To-do lists are a unique tool for helping manage anxiety and stress by providing a sense of order and reducing the fear of forgetting. But these lists can quickly become more of a hindrance than a help if they are filled to the brim, not prioritized correctly, etc. To help maintain the usefulness of to-do lists, here are some points to remember:
▢ Create a “must-do” list…
Create one large list of all the things you have floating around in your mind, waiting to be done. Then go over the list, putting a star beside the must-dos before ordering them based on priority. Even if things have yet to be accomplished, simply having a plan can help reduce stress about incomplete tasks.1
▢ …and a “maybe-do” list
Now move all the unstarred tasks onto a “maybe-do” or “eventually-do” list. These are lower-priority things that don't necessarily need to happen immediately or at all. Instead, writing them down can help you feel more in control and not like you are missing something. Keeping them separate will also help declutter your to-do list and make it easier to prioritize essential items.
▢ Outline reasonable timelines
The goal of to-do lists is to reduce the stress on your mental health by making things less overwhelming and more achievable. Consider priority, time needed and other factors that may impact when you can get something done and order tasks accordingly. Carefully analyze your capacity, and don't be afraid to limit your to-do list to a short time frame and punt specific tasks off to a later date.
▢ Add some easy tasks
Even if they seem small, include at least some easy-to-do tasks within your daily schedule. We love these easy-to-do but necessary tasks because when we accomplish things, it can trigger the reward center in our brain, which releases the feel-good hormone dopamine.2 While this can be a great motivation tool, be careful not to let the small tasks overrun your to-do list in favor of quick rushes of feel-good hormones.3
▢ Create a “just-for-you” list
Fill this list with things that will bring you joy or make your day easier. It can include scheduled tasks like going for a walk to listen to your favorite podcast, unscheduled tasks like repeating a positive affirmation to yourself throughout the day and even removing tasks from your plate altogether by asking for help or rescheduling. This list is about serving you and should make you feel good.
To-do lists don't need to be perfect — in fact, they will likely require various edits, so be flexible about changes. Remember that to-do lists are a tool to reduce stress and help your overall mental health, so if you are constantly worried about your lists, maybe it's time to step back and reassess.
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- Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Consider it done! Plan making can eliminate the cognitive effects of unfulfilled goals. Accessed May 24, 2023.
- Cleveland Clinic. Dopamine. Accessed May 24, 2023.
- Harvard Business Review. Your Desire to Get Things Done Can Undermine Your Effectiveness. Accessed May 24, 2023.