Skip to content

Most of us know that satisfying feeling of ticking off (or striking through) something on our to-do list. However, this sense of achievement is often undermined by the number of remaining things to do and additional tasks constantly being added. How do we prevent overwhelm and manage this feeling? 

Why have a to-do list?

Some people argue that having a to-do list makes them more stressed because staring at a list with everything you need to do laid out can be overwhelming. However, the reality is that the list already exists in your brain and if you haven’t written it all down you have the additional pressure of needing to remember everything. If you don’t write all your actionable tasks down, you run the risk of forgetting things. Ignorance is only bliss until the reality of your situation (and all that you’ve forgotten to attend to) comes crashing down.

Having a to-do list helps you to be organised and productive. Taking the time to write down what you need to do in order to meet your work and personal goals gives you important oversight and clarity. The act of writing down tasks lessens the intrusive, stressful thoughts associated with doing them. Most successful people keep some form of to-do list but not all lists are created equally.

Improving your to-do list 

1.) Write it all down

It’s important to have complete awareness about all the tasks you have coming up.  Although it can feel a bit daunting, getting the tasks out of you head and onto paper (or a digital list) is the vital first step for reducing stress.

2.) Organise your list

It’s useful to categorise the tasks you need to complete. This will look different depending on your preference. You may have two groups, for example work and personal. Or your to-do list could have lots of sub categories such as: health, fitness, work, family, finances etc. However the most important step in organising your to-do list is to ask yourself which three things you need to do for the day and prioritise these tasks. It’s all too easy to be distracted by less important tasks. Taking the time every day to establish which three tasks are most important to you is a productivity game changer.

3.) Beware of open loops

The human brain has a tendency to fixate on the things we haven’t completed yet. In psychology this is known as the Zeigarnik effect. It states that people remember unfinished or interrupted tasks better than completed tasks. Of course, some tasks inevitably require more time to achieve and remain as an ‘open loop’ in your brain while you work on them. Breaking a large task into smaller steps helps our brains perceive it as a work-in-progress rather than something unfinished. Other tasks may be tempting to put off because they aren’t that interesting to you, but be warned – these tasks are creating a drain on your brain’s resources.

4.) Close your loops

Reduce your stress levels by reducing your to-do list. Many people utilise the self explanatory 4 D’s of Time Management. Ask yourself these four important questions:

What can I delete from my to-do list? 

What can I delegate?

What can I defer to a later date?

What can I do right now?

If you take the time to write out your complete to-do list and then carefully go through it using the aforementioned steps, you will greatly reduce your stress levels and feelings of overwhelm.