don’t feel remotely depressed. I am motivated, excited for the future (or rather, the potential, if I can figure out this issue) and overall feel “fine”. My psychologist agrees with me on this.

But….

I simply cannot focus for anything substantial. Last week I had some totally alone time, since my wife was away for four days. I was 100% alone and decided to analyze the nature of my problems.

I built a huge To Do list for the four days and started checking off a lot of small, discrete items. I had NO problem with these small, 1-10 minute tasks. I checked off a lot and felt good about that.

However, my issues became very clear when I started on ANY task of significance. I could not even start such tasks, even if they were just a couple of hours work.

My symptoms are that within a minute or so I start getting very anxious, my head feels like it is “filling up” (strange analogy, I know) and I get emotional. I get confused and cannot structure thoughts to tackle a problem in the way I used to do. It scares me.

I have the experience and smarts to break things into chunks (I have done that all my professional life). I was quite scientific about identifying “simple vs. complex” tasks and, every time, I simply could not start the latter. I am VERY self-aware about this issue, know when it’s happening but have absolutely no idea why it happens.

Despite this being a long post (sorry!), this is just the tip of the iceberg, in terms of how much I have to say about all this. I continue to work with a psychologist, but I haven’t made headway yet.

This is really holding me back in all aspects of my life. I would like to discuss and explore on this thread and can add more information, as necessary. I would be most grateful for any ideas.

Thank you.
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Re: Debilitating inability to even start "complex" tasks

Postby big Anatoly » Sat Sep 02, 2017 7:41 pm

Very hard to say. You say you were experiencing zero of these issues prior to two years ago? Did any dramatic events occur around that time? Do you have any physical symptoms?
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Re: Debilitating inability to even start "complex" tasks

Postby Wally58 » Sun Sep 03, 2017 9:48 am

I have been through similar feelings and it isn't procrastination. I have times of lack of motivation and some tasks seem meaningless to me. There can be resistance to completing a task in progress, but then I will start on a new task.
I have been treated for depression in the past and although there may still be some depression, I think I can work above it.
I get tired. I'm almost 60 and don't feel that I can afford to retire. My health is generally good, but by the middle of the 10-hour workday week, I hurt all over. The routine feels like work, eat, sleep. 'I work therefore I am'.
Many times if I'm not busy, I make myself busy. I find things to do. Maybe a little too much. I have cut back on caffeine that was making me anxious and manic.
I did take some courses offered at work to help me feel less overwhelmed.
A course on Time Management helped me understand making realistic goals and balancing demands as well as recognizing trivial tasks that wasted time.
I look around my living space at work and at home. They are generally clean, but cluttered. I make lists that I have in my pocket of things that need to be done. Some of those tasks get transferred over to a new list after the paper gets tattered. Having to make lists makes me feel like a scatter-brain, but it gives me reminders of things that have to get done and some sense of organization. They are my short-term memory.
A friend of mine had to cut back work hours and eventually go on disability. He said that he felt like a pariah at work as his capability was limited.
Work can give us meaning and purpose, but shouldn't be our only measurement of our capabilities and worth.
Best of luck to you. :D
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Re: Debilitating inability to even start "complex" tasks

Postby Clive1 » Sun Sep 03, 2017 5:12 pm

Thank you both for the replies. Having spoke to so many "professionals" over the last 18 months, with varying levels of success, it is quite a relief to speak to others here, just to get some additional perspective (well, and to do so at less than $180 per hour :)). I appreciate your comments.

Adding to some of the comments made by Wally58, I agree it's not simple procrastination. We all do that to some degree, as have I. But we also build up ways to handle this and I have had a reasonably successful career and home life, with procrastination not being a major issue.

The motivation thing is a curiosity. I have this inability to start so-called "complex" tasks - even when it's something I LOVE doing. As I have tried to identify the issue, I have spent some time trying to work on a small business. I thoroughly enjoy this and I have even come to think of this as a safety net, financially, in case I can never go back to the corporate world. So that is both potentially important in my life AND something I enjoy. And yet I have exactly the same responses to anything beyond simple, 5 minute tasks. It is absolutely blocking me in everything I do, of significance.

