How to Overcome Your To-Do List Anxiety

One of the great ironies of the modern workplace is how much time we spend trying to make our systems work for us rather than against us. So often, the systems meant to help us instead leave us feeling there is more to do than there is time to do it, which can be unsettling, unwelcome and downright stressful.

While discussing this conundrum with a colleague, she recommended productivity guru, David Allen, and his book, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. While he does outline specific processes and systems to help you organize your daily workflow, I found the biggest impact came not from the how, but his discussion of the why. After all, understanding where these feelings are coming from is often the first step in conquering them.

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Our brains are not as good at organizing incoming information as we think they are. In fact, our memory tends to work against us when it comes to recalling important action items, calendar entries and productivity markers. For example, you may be good at remembering tasks you need to complete, but always at an inconvenient time or place.

This is a result of our memory not working in a logically concrete way. As Allen explains, when you don’t record your tasks in a reliable place, your brain thinks you should be doing that particular task all the time. Multiply this something by the multitude of other somethings that cross your mind each day and it’s no wonder we all tend to feel a bit anxious.

The key to overcoming the faults in your memory is to get these items out of your mind and into your external processes. While Allen provides suggestions on how best to organize your tasks, the important takeaway is to get them out of your brain. By doing so, you free up valuable space for more meaningful information and gain peace of mind knowing everything you need to remember has been recorded.

Being present.

Once you’re able to put the right system in place (I’ve been trying Allen’s system, but I suggest finding what works best for you), the goal is to be present in the moment. When you’re able to live moment to moment, both in your everyday life and your work life, any anxious feelings begin to melt away. You’re able to focus on the current task without worrying about the 900 other tasks you could be completing.

This all sounds marvelous, but how do you get there? You must feel assured what you’re doing is exactly what you should be doing in that moment. You must also be comfortable with the idea that it is okay to not be doing what you’re not doing in each moment. This idea was incredibly eye-opening for me; a concept I wasn’t even aware was important to me until someone else put it into words.

Allen lays out a system for arriving at this state of presence that allows you to prioritize your work in a manner that makes sense to you. It’s important to spend a bit of time defining the work you will be doing so you’re able to be present and productive without feeling overwhelmed.

Of course, all the planning in the world won’t save you from those urgent tasks that are bound to arise every now and then. How do you allow yourself to remain present in those moments?

Don’t Be Surprised by Surprises

All the work you do falls into one of three categories, defined by Allen as:

  1. Doing predefined work
  2. Doing work as it shows up
  3. Defining your work

One and two seem simple enough; after all, once you define your work, it seems natural you would then complete predefined work. As Allen points out, however, it’s number two that most often throws a monkey wrench in the whole system. I, for one, tend to get a bit bent out of shape when I’ve meticulously planned out my day, only to have one too many urgent projects arise that cause all of my plans to go awry.

Use calendars only for date/time specific appointments (a great pro-tip from Allen), and understand your work should be defined by a more general, organizational system that could be done in any given free time. This way, when last minute urgencies arise, those projects are still on the list—waiting for you when you return. As Allen says, “Surprises are just another opportunity to be flexible and creative, and to excel.” Changing this way of thinking, in addition to implementing some of the other tips in Allen’s book, has really helped to turn some of my most stressful moments into positive experiences.

All in all, my big takeaways is it’s possible to be both present and productive without being stressed. Of course, that doesn’t mean you’ll never experience stress again. Life happens and there may be no way to be prepared for what you’re handed. When it comes to your everyday workflow and career, however, putting yourself in charge of your work (rather than your work being in charge of you) is key.

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