Poking the Pillsbury Dough Boy and poking a sleeping bear do not carry the same level of risk. With one, there might some be giggling and perhaps even cinnamon rolls. The other option is unlikely to have giggling. Or baked goods of any kind.
Given a choice, most would choose to poke the friendly baking mascot while avoiding the angry bear. This decision seems straightforward: avoid disastrous results. What about the times we shy away from routine activities such as answering emails or having dinner with friends? These don’t appear to be as dangerous as napping grizzlies, yet we might avoid them as if they were.
Avoidance helps us evade something we predict may result in an unfavorable outcome. Unfavorable outcomes mean that the risk or the effort outweighs any possible reward. Sleeping bears are appropriate to avoid. On the other hand, ignoring an overcrowded inbox or important social interaction may be examples of using avoidance in a way that is ultimately unhelpful. In this case, short term avoidance might have negative long term effects.
Why We Avoid
Research suggests several reasons for avoidance beyond the “This is going to hurt!” rationale. A common motivation for avoiding tasks is fear of social judgment. Completing a project while being evaluated, even informally, can understandably provoke trepidation. According to several studies, perceived cognitive fatigue—basically, mental exhaustion—plays an important role in choosing what tasks we handle and which we avoid. Those we see as a risk to our mental fuel reserves often get ignored in favor of tasks believed to be less demanding.
Sometimes we avoid things out of habit. Consistently and actively avoiding certain situations or specific tasks may develop into a predictable cycle of behavior. Consider first-time endeavors, including the first day of school or first job interview. We might predict sitting alone at lunch, or blowing it with a prospective employer. Are the possible rewards worth the risk of feeling rejected?
Our predictions for an unfavorable outcome are disproved once we make friends at school or land that sweet gig. Positive outcomes may help future first-time adventures seem less risky, which might reduce the temptation to avoid them.
Attend school, go to the interview, or risk feeling rejected? Without positive experiences to weigh against our unfavorable predictions, avoiding those situations whenever they come up may start seeming like the best choice each time. Avoiding the possible risk by skipping that first day of school, or cancelling that interview means no favorable outcomes to challenge our negative beliefs.
Distraction Is Not Avoidance
There is a difference between distraction and avoidance. Distractions act as a short reprieve from the chores that await your attention. Distractions are mental mini-vacations that temporarily divert our attention away from stressful situations. They allow us to focus on more enjoyable, even soothing, activities. Once the distraction helps us relax, there is a higher likelihood we can manage those pesky chores more effectively.
From the outside, distraction might look like avoidance and it may even act a little like avoidance. Yet, on a closer look, there are critical differences in the thoughts behind the behaviors. Like the Terminator saying, “I’ll be back,” distraction is something we do for a break knowing we can accomplish the task (Sunglasses optional.) Avoidance turns its back on challenges because of a belief that they can’t be done, stands at the crossroads of Trouble and Impending Doom with fingers in its ears, and sings, “Lalalalalalalalalalaaaaaa!”
Distraction is a healthy way to cope when feeling pressured. Avoidance is not.
Healthier Ways to Handle Avoidance
Learning healthy ways to cope when feeling overwhelmed or under-powered is an important part of mental wellness. No one coping strategy works for everyone or in every situation, so let’s consider several possible ways to avoid avoidance!
Anticipating unpleasant outcomes can stir up anxious feelings. Focusing on how to complete the task itself, rather than ruminating on negative outcomes, can be a way of getting through it. One possible way to do that is creating a detailed plan. Write down your goal and break it down into smaller steps required to make progress. Next, list any possible obstacles you may encounter along the way, and brainstorm solutions. Considering obstacles and solutions ahead of time may give you a jumpstart on problem-solving, alleviating issues before you get started.
Self-affirmations may also offer some relief when concerned about making mistakes in front of others. Reminding ourselves of our many positive attributes, thinking about previous successes, or mentally reviewing our hard-earned skills can keep us attuned to our undeniable awesomeness. If self-affirmations aren’t enough, phone a friend!
Feeling as though we are running out of mental stamina before we run out of things on our to-do list is common, but can be managed. One approach is to take on more arduous tasks while we’re fresh, saving mentally easier chores for later in the day. Planning short breaks or scheduling easier tasks every few hours may also combat cognitive fatigue.
Give it Time
Just as an inbox will most likely take time before it’s cleared out, the results from implementing new strategies aren’t immediate. Time and patience can mitigate some of the pressure we feel when learning new skills. We should keep that in mind when experimenting with new ways to combat avoidance and treat ourselves with kindness.
And maybe have some cinnamon rolls.