Impossible Task Exercise

My department has started a Discord server for students and faculty to support one another’s writing and teaching. This morning we had the first real-time audio meeting to do a quick writing-play exercise and a unit of collective work. Here’s the write-up for the Impossible Task writing exercise we did today.

Many times when we think about writing a huge, looming task that is clearly impossible plants itself in our way. M Molley Backes tweeted about this as a general but undertheorized feature of depression. As she says, it’s often something that looks easy from outside, or that you used to be able to do quite easily, or that you used to enjoy doing but now are completely blocked around. There arMr earbrasse some specific ways that Impossible Tasks show up in writing. “Impossible” here just names that we cannot currently do the task – though sometimes we cannot do the task because it’s more than any human can do in the time we’ve given ourselves. The Impossible Task Exercise is my favorite trick for this situation. It completely side-steps the impulse that academics in particular have, which is to believe our mind’s account of what’s happening and to intensify our conceptual engagement with and emotional avoidance of the task we cannot face. Our impulse is often to fling ourselves directly at the wall that we find before us, to hammer ourselves against it, and then to be quite mean to ourselves when that tactic doesn’t work. This exercise helps us just step around the side of the wall. It has three parts.

1. The Impossible Task exercise starts with just naming what task is that is looming bigger than it is possible to do. Write this down. These could be things like “write the reader’s report I have due on that journal article” or “write an abstract for that conference” or “write the opening lecture for class.”

2. Then write a sentence that begins, “Of course it is impossible to {x} because reason 1, reason 2, reason 3.” You are here affirming that the task at hand bring up obstacles, that they are real, and that you are experiencing them. You can list as many reasons as come to you why the task you have to do is impossible to do; they are all real and deserve to be clearly witnessed.

3. Then write a sentence that begins, Although I cannot [complete x, write y], I can: list at least three things that are ridiculously small, and that obviously are things that it is possible to do, related to the thing that is obviously currently impossible to do but so small that you have no resistance to doing them; e.g., get the book off the shelf, open the document that you feel you’re supposed to finish writing but cannot, read the final paragraph of that document, write an explanation of one quote.

4. Set a fixed period of time, say 45 minutes, and do just one of the things that can be done although the impossible thing cannot. See what happens next.

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