Your To-Do List May Be Causing You Stress—Here’s What to Do

With the first month of the year behind us already, job seekers and workers alike may be starting to feel overcommitted, as the reality of what needs to be accomplished each day hits full force.
A new study of more than 1,300 people from VitalSmarts, a leadership training company, shows that three in five people are already feeling frantic, having agreed to accomplish more than they can actually get done in the time available to them.
As a result, 50% of people are feeling “moderately stressed” and suffering negative effects on their mental health because of their never-ending to-do lists. Some other key findings of the survey include:
  • 73% of people attribute the reason for their overgrown to-do lists as a desire to be helpful, accommodating, and polite.
  • 60% of respondents say they have more than 60 tasks on their weekly to-do list (both work and personal commitments).
  • 52% of respondents say they overcommit because they are worried about letting themselves or others down.

What can you do to avoid stress, overwhelm, and anxiety related to overly long to-do lists and commitments?

Here are some strategies to consider from David Maxfield and Justin Hale of VitalSmarts for regaining control of your to-do list:

See what’s owning your attention.

Keeping too much information swirling around in your head is a recipe for overwhelm and overcommitment. “Capture all commitments, tasks, ideas, and projects in an external place rather than keeping them in your head,” say Maxfield and Hale. “Use just a few ‘capture tools’ you keep with you all the time such as lists, apps, email, etc.”

Do a “commitment audit.”

Seeing everything that you’ve agreed to do in one place can help you recognize that you’ve taken on too much. Maxfield and Hale thus recommend capturing all of your commitments on one page, and then going down the list to decide which to-dos you will do, which you’ll decline, and which you’ll renegotiate. “There’s no way you can do them all in the time given; be realistic about what you can and will do,” they advise.

Identify what’s next.

Specificity can help you break through a feeling of overwhelm by showing you exactly what you need to do and what’s most critical on your list. “Most people are extra overwhelmed by their lists because they are filled with vague things like ‘Budget’ or ‘2019 Event,’ explain Maxfield and Hale. These large projects repulse us rather than motivate us to act.” Instead, they recommend “clarifying your to-dos down to the very next action; the smallest behavior you’ll take to start moving toward closure.”

Reflect before acting.

Thinking before jumping into mindless overwhelmed activity can save you wasted time and stress. “Rather than diving into your messy inbox first thing, take two minutes to review your calendar and your action lists,” say Maxfield and Hale. “This reflection ensures you make the best decisions about how to use your time.”

Start a weekly review.

A systematic approach to your tasks can help you stay on top of it all without succumbing to the panic of a long list. To this end, Maxfield and Hale advise keeping a “sacred, non-negotiable meeting” with yourself every week to “re-sync, get current, and align your daily work and projects with your higher-level priorities.”
If you’re already feeling overcommitted, another best practice is simply to refuse to take on more until you’ve cleared the deck on what you’ve already agreed to do. Don’t add anything else to your list until you’ve crossed two items off of it. By stemming the tide of what comes in, you’ll find yourself better able to handle what’s on your plate—without getting overwhelmed.