by Dr. Sarah Anne Edwards, LCSW, PhD
When you or someone you love seems incapable of doing even simple things they know they can do, have done before, and really want or need to do, it can be baffling. This phenomenon is called The Impossible Task. Based on helping many clients who are suffering from The Impossible Task for over 20 years, here are the answers I’ve discovered to the most common questions people ask.
- Just what is The Impossible Task?
- What kind of tasks Becomes Impossible?
- Is The Impossible Task a Mental Illness?
- How do simple tasks I’m capable of doing and want or need to do become impossible?
- What is the difference between The Impossible Task, being apathetic, lazy, or procrastinating?
- What is the best way to react to being stuck in The Impossible Task?
- Can family and friends help?
- How long will it take to escape?
- Does the Impossible Task ever go away on its own?
- Can medication help with The Impossible Task?
- What type of counseling can help to escape The Impossible Task?
- Could foods or supplements help?
Simply put The Impossible Task is a popular term for being when someone is unable to do even simple, everyday tasks they want or need to do. While people have undoubtedly experienced The Impossible tasks throughout history, this popular term for describing it was only recently coined by the author of young adult novelist, M. Molly Backes in 2018.
People relate easily to this term, much more so than its technical counterpart avolition, a lack of motivation that makes it hard to start or finish even simple, everyday tasks and more. When you’re stuck in The Impossible Task, there is a constant thought of wanting to these complete tasks, but there’s no oomph to do them, like pressing down the gas pedal on a car but nothing happens. It can feel paralyzing because it can’t be overcome by and reason, logic, or willpower alone. You can feel ashamed, guilty, angry, and disappointed in yourself.
The Impossible Task can be for only a few specific things, lots of things, or nearly everything.
Simple household or personal hygiene tasks are the most common of The Impossible Tasks I see. Such tasks as doing the dishes, paying the bills, cleaning the house, taking a shower, or washing one’s hair. Things you may not have liked to do but you’re always able to get ourselves to do.
More complex or important things of important consequence can also become Impossible Tasks. Tasks such as opening the mail, doing the taxes, applying for college, completing an important work project, making or going to a doctor appointment.
Tasks you really want to do are often the most vexing. You used to enjoy doing them. You still would like to enjoy doing them and even make plans for doing them, but then can’t get yourself to do them. Such as having lunch with a friend, playing a round of golf, going to meetings you used to look forwards to attending.
Is The Impossible Task a Mental Illness?
No. The Impossible Task is not an official mental illness. It is a symptom, however, that can occur with several different mental health conditions. My clients who have been faced The Impossible Task have been suffering from conditions like major depression, anxiety and panic attacks, ADHD, Post Traumatic Distress Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, or an adjustment disorder arising from overwhelming life circumstances like the death of a loved one, an ugly divorce or custody issue, loss of a job, etc.
You may see the official term, avolition, described traditionally in a more severe and limited way but don’t be dismayed if you see this kind of definition. I’ve seen it in all these conditions over 20 years. Most of us may even have short bouts of it here or there without any diagnosed condition. So having a broader, more popular term for it is most helpful.
How do simple tasks I’m capable of doing and want or need to do become impossible?
It’s a brain thing. In this case, it’s about motivation. There are many possible reasons for not being motivated. Everything from dreading negative consequences to finding something unpleasant, to being too tired, injured, physically ill, or in too much physical pain, fearing failure or negative reactions, just to name a few. The Impossible Task is different from all of these. It is not about any of the customary reasons for choosing to put off or not do something. This is about not being able to do tasks, even if you want to.
Neuroscientist Dr. Alex Korb explains it this way in his book The Upward Spiral. Motivation to act is “the result of a conversation between three areas of the brain.” To function well requires that all three of these areas have an ample supply of the neurotransmitter dopamine.” That is the pleasure of providing neurotransmitters. In the case of The Impossible Task, due to the state of one’s brain, none of these areas are getting enough dopamine to motivate us to take action. As crude and overly simplified as this comparison is, you can think of dopamine like the gas in your car. If you’ve become so overwhelmed that the tank is flooded or stalled, the car won’t start. Every client I’ve seen with The Impossible Task had become overwhelmed before by their life before they got stuck. So when they try to start the car nothing happens. Hopefully, you can see, you are no more to blame for this than someone is for having a heart condition.
To learn more about what happens, and doesn’t happen, in the brain with The Impossible Task, see “You’re Not Lazy … You May Be Stuck in The Impossible Task.”
