You come to a cliff. Here is the edge, where the wind whips at your body, and everything beneath you is impossibly tiny. A single movement of your foot, a slight lean of your body weight, and you could throw yourself right over. One simple movement.
But you wouldn’t actually jump, right?
That’s how I feel about making phone calls. Self-preservation determines that I wouldn’t take the last step, and I won’t hit the call button either, whether or not both of those things are logical.
Five years ago, I posted “A Very Small Portion of the Social Anxiety Flowchart for Dealing with Phone Calls Badly.” Inexplicably, it’s become one of the more popular posts on my website.
In truth, the small corner of that flowchart isn’t even what it says it is; I hadn’t yet created the full flowchart at the time I posted about it. I added fake boxes to the edge and faded them out to give the illusion of more flowchart beyond.
If you look at the full, uncropped version of that chart in my graphics program, one of the fake boxes reads:
Thng thing thing thing but an axe
thing thing thing but the only sad
But it’s positioned so that the only full words you see are “axe” and “sad.”
The other reads:
Screw that, this is America,
and I’m not just going to do
something so ridiculous as to
But it’s positioned so that the only visible part is: “Screw that, this is America.”
My phone call anxiety hasn’t improved in the five years since the original post. I have an office job now, one with Microsoft Everything and Calibri Everything and spreadsheets for which I can choose unnecessary color schemes. There is also a small black phone with no caller ID and my own extension and sometimes, on a bad day, a phone call that I can’t divert into an email exchange instead.
Exposure therapy is a thing, so my theory went that, in being exposed to phone calls, their effects would blunt over time, and they would no longer be the cliff I can’t jump off.
That… kind of happened. I am exactly as terrified of most phone calls as I’ve ever been, but I deal with my work calls without too much drama or figurative nail-biting.
And as for my non-work phone calls…
(imagine the haggard, stumbling man from the beginning of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, coming close to announce…)
The Social Anxiety Flowchart for Dealing with Phone Calls Badly
About two months ago, I took a 5×8 index card, wrote “Onerous Health To-do” at the top, and divided up sections for my primary care, ob-gyn, and therapy appointments, the ones I’ve been putting off scheduling for eight, one, and two years, respectively. On this, I wrote every phone call I needed to make, and every task that preceded those phone calls. Then I made the mistake of doing the same for my partner so we could both tackle everything in a single day and move on with our lives.
Although his phone call anxiety is less severe than mine, this still resulted in both of us procrastinating for another six weeks. We broke out of the cycle only when my partner told his friend to call him on a Friday morning to remind him to remind me to do the thing.
What no productivity system in the world will tell you is that it can’t help you with anxiety over a task.
You can break up a task into next actions. You can rephrase it to use an action verb. You can put it on an @Home or @Phone list. You can choose it as one of your three must-do, priority tasks of the day. You can migrate it to another page in your bullet journal. And if you have anxiety over that task, you’re going to keep migrating it, keep rewriting it, and keep finessing it.
Those are the steps you take by the edge of the cliff because you don’t want to take the one step that matters: hitting the call button. Eventually, the task before every undone task is “deal with the anxiety I have over this task,” because of course it’s best to deal with the root problem of something.
Only now you have months of therapy before you can switch your primary care doctor, and you can’t make the phone call to get into the therapy because you wouldn’t jump off a cliff, would you? WOULD YOU?
That day we finally made the phone calls, I assumed that kicking myself off the cliff would result in a rush of anxiety, but that my bravery would ultimately be rewarded with medical appointments that I don’t especially want to attend.
Instead, I learned that my health insurance’s website is the real-life equivalent of a Liars and Knights puzzle. One always lies, and the other always tells the truth. The one that always lies is the website. Between that, busy signals, and voicemails, I tackled everything on my Onerous Health To-Do list, and still got nowhere.
I’m sure there’s a life lesson in there somewhere. Maybe it’s about perseverance. Maybe it’s about bravery. Or nihilism. Or next actions. I’m not sure. All I know is that I’ve climbed back to the top of the cliff, the fat green circle at the start of the flowchart, and it feels exactly the same here.
*Figuratively, because I kicked my life-long nail-biting habit during the swine flu outbreak of 2009. Now, nail-biting, mine or others, would probably destroy me. Thanks, OCD.