As to the time management comment, I think I have the awareness and experience to work well here. I have years of handling a very complex and fast-moving corporate environment and time management prioritization is just an essential skill (and one I have done reasonably well, historically).

I have always had an affinity for order and structure and (traditionally) get a buzz from checking items off a To Do list. I have always worked in this way and feel more comfortable when things line up that way. But over the last 18+ months I seem to segment tasks subconsciously into small, discrete tasks ("Go ahead - no problem") and multi-faceted tasks ("No way are you getting started on that!!!") :)

I can't think of anything specific that triggered all this. However, my Psychologist does thing it is related to "time of life"-type issues. I do a lot of inward thinking and also tend to keep my thoughts to myself, for good or bad. About 2 years ago it is fair to say I was thinking a lot along the lines of "Where is this all leading?". For example, I work in a very technical field and, while I held my own just fine, I do work with a great deal of young folks and enjoy doing so. But I did find myself wondering if this is where I want to be.

That all makes sense as a possible trigger - but it doesn't really explain why I can't start on complex things for my small business, which would provide me with an important identity for me.

Thank you again for listening.
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Re: Debilitating inability to even start "complex" tasks

Postby abstractinfinity1 » Sun Sep 03, 2017 7:12 pm

Clive1 wrote:I just joined the forum, as something of a desperate effort for insight into what has become a very difficult situation for me. I am not expecting a solution here but I hope for suggestions that might lead to something.


I literally cannot believe this. I googled for "psychology forum" in general and I click on the first forum and the first post I see is yours. I registered immediately. I have the exact same issue as you, just as you describe it, except I'm 34 and female. I am going to go get checked out by a psychiatrist/neurologist/whoever very soon, it hasn't really been dealt with until now. I also feel motivation for the future though not entirely, is where we may differ. I mean I can see what I want in future and I can see it's going to be hard to get but I can see ways to try.

As for the work/focus issue itself. For me it's like, it's a real pain to get jobs sorted that come with new data that requires focused thinking to organize it etc. I do feel the same way with it as you, and I used to not have any such problems before, I was always good at this sort of stuff before. Starting such jobs now takes very very long. It requires me to work through a lot of discomfort, that's almost physical, and after a while makes me feel like I've been through some bad storm or something. I also get the "filled head" thing with the emotionality and feeling unfocused and it's as if I cannot access my own thinking processes, them having gone/run away to the background far far away etc. After a while, after an embarrassingly long period of time (days to start on something that's maybe a few hours of work), I can finally pick up and push a little data into my head. Then I again get discomfort and unidentified negative emotionality and then I rest of course, and then after a long time period again, I can pick up a bit more of the data and maybe even organize a little bit of it. Then go on like this and then at one point I have built enough of the organization in my head that I can keep going decently well without discomfort returning and I get into a groove. Then I might need to rest after a couple hours a bit like anyone would need to, then struggle to return to the process but the more I build up the task process the better, the faster I can return to it. And eventually yeah the job gets done.

I'm not actually holding a fixed job right now, but I was planning to get into it but the first jobs I've tried doing (on contract) have been like this. I don't know how I can realistically go on and get a fixed job if this issue persists. I mean, this didn't start just now, I already saw this issue a year ago when doing some tasks to practice some new job but it wasn't such complex tasks back then so I didn't have a big issue, it was a fleeting issue, and so I didn't see any significance to it, just shrugged it off. Then I took some rest from all of it (long story) and I want to truly get back to working now. And I run into this... :?


So... have you tried to get into your complex tasks gradually? Does that work for you at all?



Despite this being a long post (sorry!), this is just the tip of the iceberg, in terms of how much I have to say about all this. I continue to work with a psychologist, but I haven’t made headway yet.


Can you say more on what else the iceberg consists of? For me it's also just the tip of the iceberg I think... I had earlier developed seriously dysregulated emotionality in general, due to a weird change in life/mentally. I worked through a lot of that by now though. It's part of why I took that rest last year, tbh. It's a long story for sure. It's been a while since I last had a real job due to this.

Did you yourself experience any change psychologically/emotionally when your work problem started?