What is the Difference Between The Impossible Task, Being Apathetic, Lazy, or Procrastinating?
Apathy is having little interest, concern or caring about doing something. It’s easy to see how that is different from The Impossible Tasks because in this case you are interested, you do care and you are definitely concerned. More so, in fact, the longer you can’t do what you need or want to do the worse you feel. With apathy, if there were a real threat or genuine consequence, people will often change their behavior temporarily. With The Impossible Task, people may not be able to change their behavior despite the consequences. Like the client who had landed a lucrative, new contract but couldn’t get started on it even though not doing so threatened to lose the contract.
Procrastination is voluntarily deciding to put off or delay something you resist doing that could best be done sooner than later. The Impossible Task is not voluntary. There is no decision to do something later, though often out of frustration, disappointment or shame you might tell ourselves you’ll do it later, tomorrow or next week, but later, tomorrow or next week, it’s the same as today. Even at the last minute when procrastinators usually do get it done, you still can’t do it.
Laziness is defined as not wanting to exert the energy to do something or only wanting to do it in the most minimal way. In The Impossible Task, you want to exert energy. You just can’t. In our culture being “lazy” implies someone isn’t doing as much as is expected of them. And indeed, stuck in the Impossible Task, you CANNOT do what others expect of you or what you expect of yourself. This is the most painful part. You feel disappointed, angry, and ashamed of yourself. The longer you’re stuck, the worse and more anxious and depressed you feel. It’s like a downward spiral, especially when others imply you’re “Just being lazy. Without support and understanding, you keep expecting yourself to do what you can’t do and feeling worse about yourself.
This is very sad because this is not our fault. You are not lazy!!
What is Best to React to Being Stuck in The Impossible Task?
The most important thing you can to do is to fully understand that you are not at fault here. You are not lazy. You are having a cognitive/physical issue that is part of an illness. It’s taking place in your brain. Remind yourself of this when you feel critical toward yourself. Yes, you are disappointed but would you be critical of someone with a heart condition or two broken legs for not getting things done? Do you think they are lazy because they are unable to do what they used to do? Hopefully not. So, please, you need first and foremost to stop beating yourself up. You need to give yourself a break. The more you focus on how stuck you are, chances are the more anxious and depressed you become and the more difficult getting yourself to do things becomes.
Instead, treat yourself kindly. Make yourself as comfortable as possible. Turn to your pet(s) if you have them. They love you. Go outside if you can. Follow whatever things you do want to do, even if it’s just enjoying the warmth of the sun through the window, the breeze rustling the trees, the bird on the windowsill. And remember this is temporary once you get the treatment you need.
In the article “You’re Not Lazy … You May Be Stuck in The Impossible Task”, you’ll find nine more suggestions that have helped others and will hopefully help you too.
Can family and friends help?
Absolutely. Family and friends can help … or hurt. Our friends and loved ones most likely want to help, but they may not know-how.
They may offer tons of suggestions you’ve already tried that didn’t help. The kinds of suggestions that would help someone who’s being lazy, or procrastinating, or dragging their feet in frustration. They may resort to prodding, cajoling, or criticizing. It’s all with good intentions. This is not their fault either. They want us to be happy, successful, and competent individuals. Just as you want to be, but unfortunately these kinds of efforts only make matters worse. Just as they don’t help when you try to use them on yourself. This misunderstanding can harm close relationships because of the frustration it causes both for them and us.
You need to let them know what you’re going through and what you need from them. It may help to direct them to the article “You’re Not Lazy … You May Be Stuck in The Impossible Task.” Once they understand they will hopefully drop unrealistic expectations and offer love, support, compassion, praise and if needed, assistance. That can really help. For more on how they can help see You Can Help.
How long will it take to escape?
The length of time it takes to escape The Impossible Task depends on how severe the underlying condition is, how long you’ve suffered from it and after you’ve gotten proper treatment. Depending on the success of your treatment sometimes, it can end fairly soon, even if the condition isn’t fully resolved. But for most of us, it takes some time to gradually untangle our brain from its symptom. For most of my clients, it has taken several weeks or even months. It’s like the brain circuits have been jumbled and need time to heal and to untangle your thoughts and feelings. This will depend on the progress you make on the underlying condition. Fortunately, there are many successful evidence-based treatments for the conditions that cause The Impossible Task and the condition itself needn’t be completely resolved to escape. I have found that as clients’ conditions improve, they may find themselves able to do tasks they couldn’t do before some days but not others.
