8 Tips to Reduce To-Do List Anxiety

by Rebecca A. Watson on September 1, 2015

in goals, habits, multitasking, priorities

A number of weeks ago I read yet another article on why we can’t catch up with our sleep. I read this all the time, and it makes complete sense in my mind.

I can see that we should all get the sleep we need when we need it. Much like the fact that we can’t go back in time and change what we said, a message we sent or something we did, we can’t change what we didn’t do, like getting more sleep.


So sleeping in until 11 a.m. on the weekends, hoping this will help us out, is actually messing even more with our bodies, throwing ourselves out of the careful rhythm our body works for. For me, this can have dire consequences, from poor communication to migraine headaches, so I try to get up and go to bed around the same time every night, even though I don’t consider myself to love sleep.

I can’t imagine what an impaired sleep schedule does to people who are more sensitive about their sleep than I am.

I bring this all up because there are other things that I am particularly sensitive to, and I think the argument applies to them as well. Specifically I mean to-do lists. When I get behind on my to-do list, when I skip a day of tasks, I am seriously thrown out of whack.

I get down on myself, causing negative self-talk that can quickly spiral into shame or depression and sometimes intense bouts of anxiety, even panic attacks. All because I didn’t pick up the coats at the dry cleaners on Thursday like I’d planned.

Does the dry-cleaning really matter?!?

Does the dry-cleaning really matter?!?

In the past few months though, something has dawned on me — I can’t catch up. Whatever it is that I didn’t do last week, that week is done. For years, I would try on Mondays to catch up with whatever fell to the wayside on the prior week. Then, and only then, would I continue on to “This Week.”

Stuck in the Past

I started to see myself living in the past — in a way I was. I’d be so proud of my crossed-off list from the past week that it wouldn’t occur to me that this week was half over, and I hadn’t started my work from Monday.

No wonder I wasn’t finishing my weeks. I wasn’t starting them until Wednesday! I was trying to do a weeks’ worth of work in three or four days.

So I started doing things differently, and I have to say that I am genuinely satisfied with how it’s working out the past few months. I have had very few moments of freaking out, even when I had to take a week off because I got sick. Summer sickness. Booo!

That was really when I realized I had something special —  when I didn’t feel guilty or fall down a well of shame for missing out on a week of work. In fact, I ended up bouncing right into the next week and felt really productive and on task all week.

I thought I’d share a few of my tips for living in the present with your to-do list. If you’re anything like me, these tips will help you lessen your to-do list anxiety and actually help you be more productive.

1. Create an Ongoing Task List

This is different from your daily list. It’s a list of everything that “needs” to get done sometime, but you don’t really have a place or a deadline. On my list it’s things like:

  • Wash windows
  • Update categories on my blog
  • Organize the cellar
  • Create a better archives page
  • Cure cast iron pans

Basically, this is stuff that needs to get done, but the world isn’t going to end if it doesn’t happen this week. If I keep this stuff off my daily list, I feel less anxious about it and more willing to do it when I have some spare time. Which I have now, because I haven’t loaded myself down with stuff that can wait. Why?

2. Only Three Tasks Per Day

This might seem like a bad idea. Only getting three things done every day? That’s nothing! That’s what I thought when I first read about this concept, but honestly, we’re usually so distracted throughout our days, I would be willing to bet often we don’t even get one thing done.

We work on part of a project, we clean part of a room — we run around doing whatever catches our eye in the moment, feel like we’ve been working hard all day and when we look back, we can’t cross a single thing off our lists. It’s a depressing feeling.

By giving myself three things to focus on, I know that I can get them done. It’s not an impossible task. And I end up doing other things as well, but knowing those three things will be finished consistently helps me see that over the week, I’m getting a good chunk of work done.

3. What Needs to Be Done Today?

While you’re choosing those three tasks, the pivotal question you must ask yourself is, What needs to be done today?

This will help you focus on what’s most important, priority-wise, and keep your anxiety from mounting while you organize your email instead of tackling that final piece of a project with a 3 p.m. deadline.

We are all masters of distraction. Asking yourself this very simple question will help you focus your energy.

4. Pay Attention to Your Body

When I start editing, I immediately get tired. It doesn’t matter if I just had a cup of coffee or finished my workout. It exhausts me. Why? Because it’s not my favorite thing to do. What is? Writing, of course!

