In search of balance between schedules and procrastination

Schedules and routines are bad for my mental health. I recently wrote a whole article explaining why, but my main struggles are related to the way clocks suppress creative inspiration and the way calendars stifle spontaneity, a vital ingredient of happiness. As an obsessive-compulsive, the daunting monstrosity of an unfinished to-do list creates a world of anxiety at the back of my throat. A storm gathers in my mind, brewing for days, and eventually I succumb to the thrashing, thunderous rage. It all seems so inevitable.

After living through a traumatic overcorrection of lifestyle last year, replacing one set of problems - capitalist brutality, social rejection and exhausting depression - with another – Marxist idealism, misplaced priorities and rampant OCD - I have naturally erred on the side of free-spirited, lackadaisical daydreaming as a mode of daily progress. I have become increasingly hostile to the distractive trappings of conventional life, refusing to conform to the structures, movements and tempos that define our modern existence. I have become more likely to sit and ponder, quite frankly, than I am to take action, and that is not necessarily a good thing.

Struggling with mental ill health during coronavirus lockdown

Due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, my employer recently introduced staggered thresholds for taking annual leave, guarding against mass absence later in the year, when travel routes figure to reopen as global lockdown measures are eased. The logistics of my holiday quota mean I’m currently in a stretch of 10 days off work without much to do. Sure, it has been nice to relax, and it was pretty cool to release my second published book, but stumbling through such an obligation-free void has taught me a few things.

Most of all, I’m struggling to strike a balance between schedules and procrastination, between routines and laziness, between structure and recharging. More than ever, I’m struggling to manage my time in a way that does not encourage mania or stasis. At this stage, I’m pretty convinced there will never be an entirely agreeable solution. As humans, we seem doomed to eternal oscillation between extremes of overexertion and utter redundancy. The best we can do might well be to ignore the outside world entirely.

Viewing my current issues on a spectrum, at one extreme we have schedules and routines, which allow me to be more productive but at great internal expense. At the other extreme, we have procrastination and laissez-faire plodding, which offers calming respite but balances gloomy depression on the shoulders of wasted potential and perceived laziness. Reconciling that dichotomy is a microcosm of my lifelong battle against mental ill health.

The clashing of schedules and procrastination in OCD

The structured style of living exchanges anxiety and stress for results and professional gains. It turns dreams into reality yet also creates a surplus of obsessive-compulsive fixation that causes immense personal and spiritual damage. It puts money in your bank and massages your ego with events that society often conflates with success, but your home life often becomes fraught with emotional absence and chronic miscommunication as a result.

The laidback alternative allows procrastination to fester, giving us too much time in which to think ourselves to death. It allows us to binge on Netflix and scroll through social media, but the nagging guilt of inaction is currency for those moments of fleeting pacification.

As an obsessive-compulsive writer, for instance, I can never escape the pit of remorse that accompanies everything I do that does not involve writing. No matter how many blogs I write, and no matter how good they are, resting on my laurels is never an option. Well, it is never an option devoid of regret’s pernicious mind smog, at least. Torment is a nagging companion.

As mentioned earlier, I launched Conflict, my new book, last Friday. By Monday, I was already mired in a volcanic meltdown due to the loss of gravity in my life. I worked on that project for 12 months, but rather than basking in the post-publication glow, I was overwhelmed by feelings of inadequacy. I needed to do more. There are so many great stories hidden in my pen. I owed it to the world to deliver zeitgeist-defining value from my foremost talent. Such is the sickening metronome of OCD that, within hours of releasing a paperback on Amazon, available to billions around the world, I lambasted my own indolence. There is no way to explain the lunacy of that delusion.

The troubles of time management and mood swings with OCD

Alas, we see how the ultimate conundrum of life as an obsessive-compulsive is finding and respecting a semblance of structure without becoming a prisoner of it. Ours is a thankless crusade, akin to that of the solvent abuser who tries not to inhale Dettol fumes while cleaning the bathroom sink. That which breaks us also holds the power to put us back together again. Part of the problem can actually be included in the solution, and that is so fucked up as to render us speechless.

With mental health recovery, as with politics, success seems to reside more naturally in the middle ground, far away from either extremity. To that end, this week I sat down and tried to find that centrist nirvana. Somewhat predictably, I failed spectacularly, falling back into the vicelike grip of OCD and generalised anxiety disorder while trying to shift gathering depression. I hope that, by sharing my experiences, I can help others who also struggle with competing and contradictory mental disorders. Perhaps together, we can find a workable approach.

Firstly, I tried to analyse once again why schedules and routines are so damaging to my mood. Aside from the aforementioned strangulation of creativity and dismantling of free time, structured living also leaves me cold in its subservience to time-based declarations of success and failure, achievement and disaster – all of which are fundamentally subjective concepts that inherently weigh on our self-esteem.

I also loathe the pace of life amid incessant planning. If unchecked, we would all become robotic minions of Microsoft Outlook, marching to the beat of a thousand banal appointments. There is something so overwhelming about accounting for every second of The GrindI can barely breathe just thinking about it.

Accordingly, I deduced that, in theory, the middle ground between arranged hyperactivity and unfettered procrastination must be positive, self-helping, growth-focused and non-judgemental. It must give credence to the notion that strategy is the difference between ideas and results, but it also must recognise the omnipotence of internal dialogue and the need for rest. In short, the middle ground of OCD recovery must take the best of both worlds – meticulous and nonchalant - without surrendering entirely to either.

How I'm still learning to manage my OCD

After a prolonged struggle, I came up with a vaguely entertaining concept: creating my own self-help toolkit of things I like to do and ways I like to spend my time. If I do not enjoy certain things – sending random promotional tweets, for instance, or merely opening Instagram – then why apportion time to them? By the same token, if I do derive pleasure from certain activities – reading, for example, or writing – then why not prioritise those things even more than I usually do?

Ultimately, my toolkit was comprised of 26 self-help activities, from listening to podcasts and taking a long walk to sitting in a coffee shop and trying to pretend I like yoga. At the outset, my mantra was as follows: if I manage to do a few of these things today, that is great. If not, there is always tomorrow. Of course, in our modern world of toxic absolutism, that was always bound to fail, but I gave it a whirl, nevertheless.

Admittedly, I made a huge mistake by writing all of my toolkit items on a whiteboard for quick reference. Pretty soon, I began ticking activities off the board, which morphed into just another unbearable to-do list. I found myself subconsciously trying to cram all of the activities into one day, to a point where I fell asleep in a frustrated ball after failing yet again to conquer Buddhist meditation. Sometimes, you can only laugh at OCD. Lord knows it makes us cry enough.

And so, in some ways, I’m back at square one today, trying to find that Narnia-like citadel between Burnoutville and Meltdown City. One day, the pearly gates of that promised utopia may open up before me, but I’m not exactly hopeful. More likely, I will simply learn to live with the depleting fluctuation between extremes, just like everybody else. It is therefore back to the drawing board, you could say. Just not back to that godforsaken whiteboard.


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