Is Your “To Do” List Making You Anxious?

I love making lists!

Making a list and ticking off what I have achieved is part of the rhythm and routine of my day. I have been known on occasion to add something to my list that I have already completed just so I can tick it off and get that fleeting feeling of achievement! But recently I started to observe my thoughts, feelings and behaviours around my list making and discovered that I was not just using them as a tool to organise my time and keep on top of what I need to do, but I was also using them to berate myself about what I had not managed to achieve. I wanted to share some of those observations with you and the changes I am making to ensure my list making continues to be a joy and a help in my life.

So just how many lists does one person need?

I have lists for work, for home, ideas for gifts, meal lists, shopping lists, a list for anything that I could justify having a list for and then a few more! So the first thing I have done is to think about what lists actually add value. A bit like having a good clear out, there is something cathartic about taking stock and tidying up so knowing that the lists I have are supporting me in reaching my goals and keeping the day to day necessities in order was a good first step.

Generally, I am an optimistic person which, on occasion, can and does lead to disappointment but, I accepted a long time ago that for me it is better to look on the bright side and risk disappointment later than go for a more pessimistic outlook to life. Overlay this view onto list making though and the outcome is often a list that is not achievable creating increased levels of stress and anxiety. Now I am learning to have a more kind and realistic conversation with myself, taking into account the wider commitments and time I have available before finding myself adding 10 things on to my “To Do” list before finishing the first cuppa of the day.

Alongside this I am being really honest about how long something will take to complete. I am constantly surprised at the time it takes to get jobs done which, in reality is often longer than I would like. With continual interruptions and distractions (more on that later), what can seem like a half hour activity may take twice as long so I am more realistic about the amount of time needed.

It has always been and will continue to be important for me to deliver what I said I would, when I agreed to do it by. On occasion my overly optimistic outlook, coupled with the inevitable distractions and constantly changing priorities, has meant that I have worked long hours to meet those commitments. Our lives are full of distractions, emails to reply to, social media feeds to check, people (and pets) competing for our attention. Multi- tasking is a myth, so while we may think doing three things at once is being super- efficient what we are really doing is 3 things poorly as we endeavour to flit between them all. I recently discovered a time management tool called “The Pomodoro Technique” developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s. This technique breaks down activities into slots, usually 25 minutes in length, separated by a short break allowing you to take a breath and assess where you have got to. You focus solely on the task in hand ensuring you are not distracted by anything else. One activity make take several “Pomodoro’s” to complete, that is fine, the key is to stay focused and the results are amazing, you really do get more done and more quickly.

For work I also use a technique suggested by Sara Milne Rowe, author of the SHED Method and an amazing executive coach. At the end of the day or first thing in the morning take a look at your lists and select your “primary commitments” for that day. These are the tasks that you must complete before tackling anything else on the list. It really helps keep you focused and on track to manage your priorities effectively. It also means you are not looking at your full list all the time which can help manage those feelings of being overwhelmed.

So now I have streamlined my list making and how I tackle getting my tasks completed, they need to go somewhere that will encourage me to complete the stuff on them. I don’t want to look at my work lists when I am relaxing so I keep them on line ready for when I log on. Personal lists that I don’t need to look at all the time, which may include gift ideas for family and friends or places I want to visit, can be found in my journal. Finally, tasks that need my immediate attention are put on brightly coloured sticky notes which I keep somewhere visible and easily accessible. We all have our own ideas on what works so do what is right for you. There are lots of great books and stationery out there that can support you in getting the chores ticked off so keep it fun and useful. I have a subscription to “The Simple Things” and each month they have a “Could Do List”, just using the word “Could” instead of “Must” makes me feel calmer!

The overall result of these small changes is that I am not just getting more done but more importantly I am feeling happier about doing it. More of my time is now spent enjoying what I have achieved rather than berating myself for what still remains or feeling overwhelmed by the volume of it all. That is a much better place to be and something to add to my “Helpful Routines” list!

Below is a summary of my top 3 tips for healthier, happier list making;

  1. Ensure your lists are a source of support and not pain – have an honest conversation with yourself about whether you need another list asking “what is the purpose of this list?” If you get a positive reply then go ahead
  2. Be realistic – setting yourself unrealistic goals may lead to feelings of anxiety so think about the time you have and what you really need (and want) to get done
  3. Limit Distractions –being specific about when you need to get something done by will help you prioritise the important things and help avoid procrastination. Do what is important first rather than picking off the easy stuff
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