5 Simple Tricks For Overcoming To-Do List Anxiety

“Procastination isn’t caused by laziness. We don’t postpone tasks to avoid work. We do it to avoid negative emotions that a task stirs up – like anxiety, frustration, confusion, and boredom.”

SOURCE: Adam Grant’s Worklife podcast – ‘The Real Reason You Procrastinate.’

Do you know that feeling, after you’ve written out your to-do list, despite how it’s suppose to make you feel, when all you want to-do is crawl under a rock and die? 

You know, when a slow and painful death seems preferable to confronting the mountain of tedious work you feel you have to-do?

And so you slowly put down your to-do list, walk over to the couch, gently sit down, carefully pick up the remote control and turn on NETFLIX. Which you then proceed to binge watch for several hours…

A bit like a psychopath who completely disconnects from all his or her responsibilities and emotions? 

I’m sure you do.

Anyway this got me thinking.

Why exactly does writing out our responsibilities on paper cause some us to run away from them faster than a teenage boy climaxes?

After all we know this kind of behaviour doesn’t help us, yet we can’t help ourselves. Sometimes all we want is to tell life to go fuck itself and so we do, even if that means fucking ourselves in the process.

The real question, of course, is how can we stop our to-do lists from making us feel like shit and actually help us get shit done instead?

Well fear not my fine readers for I’ve complied 5 simple tricks – as partially backed by science – to help you not only write a to-do list that doesn’t make you want to tell life to go fuck itself, but carry it out as well!

You’re very welcome!


1 – DO THE THING YOU FEAR THE MOST FIRST

“The task you’re avoiding isn’t always the one you hate. Sometimes it’s the one you fear. The one that’s most worth pursuing.”

SOURCE: ADAM GRANT’S WORKLIFE PODCAST – ‘THE REAL REASON YOU PROCRASTINATE.’

The science shows that making a plan to complete a task provides the same mental relief as completing the task itself.

Which is exactly the point. Writing a to-do list is suppose to make you feel better so you can actually get started with something.

It’s suppose to get you in the mood… (Yeah baby!)

The problem for me, and I suspect countless others, was never a matter of productivity, but what it was I actually chose to accomplish during the day. I now realise I used my to-do list as a way to constantly defer the shit I was most afraid of.

I’m not talking about homework assignments here of course. I mean things like confronting my depression by asking for professional help or having certain difficult conversations with certain family members about shit I really don’t want to talk about…

Yeah, you know, the shit you really need to be doing first!

It was pointed out to me, in Adam Grant‘s excellent worklife podcast episode – ‘the real reason you procrastinate,’ that it wasn’t the tasks I was avoiding but the emotions I’d attached to said tasks.

The problem with ignoring these tasks is you inadvertently give those emotions (the thing that you’re actually afraid of confronting) greater hold over you. Thus the longer you leave said tasks undone the harder they become to-do.

Unfortunately there’s only one solution.

However scary they are, the tasks that you fear the most are exactly the ones you should be pursuing first. Not tidy the apartment!

Why?

Well it’s a classic Catch 22. By doing the very tasks you’re afraid of, you’re helping to confront and resolve those emotions that caused you to avoid those tasks in the first place.

If you don’t want to live with those emotions any longer, then you have to stop avoiding them. You have to rip the bandaid off. If you don’t it’s only gonna hurt more later on. Believe me!

Of course I realise this might not be what you want to hear so I thought I’d offer a few more tips that can help you do what’s necessary by putting things into perspective.

2 – ASK YOURSELF, “WHAT WOULD I DO IF THIS WERE MY LAST DAY ON EARTH?

It’s important to be very clear about what your most important tasks are on any given day. Often we’re not. A great way to do this – something I do every morning as part of my journalling routine – is to ask yourself the following question: “What would I do if this were my last day on earth?”

I’m guessing your to-do list would look markedly different.