Thanks for reading and hope some of this helps in any way at all. :)
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Re: Debilitating inability to even start "complex" tasks

Postby abstractinfinity1 » Sun Sep 03, 2017 11:12 pm

Clive1 wrote:The motivation thing is a curiosity. I have this inability to start so-called "complex" tasks - even when it's something I LOVE doing.


Yeah, same.


I have always had an affinity for order and structure and (traditionally) get a buzz from checking items off a To Do list. I have always worked in this way and feel more comfortable when things line up that way. But over the last 18+ months I seem to segment tasks subconsciously into small, discrete tasks ("Go ahead - no problem") and multi-faceted tasks ("No way are you getting started on that!!!") :)


Yup, the multi-faceted tasks are a problem. I'd need to load some data about the task into my head first to even see where to start with the task so that's an instant block. This used to be fine when I was still functioning normal. But anyway, when I finally get to the point after much trying and enduring through discomfort/negative emotions, I can finally start looking at how to break things down to deal with the complexity on the highest level to get sub-tasks figured out and then go on and on. With many breaks first of course, when my mind/thinking gets blocked, then it gets better.


I can't think of anything specific that triggered all this. However, my Psychologist does thing it is related to "time of life"-type issues. I do a lot of inward thinking and also tend to keep my thoughts to myself, for good or bad. About 2 years ago it is fair to say I was thinking a lot along the lines of "Where is this all leading?". For example, I work in a very technical field and, while I held my own just fine, I do work with a great deal of young folks and enjoy doing so. But I did find myself wondering if this is where I want to be.


This was very vague, how do you mean wondering if it's where you want to be - are you aware of what this means actually to you, emotionally?

And yes, I've been doing the lot of inward thinking myself. I wonder if that's part of the issue. It does take mental energy and is hard to get out of that thinking process into other things, the more new and more complex the thing is, the worse. Do you relate to this?


That all makes sense as a possible trigger - but it doesn't really explain why I can't start on complex things for my small business, which would provide me with an important identity for me.


How good are you with awareness of your own feelings in general? (This question might sound too random/unrelated but for myself at least I find this seems to have relevance.)
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Re: Debilitating inability to even start "complex" tasks

Postby abstractinfinity1 » Sun Sep 03, 2017 11:23 pm

One last thing, sorry, I forgot to note this before. Speaking of feelings, do you know what your anxiety relates to, that overwhelming anxiety you describe that stops you from thinking? (Besides other possible negative emotionality that you maybe just didn't describe.)
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Re: Debilitating inability to even start "complex" tasks

Postby Clive1 » Mon Sep 04, 2017 7:20 am

abstractinfinity1, thank you so much for your response. While certainly not wishing this on you or anyway, at a somewhat selfish level it is very encouraging that there's someone else who may have some real sense of what I am experiencing. I have been through so many people over the last 18 months and more and there's no-one who has really come close to explaining this. I am certain that some of the early suggestions made (depression, ADHD, etc) were way off base the medications I was prescribed were just bad news all around.

So, yes, I am very encouraged that I finally have someone with whom I can compare notes and how we can help each other, even if informally and from a non-scientific perspective.

To respond to your comments...

It is an interesting observation that we are both different genders and at different stages of life. Though somewhat sweeping as a generalization, one train of thought I had was the "middle aged guy" syndrome, so to speak. It's interesting to know we are so different, at least by those two measures.

It is also fascinating that this came up on you, as opposed to be an issue you have already had. I don't want to appear immodest, but tackling complex, multi-faceted challenges and problems - at work or at home - has always been one of life's pleasures to me. Indeed, it's something of a necessity in my job to be able to handle, in some cases, very complex problems with the parameters changing rapidly. I've done it just fine for 30 years or so, until about 2 years ago. It is therefore quite a "loss" that I can't do this any more.

It does seem there are strong similarities in terms of how we feel. The anxiety and emotions are very distinct in my mind at these times and your explanations of what you feel resonate well with mine.

The one difference I see in your explanation is that you do seem to be able to find a way to get some of these tasks done, albeit with considerable stress and discomfort. I am pleased you see at least that "success", but I am finding I am almost totally blocked from starting any significantly complex task. I am tearing my hair out over this.