At this point though, editing is a necessary evil — it pays the bills. We all have activities like this. If you pay attention to how your body reacts, you can learn to organize your days and weeks around them.

I used to edit first thing in the morning so I could get it over with. My therapist suggested I try something more fun first, so that I’m actually excited about my day. So now I write for an hour and edit after that. I’m much more awake and tolerate the work better.

If you notice your body slowing down during certain tasks or at certain times of the day, plan something fun or easy around those times. And reward yourself after you do something you’re less stoked about — a nice piece of fruit, a walk outside on a lovely afternoon or a quick cat nap are all ways I hook myself up.

5. What’s Your Focus?

This question is sort of your big picture thinking. Yes, you have your daily tasks. Yes, you have your ongoing list. But this asks you about your mountain, about what you’re working toward.

For me, the answer is quite simple and obvious. I am a writer. If you don’t have your answer, check out these 15 questions that helps you write your personal mission statement.

Once you have your focus, post it at the top of your to-do list, on your calendar or whatever you consult regularly to organize your tasks. Every week I see the words: FOCUS — I AM A WRITER on the top of my calendar.

This might seem like a simple thing, but it does wonders in terms of helping me get things done. It reminds me that I’m not a cook, or a housecleaner or an editor even. It keeps me taking steps — the ones on my list — toward my mountain.

6. Start Delegating

This is a very new skill for me, and it makes a world of difference. I learned to ask for help at work when I was a waitress, but somehow this skill didn’t come with me when we moved to Germany. I think part of it is that my husband makes most of the money, but part of it too is just my natural desire to be independent — to do it all.

But let’s be honest: No one is independent. Just look at anyone whose cell phone is dying. You NEED electricity. And even with a really high-paying job, if you didn’t have a grocery store, how long would you last? I’m no hunter, and my gardening skills wouldn’t feed me for long.

So, accept you’re interdependent and start asking for help. If a task looms in front of you or if you keep putting it off, week after week, ask someone else to do it. Or pay someone to do it. And if you can’t bear to do either, consider whether it really needs to get done in the first place.

7. Plan Loosely

Along with your question of what really needs to get done, give yourself leeway on things that don’t absolutely have to be done. Maybe you’re really not feeling like tackling a big project on a certain day. Life happens and you’re exhausted.

It’s OK to take it easy and wait until tomorrow even if you planned to work on it today. We are not robots. We aren’t going to have the same levels of motivation and energy every day. I was supposed to write this blog on Tuesday, but it’s Wednesday morning.

And that’s OK, because I know I will actually get my list done for the week (using my three task maximum). Now I am much less stressed about giving myself a day here and there.

8. Stop Micro-Managing Yourself

We all complain about micro-managers, right? Well, if you’ve got small tasks that always get done on your list, then you’re micro-managing yourself.

I know. I get it. I love the feeling of crossing things off my list too. BUT if I know that I’m going to walk my dog every day, then I certainly don’t need to remind myself to do it. Because if you’re going to get your three tasks done every day, you need to stop writing down all the things you know you’re going to do.

Putting those on your list is like having a boss constantly at your shoulder asking you things like, “Are you going to respond to that email?”

We all know the answer is, “Yes, of course.” And silently afterward you’ll say: “You don’t need to remind me of that.” It’s a good way to start resenting your to-do list, which is pretty counter-intuitive. So put only what needs to go on the to-do list.

Parting Words

You’ll notice that I didn’t include in this list anywhere things like:

  • Relax
  • Give Yourself a Break
  • Let Go

The reason behind that is anyone who has anxiety knows the last thing those phrases do is help. They actually, at least for me when I’m stressed, give me another thing to do.

Relax, Rebecca!

Relax, Rebecca!

But I will say that if you adopt some of these tips, you will feel more relaxed and it will be easier to cut yourself some slack. So good luck to you, and let me know if you have any tips for reducing anxiety around your to-do list. I’d love to hear!

Photo Credits: Unsplash, Daniel

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Natalie October 25, 2016 at 5:02 pm

Thanks for this! I haven’t looked at my to do list in a week because it started making me too anxious. I also like keeping a list of everything I’ve accomplished for the day. I include event the tiniest tasks just so that I can look back on the day and realize that I have done quite a few things!


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