Listing Towards OCD

I’ve talked before about some of my coping mechanisms for dealing with mental health issues: how I remind myself depression lies, how I use jigsaw puzzles to calm my anxious mind, how I focus on the good stuff. One other thing I do is try to harness my mental weirdness and use it for good when I can. I have more than a touch of obsessive-compulsiveness. Happily, it’s not enough to interfere much with my daily life. In fact, I’ve found a way to trick my compulsive brain into working for me instead of against me.

The key is randomness.

No. There are two keys: randomness and dice.

When I have a lot to do, and it seems so overwhelming I don’t know where to start, a great big part of me wants to just curl up on the couch and do absolutely nothing. Quite often, that part wins, and I get nothing done. But sometimes I remember this great brain-hack that works (on me) like a charm. First, I make a list of all the things I need to get done. Then I grab a die that has at least as many sides as I have tasks on my list.

I made this 20-item to-do list the weekend before last (in preparation for my birthday visit from my parents).

I bet you see where this is going. There’s something about the randomness of rolling the die that I find irresistible.* I’m not big into gambling, and I should probably keep it that way, because I can see how it could easily suck me in. The excitement of seeing what the next roll will bring is intoxicating—so much so that it spurs me on to complete one task so I can see what’s next.

This brings me to an important part of this process. There must be at least one “fun” thing on the list (more for longer lists). Part of what’s so exciting about rolling that die is the thought that I might get to spend the next 20 minutes reading a book or vegging out in front of the tube or coloring or jigsaw-puzzling. If it’s all must-do tasks, the enthusiasm might wane sooner rather than later.

And of course, because I’m a huge nerd who loves rules and structure, I added some additional complications I as I went.

Obviously, once I completed the first task, I no longer had 20, and as 19-sided dice aren’t exactly common, I had to come up with a way to accommodate that completed slot. There were several options, including making it a “free” slot so I could do whatever I chose. That would’ve given me way too much freedom. I feared I’d lose track of my tasks altogether. So I decided I’d just wrap around the list. If I rolled a 20, I’d jump back to task number one. That way I got to keep rolling the d20. <3

When I whittled the tasks down to an even dozen, I switched over to a d12, the most under-used die of them all, in my experience. (I’ve never been much for wielding great axes.) Had I progressed down to 10, I’d’ve switched to that noble, White Wolf-tastic die.

I must admit, I didn’t complete my mammoth list before my parents arrived (thus no d10, d6, or d4 for me). Last night I decided to chip away at it again. Sort of. I had a few things to do that were much more high-priority than most of the items on that list. And not all of them even appeared on the main list in the first place. So here’s what I did:

I created a second list** that had only the important tasks on it. But there was also one item on the main list that needed to get done! What to do? I added a little dot next to it on the main list to indicate it was now also part of the shorter list. This gave me 5 items—not quite enough to use a classic d6. I could have done the list-wrapping thing I described above, but that didn’t feel right for starting out my evening of tasking. Instead I added an arrow at the bottom of the short list. It pointed at the big list—meaning, if I rolled a 6 on the first try, I’d then do one random task from the larger list, even if it was less important. Lists within lists! It’s randomness all the way down, baby.

Yes, that’s a lot of foofaraw to get one little list, but it’s the ridiculousness of the structure and labyrinthine rules that make it appealing to my odd mind—those and the randomness, of course. There’s something incredibly comforting about putting my short-term fate in the roll of a polyhedron. It’s no longer my decision. I just do what I’m “told”.

One of the biggest brain-problems I have when I get even the teeniest bit anxious or depressed is with my ability to make decisions. I get caught—sometimes physically frozen—trying to decide whether I should wear the blue shirt or the green one, or whether I should wash dishes first or vacuum. These lists are my way of side-stepping that paralyzation. And it works!***

This has been way more of a close-up look into my noggin than anyone probably needed, but hey, there might be a couple of you out there who can benefit from this madness, so I feel it was worth the over-sharing. I hope you do too.





*I’m a D&D girl from way back, so anything involving dice automatically puts its hooks into me.

**Why didn’t I just add to the main list, you ask? Well, I wanted to keep last night’s tasks separate. And I’d run out of space. I don’t like 2-column lists. (Though yes, you could argue that’s exactly what I ended up with. Now hush.)

***Of course, sometimes I go too far relying on randomness and end up randomizing every little decision. That’s no good either, and it’s a balancing act I’m working on mastering.


5 thoughts on “Listing Towards OCD

  1. Karen Allen says:

    Erika, you have some pretty interesting ways of coping, managing, and improving your “challenges” in life. I really relate to much of what you’ve said here and in other posts. And I totally get that “pressure” of choosing for yourself, so I’m very impressed with your solution. I love the element of fun and randomness. I tend to think I have to be linear and focused to accomplish my many (and usually self-imposed tasks) and often get bummed out (like a donkey following the never achieved carrot, skipping the task for something more interesting, or pursue some important link on the web that I just must read . . . and then chastise myself for failing. How much better we are when we begin with who we are and move forward from there. You are such a smart and resourceful person!

    • Erika Ensign says:

      Thanks Karen! I’ve been doing some of these things for years without even realizing they were “coping mechanisms”. They were just things I do. Now I recognize them for what they are, and try to take advantage of them all the more! :)

  2. Living with OCD, I love that this coping mechanism is both liberating and number-related (= therefore reassuring. I love numbers indeed…) I should try the dice method, but then I’d be afraid that I’d no longer be able to make a decision without a dice… A challenge you actually mentioned in your last note! So I’m really impressed that you’re mastering it! :)

  3. Louly amin says:

    It’s very encouraging to realize that there are other people fighting out there to manage their time and responsibilities with OCD. Thank you for the ideas, and the honesty and struggle you so genuinely revealed. I live in cairo Egypt where there is a lot of dust, traffic and social obligations, it kills me. I suffered depression for years and was on drugs on and off, for now I can’t take them because I suffer from side effects so I must try to work out a way to disentangle myself from the stress of relationships, failure, comparisons, jealousy and obsessive anxious thoughts plus do my daily chores and find a minimum level of peace and some joy in my day…..

    • Erika Ensign says:

      Yikes. Sounds like you’re dealing with an awful lot. I hope you can remember that you’re not alone in that. There are lots of us playing tug-of-war with our own brains, and each and every one of us deserves to win. Sometimes it’s a huge slog, but there are also random, weird coping strategies like this one that sometimes work better than you’d think. And I suspect there are about as many strange coping mechanisms as there are people with issues, so I try not to be afraid to try something new as long as it’s not something with a risk of harm–don’t want that!

      Thanks for letting me know I’m not alone in this. It’s one thing to know that in my head. It’s another to get a reminder of it. Somehow, that seems to reach my heart a little better.

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