As to the "iceberg", there all sorts of facts that may be relevant. I don't really know where to start one such aspect is my social introversion. I have always been an introvert by nature but found ways to work in an environment with lots of "A-type", aggressive folks, without major issues. In fact, I came to enjoy and value my quiet and reflective nature. But, in the last 18 months, I have lost touch with virtually everyone at work and feel more uncomfortable in social circles, to the point that I have become very good at avoiding them. There is a longer story there I may bring up later.

There were some changes around the time this started, but I have struggled to see how these would have such a dramatic impact. In particular, our two girls happened to move out on the same day (happily, I might add), leaving my wife and I as empty nesters. However, I can look back and realize that the first hints of these challenges started about 9 months before that time.

As to the "wondering where I want to be" comment, here's what I mean. If nothing had changed, I was on a path to seeing out my career, quietly and without issues, at my current job. But I think I realized that I didn't want that at all. It is my guess - nothing more - that deep in my mind, this may be the trigger for all this, namely an inherent dislike for where my job and my life was headed. But at the age of 52, at the time, I didn't have any way out, in the sense that no-one is going to hire me at this age. More importantly, I don't WANT to be hired by anyone else. The corporate world is not for me and I want to be my own boss. In isolation, that statement might lead to the conclusion that this was all caused by dissatisfaction at work. But remember, I can't get started in ANYTHING now, whether in my personal life, my small side-business (which I love) or anything.

As to my awareness of how I feel, yes I'd say I have very strong self-awareness. It's all relative, of course, but I "think a lot". I have analyzed what is happening at such a deep level, though I don't feel I have yet come up with a full explanation.

Finally, I do have one "working theory" as to the source of my anxiety. I have no evidence of this, so it's just a sense. But...

I sometimes wonder if I have become tired of doing things at a "good enough" level. All my professional life I have dealt with compromise and the challenge of using resources well. That means that there's a regular acceptance of "good enough". That's not a complaint, but merely a reflection of the real world.

But as my life passes by, I think I struggle with that. When I look at a task, I wonder if I am "scared" of it coming out in a way that is only "average" or even just doubt my ability to complete it.

I don't know. But I do know this inability to start even the most straightforward of "complex" task is having a major impact on my life and I am desperate to work this out.

Thank you again and I very much look forward to hearing from you.
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Re: Debilitating inability to even start "complex" tasks

Postby abstractinfinity1 » Mon Sep 04, 2017 7:19 pm

Clive1 wrote:abstractinfinity1, thank you so much for your response. While certainly not wishing this on you or anyway, at a somewhat selfish level it is very encouraging that there's someone else who may have some real sense of what I am experiencing. I have been through so many people over the last 18 months and more and there's no-one who has really come close to explaining this. I am certain that some of the early suggestions made (depression, ADHD, etc) were way off base the medications I was prescribed were just bad news all around.

So, yes, I am very encouraged that I finally have someone with whom I can compare notes and how we can help each other, even if informally and from a non-scientific perspective.


No problem, and glad if any of this helps. :)


To respond to your comments...

It is an interesting observation that we are both different genders and at different stages of life. Though somewhat sweeping as a generalization, one train of thought I had was the "middle aged guy" syndrome, so to speak. It's interesting to know we are so different, at least by those two measures.

It is also fascinating that this came up on you, as opposed to be an issue you have already had. I don't want to appear immodest, but tackling complex, multi-faceted challenges and problems - at work or at home - has always been one of life's pleasures to me. Indeed, it's something of a necessity in my job to be able to handle, in some cases, very complex problems with the parameters changing rapidly. I've done it just fine for 30 years or so, until about 2 years ago. It is therefore quite a "loss" that I can't do this any more.


Yup, I find these points interesting myself.


It does seem there are strong similarities in terms of how we feel. The anxiety and emotions are very distinct in my mind at these times and your explanations of what you feel resonate well with mine.


Oh, the stuff about feeling like being unable to "access my own thinking processes, them having gone/run away to the background far far away", too? I assume so but I just want to be sure.


The one difference I see in your explanation is that you do seem to be able to find a way to get some of these tasks done, albeit with considerable stress and discomfort. I am pleased you see at least that "success", but I am finding I am almost totally blocked from starting any significantly complex task. I am tearing my hair out over this.


