How to Lower Anxiety and Stress By Making a List

We all know that stressful feeling of being in a deep sleep, and suddenly your eyes snap open and you are wide-awake. Anxiety starts to set in when you realize how much you have to do the next day. You find yourself scrambling out of bed to find a piece of paper and a pen to make a list of everything you need to do. After that, the feeling of peace fills you again and you fall back asleep knowing your list will remember it for you.

Why Do We Feel Anxiety Without a List?

People are similar to computers, in that our brains begin to “freeze” when we try to open too many applications at the same time. In his book “The Organized Mind,” neuroscientist Daniel Levitin explains that most people can only hold about four separate pieces of information in their minds at one time. When we become overwhelmed with information, we try to keep all of these pieces of information up in the air like a juggler. If we add too many items on our mental to-do list, inevitably we will forget something. That fear of forgetting something causes people to feel anxiety.

How to Use Lists to Reduce Stress and Anxiety

People who lead busy lives tend to make lists as a form of stress management. Making to-do lists can help make us feel better that we have organized our tasks, but sometimes we still might not be able to complete everything we set out to do.

Here are our suggestions to make your to-do list more effective:

Try This List-Making Format

Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson, in “The Science of Success,” recommends making to-do lists in this format:
If (or when) _____________ occurs, then I will _____________. For example, “If it is Tuesday morning, then I will complete the report.”

Prioritize Your List:

Try to identify which items on your to-do list have time-sensitive deadlines, and which items can be done later.

Add Deadlines to Your List Items

Assigning deadlines to your list can help you figure out which order to work on items. If you have excellent multitasking skills, see if any of the items can be accomplished at the same time.

Add Subtasks For Bigger Goals

Break down big tasks into smaller goals. For example, instead of “complete report,” you might say “begin brainstorming ideas,” or “begin outline of report.”

Make a “Completed” Section on Your List

A big drawback of to-do lists is when we shift our focus only on what we have to do, and we don’t take the time to congratulate ourselves for our successes. Try moving finished tasks to a “completed” list so you can celebrate achievements and allow yourself to take the time to relax and revel in your successes!

Enjoy a More Structured Work Life

Making effective to-do lists can certainly help with productivity, time management, and lowered stress. However, it’s important to not rely on to-do lists all the time and remember to care for ourselves so that we can continue to be efficient. Life is comprised of more than the items we need from the grocery store or the report we have to write at work. Step outside of list making and consider how we focus on all aspects of life that bring us joy.

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