What to Do When Your To Do List Makes You Anxious


Ah, the To Do List. The widespread cognitive load relieving tool that magically tells us exactly what we should be doing at any given moment. It frees us from that nagging feeling that we’re forgetting things and releases euphoric dopamine hits when a hard line strikes through it.

This might be what your experience already looks like if you’re an extraordinarily disciplined to do list maker. Congrats on that! For the rest of us, our to-do lists can quickly turn into a destination of shame and anxiety. A haunted house of tasks from the past, present, and future that are cursed on a scale of “I don’t actually know what that task entails” to “is this a to-do list or a CVS receipt?”.

Whether you have never felt in control of your to-do list from the beginning or have found yourself recently falling off the organization wagon, we’re here to help with a few tips for taking your to-do list from anxiety-inducing to anxiety-relieving.

Examine your frame of thinking.

It’s normal that we stress about being stressed. A runaway to-do list, left unkempt and overflowing is indeed a stressful sight to see and makes you want to avoid it altogether.

Even if your list is short but still gives you anxiety, think about how much stress you’re automatically projecting onto those tasks. Are they really as impossible as your mind has made them out to be? Remember: your brain likes to be lazy. It finds the path of least resistance, especially when you continue to give in to its desire to ignore what seems like hard work.

The leap your brain’s script has to make is: “This is a lot of work to do. I’ll never have enough time or energy.” to “I’m fully capable of completing these tasks, and most of them are simple and quick.” Fake it till you make it.

When you look at each task and assess the level of true effort and power it will take to get them done, does it still feel overwhelming? If you’re able to look at your list in the face and assure yourself that it’s easy, peasy, lemon squeezy, your brain will start to befriend your to-do list over time.

Brain dumps at night = morning to-do list delight.

A daily to-do list is not a brain dump.

Your to-do list is a carefully curated boutique shop where the tasks have been carefully chosen, dusted off, maybe given a fresh coat of paint, and proudly placed in the shop window.

Take 5–10 minutes every night to write down (on paper) all the tasks that are swirling inside your brain. If you’re feeling extra spicy, you can even start to map out how some tasks are related or jot down any outstanding questions or ideas you have related to those items. Go to sleep. In the morning, grab a coffee and sit down with your evening dump (yikes, what a phrase) to begin deciphering what goes onto your precious to-do list for the day.

If you’re using a digital to-do app like TeuxDeux that gives you space to store tasks that you won’t get to today, but need to remember, pop whatever still feels important from your evening dump there.

Be a thorough editor.

Only the elite tasks that absolutely must be done on that day can live on your to do list. Anything else on there will consciously or subconsciously distract your brain from what matters most.

Should you keep your outstanding to do items in storage on your to do app (‘Someday’ lists on TeuxDeux), keep that storage hidden throughout the day, only expanding your window view when you need to add or edit.

Organize & strategize.

Work smarter, not harder.

  • Group errands together.

    Save the time, money, and gas by staying on top of errands that can be done in one full swoop.

  • Time block.

    As you brain dump tasks, draw connections between the things that have something in common and then schedule them as clusters. What requires deep focus? What requires writing? What requires meeting with other people? The point here is to keep code switching at a minimum.

  • Book time to do deep work at the same time daily

    . You probably know yourself well enough by now to know which parts of the day you feel fab and which parts you feel drab. Don’t fall into the trap of having to force brain-intensive work at a difficult time because your day wasn’t planned. Whenever you feel most alert, put recurring ‘heads down’ time on your calendar, eliminate digital distractions, and get to your biggest tasks.

Notice patterns and adapt.

If there’s a task that has taken up permanent residency on your to-do list for a week or more, choose one of the following:

  • Tackle it now — best option if the task takes 10 minutes or less but is also the way to go if you find yourself with idle time.

  • Create some degree of accountability — if you must do the task or really, really want to do it. Tell a manager, coworker, friend, or foe that you plan to have the thing done by [insert date & time]. Request that they check in with you as the date approaches. If you’re really in need of some motivation, have a friend withhold some kind of ‘prize’ until you complete your task.

  • Get clarity — do you know the immediate next step you have to take? Is the task a theoretical idea or an actual actionable step? Break it down to the tiniest piece you can, until it’s so stupid-clear that you can’t not do it.

  • Strike it off forever — if you aren’t truly on the hook for the task, you don’t need it. Be kind yet ruthless with your tasks, like Marie Kondo.

Step away from the list.

Procrastination doesn’t always look like laziness. It can wear a disguise of productivity, in the form of planning to do the work instead of actually doing the work. A to-do list simply isn’t effective if the “do” is never done and we can get a false sense of accomplishment in creating a to-do list but wind up still feeling guilty and stressed by the incomplete tasks themselves.

If you struggle to get out planning mode, create a cue for yourself to move into work mode, whether it’s a music playlist, making a coffee, or going for a quick walk. Let your brain gently move from one place to another, feeling at peace and prepared.

Clear your to-do list, unclutter your life