Does The Impossible Task ever go away on its own?
Yes, sometimes I find that it will end on its own, particularly if there is no underlying condition like depression, anxiety, ADHD or PTSD, etc. and if it was preceded by a bout of exhaustion. For example, if you have just completed a grueling 24/7 month on the job or a hard semester of a full load of college classes while holding down a night job. People are much more considerate in situations like this. In fact, situations like this only become The Impossible Task if we or others think we should bounce right back right away. Once you have given yourself a chance to rest and back off on demands and expectations, your brain and body will recover and you’ll no longer be overwhelmed. Usually, though, this isn’t the situation that leads to The Impossible Task. Sadly, resting doesn’t help like we think it would. Too often with the Impossible Task, we’re stuck in bed or on the couch for days and it doesn’t help at all. In most cases, it’s not until an underlying condition is properly treated and its symptoms have abated or managed or healed. Then The Impossible Task goes will away completely along with them.
The right medication can definitely help. Medication is designed to addresses the physical aspects in your brain of this symptom of the underlying condition. Usually, there will also be accompanying psychological aspects related to how you think about yourself and your life and what you do or don’t do, so medication is most helpful when taken in conjunction with professional counseling.
Over the years I’ve been helping clients with The Impossible Task, they’ve taught me a lot about what will help and what will not. I’ve found that the therapist should be trained and experienced in treating your underlying condition, of course, but also they should be trained and experienced in a wide variety of approaches to be flexible enough to respond to your personal needs. What will help one person may not be helpful to you. The best approaches are offered in conjunction with the evidence-based treatment of your underlying condition. Often there is an overlap, but due to the psychic pain of this symptom, The Impossible Task must be addressed specifically. Not doing so can hinder your overall treatment. To do this, the therapist should know about the neurobiology underlying The Impossible Task so they understand this is not your fault and will be supportive and compassionate throughout your treatment. If you’re a practitioner or are suffering from The Impossible Task and would like to know more about what I’ve learned about the best treatment approaches, please contact me via email, DrSarahAEdwards@Outlook.com.
Just know most of all: Therapy needs to be pressure-free. Never asking you to do one more Impossible Task.
If you live here near our mountain communities or somewhere in California, I would like to help you or your loved one if I can. I will help you determine if I am covered by your insurance and clarify what condition is causing The Impossible Task. Please contact me by phone, text or email to see what we can arrange. My schedule is often tight, but if necessary I can usually get to a waiting list without too much delay.
If you live in other parts of the country, outside the USA, or would prefer to work with a local California therapist, here’s what I suggest. Search online for Psychology Today Therapists in your area on their web page. Looking at profiles in your area you will see:
– Their picture – Who they serve and their location
– Their approach to therapy – The insurance they take
– The methods they have been trained in and use. (A wide variety of methods is more helpful in treating
The Impossible Task than a single or a limited number of approaches.)
Keep in mind, most therapists may not be familiar with the term The Impossible Task, so you probably won’t see it listed in their profile (My listing does. You could take a look at it.). But if the therapist is experienced in working with other clients who have your underlying condition, they most likely have helped clients who find themselves stuck in being unable to get things done.
When you find one or more you think you might be comfortable with, contact them and ask whatever questions you’d like. To be sure they understand your situation, ask if they’d be willing to look over the article “You’re Not Lazy … You May Be Stuck in The Impossible Task” to see if they agree with this and believe they can help you. For more information on finding a professional who can help, see Finding Professional Help that Understands.
Could foods or supplements help?
Yes, according to the research with SPECT scans by Dr. Daniel Amen, eating the right foods and taking the right supplements can change the health of our brains. Being an Amen affiliate and having taken certification courses in Nutritional Psychology, I’ve seen ample evidence that nutrition can help improve many underlying mental health conditions. Usually not alone by themselves, however. In my practice, I’ve seen how foods and supplements targeted to one’s condition can help in conjunction with counseling and, if needed, medication. For example, since dopamine is such an important neurotransmitter in the brain for motivation, here are seven foods that have been identified to help boost dopamine.
Beans, Chocolate, Eggs, Strawberries, Meat and Seafood, Dairy, Beans, Legumes.
Supplements can help too but they need to be carefully tailored specifically to each underlying condition.
A professional trained in neuro-psychology and nutritional psychology can help find the right supplement protocol for you.
If you have not found your question about the Impossible Task answered here, please email it to me and I will add it and let you know when it’s here.