Three Quick Steps to Eliminating To-do List Anxiety

Nothing can drain your enthusiasm faster than to start your workday overwhelmed by the mountain of to-do’s that you have mentally logged. Because the majority of today’s work is done in our minds, we often have a hard time knowing when things are done and what the next step is to completing the project. Sound familiar?

If you’re currently procrastinating and are looking for a way out of your to-do list anxiety, here are three quick steps to becoming more productive, today.

Step #1: Do a mind dump

Your mind is like a computer. The more processes you have going at one time, the slower your ability to process new information is. Every time you make a mental note of something you need to do, a call that needs to be made or a bill that needs to be paid, all of these mental notes add up to anxiety. The problem isn’t that you’ll forget, it comes in not knowing what to do next or where to start. The solution? A mind dump. Here’s how:

First, this process could take up to an hour or two. Make sure you have enough time to mentally engage in this process. Otherwise, this will just become another to-do that will add to your anxiety.

  1. Take out your trusted notebook (paper, electronic, it does not matter, as long as you trust it as the source for information)
  2. Turn off everything that’s currently distracting you (Twitter, Facebook, email, phone, TV…you name it)
  3. Now start thinking. For every project or to-do that comes up, write it down. Don’t worry about order or logic, just write it down. If you run out of things to think about, here are some words and phrases that will jog your to-do memory:
    • commitments to others, boss, family, customers, phone calls, emails, letters, memos, blog, finances, Christmas presents, event planning, meetings, travel, bank, sales, inbox, things to learn, housework, chores, research, education, and shopping

Step #2: Identify as Task or Project

The next step is to organize your to-do list in a simple and logical way. A key to this is understanding the difference between a project and a task. A project is anything that requires more than one to-do to complete; like Christmas shopping. A task is something that can be completed in one step; like a returned phone call.

  1. Identify items as a Project or Task

With projects, the best thing to do is start a new page, write the project name down (Buy Christmas Presents), then create your task list (Buy Kyle a Kindle, Buy sister a Starbucks card, Buy mom a new car, etc).

For your Tasks, you can organize them one or two ways:

  1. By context: work, home, calls, computer, boss, wife, etc
  2. By responsibilities: Motiveight, Halogen, Help-Portrait, church, etc.

The key to feeling on top of your task list is knowing what you need to do, not guessing.

Step #3: Sort, delegate and go

Using the same sorting method I talk about in “Three Quick Steps to a Zero Inbox,” next, we’re going to tag your tasks and projects. Remember, if you can do it in two minutes or less, DO IT. If you can delegate it to someone else, delegate it. If you’re the only one who can do it, then mark it as follows:

  1. @Action – Anything that needs to be done by a certain time or date
  2. @Someday – Things that need to be done, but don’t require a timely response
  3. @Follow Up – Things you’ve delegated that need followed up

By this point, you should have a much clearer view of what you need to do. No doubt that it won’t take long for you to realize why you are so overwhelmed. That’s a lot of stuff in your head. Your next step is to figure how to organize this information in a way that’s useful for you. Some people use software, others write each task/project on an individual sheet of paper. Others keep it all in a notebook. You decide what’s best for you. My only advice is to commit to your method and don’t change midstream. If you do, it will undermine your trust in the process and you’ll start to log everything mentally again.

Going Deeper

If you want to take your task management to another level, I highly recommend the book, Getting Things Done (Amazon link). I also recommend that you utilize task management software to organize, prioritize and contextualize your to-do’s. My current favorite is Things. You can read about a couple of other software programs I reviewed here.

What’s your favorite method of organizing your to-do’s?

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  • @gregdarley

    Thanks Kyle. Great thoughts here.

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  • Tre ~

    Hey Kyle, I appreciated the ideas of help embedded in this post. For me, I have to keep it so very simple. Even moreso than all you’ve suggested. I have to back up a step further and meditate. I’ve tried the way of going from feeling full of anxiety to shutting out all noises and starting to write lists. But if the noises in thought are still a blarin, I have to get calm first. And this I’m finding is key to my not feeling anxious on any level. In one sense it’s like a mind dump because you dump out all that is blaring ‘you can’t get done everything you wanna’ and other derogatory thoughts. But what you’ve offered is surely a full steam ahead plan once I”m calm and ready to roll.:) Thanks for offering this. Glad we’re following eachother on twitter. Here’s to keeping each other fueled. @tresha

  • Greg

    I usually find myself procrastinating about getting around to do stuff on my to-do list. I think the mind dump technique was very helpful to me as i was able to prioritize and set goals for what i wanted to accomplish in a set time frame.
    This was a very good read with useful info.
    Thank You.

  • misi

    I like the approach to tackling "To-do Lists." I often find myself feeling overwhelmed with the number of things I need to do and the little time I have to get them done. For me, the section dealing with prioritizing and delegating really hit home. I think for a lot of us we feel that "WE" must complete these things ourselves or they won't get done right, but by setting proper expectations and by following up on those tasks we can delegate some of the more meanial work to others. Thanks for helping me refocus on what is important = )

  • Tara Alemany

    Hi, Kyle.

    I like this thought process. It's similar to one I already use and implemented while reading "Total Workday Control Using Microsoft Outlook" by Michael Linenberger. His hints about how to tag tasks as you write them down allows Outlook to automatically sort your projects while jotting down the relevant tasks necessary to complete them. Great minds think alike, I guess!

    – Tara