Relieve The Stress of To Do Lists

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Clearing your "to do list" is challenging, but it can be done more easily than you may think with these guidelines. desifoto/ Getty Images

Being organized is a way to minimize and manage stress: it helps us to maximize our time and energy and get the most important things done. Being organized isn't natural for everyone, however, and it often takes practice.  

One of the simplest and most commonly used organization tools is the "To Do" list. Many people have running to-do lists that carry over from day to day, some of us have complicated systems in place to maintain them, and others simply jot them as quick notes-to-self when it gets too complicated to keep it all in our heads.

Whether scrawled on the back of an envelope or typed neatly on a spreadsheet, to-do lists can help us to keep track of what we need to do so our minds are freed for the important work of getting things done.

Some people experience stress associated with these lists, however.  A recent article I read mentioned a few stressors associated with to-do lists that made them not worth the stress of using them. These stressors included some things I agreed with (and consider "known issues"), such as seeing everything written down may make things feel a little overwhelming, or the phenomenon of the long to-do list: once you start writing what needs to be done, more and more things come to mind until the list feels a little unruly. Other items of concern were ones I don't share: the author felt that to-do lists make prioritization difficult because everything is listed evenly as something that needs to be done (I remedy this by ranking items in order of importance), and felt that to-do lists are designed to make people feel inadequate (they have the opposite effect on me--they help me to stay productive, which feels empowering).

The article itself had the effect of making me realize that what feels like a valuable stress relief tool for one person can feel stressful to others. However, to-do lists are so useful to so many (I literally would not be able to function without mine), that I wanted to share tips on making their use less stressful.

This way, if you have been avoiding to-do lists, this may help you to make the most of them, and if you have been using them less efficiently than you could be, here are some tips to maximize their effectiveness.

If to-do lists make you feel stressed, here are some ways to cut down on that stress.

  1. Remind yourself that you are “enough,” even if you don’t get it all done.
  2. If your list is getting longer and longer, prioritize. This is what to-do lists are great for! Simply number your items according to importance, and go from there.
  3. Factor in time: estimate how much time each item takes. Then plan accordingly.
  4. If you find your list getting longer and longer, turn it into a brainstorming session. Then set realistic deadlines—not everything needs to be done today!
  5. Enlist the help of a useful app. I love "Things," but there are many.  
  6. Include a “done” list, and pat yourself on the back for it. This can help you to keep your motivation up, and adds momentum to your productivity.
  7. Add self-care to your list: meditation, leisure time, things you need for balance.
  1. Think about what can be done quickly, and what can’t. Then either knock out the quick stuff so your list will get shorter quicker, or tackle the more lengthy items while you have the time. (Whatever makes the most sense for you.)
  2. Think of the top thing (or three) that really needs to be done, and focus primarily on that. This can help you to get moving if you're a procrastinator, and if you have time left over for other things, good for you!
  3. If writing to-do lists makes you feel more stressed (and you can get by without one), you may consider abandoning the activity. However, if you’re able to make the process less stressful but keep it productive by putting the above tips into action, maintaining a to-do list can be a great way to keep your mind less cluttered and your schedule more focused, so you  have more time and energy for high-priority activities and balance.

Here are some more tips for making the most of your lists, and your time.

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