Yeah it's completely blocked at first. Last time I waited like two days before I could put my mind to it for a minute or so and pick up some data in that one minute lol and thoughts on how to organize the task. Then break and a bit more getting into it later and so on...

Have you tried focusing on accessing the mindset you used to have, with all the ways to think and organize the tasks? A kind of metacognitive approach for it if this makes sense. It's of course not possible for me either while I'm being completely "blocked" but I can catch lucky moments with this and that helps build it up slowly.

I found another thing also helps, if I get into a positive mood about my future, it can give a slight momentum temporarily to try and focus. It's pretty fleeting but it does help with getting forward a bit... These positive moods help me feel more energetic which also may be helping beyond just making me feel good about the whole task (?).

To clarify about these moods, by default I'm not depressed, like you said you aren't either, I'm just kind of neutral mostly. This is normal for me so that on its own isn't the issue. (I don't know if you relate to this latter bit too.) Rationally I believe I can sort out my future and outlook on my current life situation and so I keep analyzing for it, perhaps too much. Emotionally it's a neutral attitude to it all as I said, and sometimes these positive moods.


As to the "iceberg", there all sorts of facts that may be relevant. I don't really know where to start one such aspect is my social introversion. I have always been an introvert by nature but found ways to work in an environment with lots of "A-type", aggressive folks, without major issues. In fact, I came to enjoy and value my quiet and reflective nature. But, in the last 18 months, I have lost touch with virtually everyone at work and feel more uncomfortable in social circles, to the point that I have become very good at avoiding them. There is a longer story there I may bring up later.


Did the focus issues start first or the social issues?

Yeah, do feel free to bring up the longer story. :)


As to the "wondering where I want to be" comment, here's what I mean. If nothing had changed, I was on a path to seeing out my career, quietly and without issues, at my current job. But I think I realized that I didn't want that at all. It is my guess - nothing more - that deep in my mind, this may be the trigger for all this, namely an inherent dislike for where my job and my life was headed. But at the age of 52, at the time, I didn't have any way out, in the sense that no-one is going to hire me at this age. More importantly, I don't WANT to be hired by anyone else. The corporate world is not for me and I want to be my own boss. In isolation, that statement might lead to the conclusion that this was all caused by dissatisfaction at work. But remember, I can't get started in ANYTHING now, whether in my personal life, my small side-business (which I love) or anything.


Yeah, it could be an issue here, the "wondering where I want to be" thing. Dunno, but I do definitely have that problem too.

As for the issues with complex tasks (?) in your personal life too (is this what you meant? I can't entirely interpret this outside the work topic), that was also a problem right away or just later?


As to my awareness of how I feel, yes I'd say I have very strong self-awareness. It's all relative, of course, but I "think a lot". I have analyzed what is happening at such a deep level, though I don't feel I have yet come up with a full explanation.


Same...


Finally, I do have one "working theory" as to the source of my anxiety. I have no evidence of this, so it's just a sense. But...

I sometimes wonder if I have become tired of doing things at a "good enough" level. All my professional life I have dealt with compromise and the challenge of using resources well. That means that there's a regular acceptance of "good enough". That's not a complaint, but merely a reflection of the real world.

But as my life passes by, I think I struggle with that. When I look at a task, I wonder if I am "scared" of it coming out in a way that is only "average" or even just doubt my ability to complete it.


Yeah, perfectionism can get in the way, I can recognize the signs in myself too. I don't think that's entirely it though, in my case. It can cause me to "stop" a bit in my tracks but nothing terrible like the above issue, and I do recognize this decently easily and then I can make the decision to relax on the perfectionism to make it practical enough. I don't know if that works for you?


I don't know. But I do know this inability to start even the most straightforward of "complex" task is having a major impact on my life and I am desperate to work this out.


I really hope you'll get closer to the solution soon.


Thank you again and I very much look forward to hearing from you.


Same. :)
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Re: Debilitating inability to even start "complex" tasks

Postby abstractinfinity1 » Sat Sep 09, 2017 2:46 pm

Clive1 wrote:(...)


I hope you are doing OK. Still curious about your response or if anything from my last post is helpful. :)
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