Things like telling your family how much you love them. Apologising for any major wrong doings or forgiving those that wronged you would also probably appear. Remaining as present as you possibly can be. Paying attention to every waking moment for the truly precious moment that it is! Sitting with and observing any difficult emotions. Allowing those emotions to come out (instead of watching NETFLIX). Taking a walk outside to feel the elements – wind, rain, hail or shine! Simply being…

You get the point.

Of course you shouldn’t take this question too seriously otherwise you’ll probably bin your to-do list altogether and tell your boss to-go fuck himself. Perhaps not in the best interest of your future self…

Still this is a great question because it helps align your to-do list with the values you hold closest. It helps to prioritise the things that you really should. It also puts thing into perspective.

The truth is you don’t have to-do anything. Don’t set yourself up for disappointment and self-loathing by thinking so. You don’t have to-do anything if you don’t want to.

You get to do those things.

Which brings me to my next trick for reframing your to-do list. That is,

3 – WRITE A GET TO-DO LIST INSTEAD

Put that at the top in big bold capital letters: GET to-do.

Not only does this set yourself up to be more grateful for what you feel you might have to-do, it also helps to take the pressure off.

You get to do it, you don’t have to do it.

Keep reminding yourself of this important fact.

I’d add another small tip.

Write out 3 things you’re grateful for today before you write out your get to-do list. I could show you some science that shows just how beneficial having a gratitude practise is, but I don’t want to bore you.

You know all this.

The point to label is YOU GET TO-DO THESE THIHGS. One day you’ll be dead and you won’t get to.

It helps to keep that in mind.

4 -KEEP IT MODEST AND BE SPECIFIC

How much do you really need to-do today?

So many of us put everything down we’d like to complete and then burn out after realising we’ll never be able to achieve all those things.

You’ve got make it manageable.

Don’t say I’ll write one blog post or go for a 10km run or finish reading that book. Say I’ll write one paragraph, jog for five minutes and read one chapter.

Simply taking a step in the right direction is enough.

So what if you didn’t quite get everything you wanted to-do done?

The most important thing is that you enjoyed it. You’re never going to enjoy it if you’re always racing towards the finish line.

And if you really don’t manage to complete much, if anything, of what you intended, then please refer to point number 5.

5 – SHOW YOURSELF SOME COMPASSION

‘You can change some of those emotions by showing yourself compassion. We procrastinate less when we remind ourselves that it’s part of the human condition. We’re not the only one suffering from it.’

SOURCE: ADAM GRANT’S WORKLIFE PODCAST – ‘THE REAL REASON YOU PROCRASTINATE.’

A tough one to finish I know. The truth is I’m awful at being kind to myself.

This is why, every morning as part of my meditation routine before I do anything else, I practise a loving kindness meditation for everybody including myself.

After all it can’t be called universal compassion if it doesn’t include yourself.

It’s important to remember we’re all fallible humans at the end of the day. Things like confronting our demons aren’t easy. It takes time to find the courage.

Go easy on yourself if you don’t do that scary task.

Who honestly get’s everything they mean to-do in a day? Really? I certainly don’t.

That said, I tell my wife I love her every night before bed without fail. I make sure I spend a couple of quality hours with my son – laughing and playing with him every afternoon before dinner. I meditate every single morning and take every opportunity to practise mindfulness whenever I can. I always go for a walk outside as a way to remind myself that I’m alive and how fucking amazing that is!

Quite frankly the rest can fucked. Occasionally it does!

The older I get the more willing I am to say, so the fuck what? Tomorrow’s another day right? If you fall off the horse today, simply get back on it tomorrow. Falling down is inevitable. Getting back up is what matters.

That’s life.

(As always I welcome ALL opinions on this blog. If you have any other tips about crafting the ultimate to-do list I’d be very keen to hear from you in the comments section below! Thank you all so much for reading!)


SOURCES:

WorkLife with Adam Grant episode on ‘The Real Reason You Procrastinate.’

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/tech-support/201310/why-your-do-list-drives-you-crazy

https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/psychpedia/zeigarnik-effect