Wisdom//

Is Your To-Do List Stressing You Out? Here’s How to Rethink Your Relationship With It.

It all starts by letting go of the need to have the perfect list.

Unuchko Veronika / Shutterstock
Unuchko Veronika / Shutterstock

I’ve come a long way since my days of being beholden to my to-do list. I went from working with an elaborate, color-coded four-quadrant system — which I rewrote afresh each day in my notebook as a physical reminder of everything I still had left to do — to a clean, minimalist mood board, with a sprinkling of top-line notes and keyword cues to gently jog my memory

The funny thing is, I still have just as much that I need to accomplish on a given day, yet I don’t feel any less organized or forgetful with my new method. I actually feel more aligned and focused, more nimble and adaptable to the inevitable project pivots, and far less stressed overall. And I haven’t looked back since. 

“The to-do list is a trap,” Robert Murray, an executive coach and founder of Sustainable Growth Strategies, tells Thrive. It doesn’t account for the impact of your work, he says. Suppose you get 50 emails off your plate one day, but forget to call your mom to wish her a happy birthday, he posits. You got a lot done in terms of volume, sure, but did you accomplish what was most meaningful to you? Would you still consider that day a success? “So often, high achievers suffer from priority dilution — failing to focus on what really matters,” he says.

In retrospect, I had been going through the performative motions of what I thought productivity was supposed to look like, dutifully jotting down every note and status update, and staying late at the office until I cleared everything off my plate. But I see now that this compulsion originated not from a place of empowerment, but fear. What’s more, it impacted my self-efficacy and ownership of my day, and my well-being. 

Quartz reporter Olivia Goldhill recently recalled some advice she received from Richard Graham, M.D., a psychiatrist and technology addiction specialist at London’s Nightingale Hospital, that helped put her own list-keeping habit in perspective. “You’re simply creating more things that are separate from you, that you have to keep checking to make sure they’re there,” he told her. “You’re using [your phone] as an external brain to outsource what you need to remember, and your reliance is making you anxious.”

It’s counterintuitive to consider that something we do to help alleviate our stress and give us peace of mind could actually be burning us out. If you can’t shake the need to be “perfectly” productive, here are a few small steps to help reframe your mindset.

Celebrate one small thing you did today that made a meaningful difference

The key feeling truly productive is to let go of the idea in your head that you have to complete a certain number of things in order to be consider yourself productive, Deb Knobelman, Ph.D., a neuroscientist and biotech executive who writes about productivity, shares with Thrive. “That number of things is completely arbitrary and not actually the definition of perfect — which doesn’t exist anyway,” she says. Everyone has their own idea of what a “productive day” looks like, so to find yours, start by noticing one little accomplishment each day that shows you made progress in a way that’s important to you.

Declare an end to the day, even if you haven’t checked off all your boxes

I’ve written about how this Thrive Microstep was the critical first step toward letting go of my to-do anxiety. Imposing a firm cutoff to my workday is a small structural change that prevents me from steamrolling through a never-ending list of tasks, and has helped me grow a little more comfortable with incompletions every day. 

Choose one low-priority item on your to-do list — and cross it off for good

Sometimes the tasks that bog us down the most are low priorities, neither important nor urgent, yet still nagging to get done. It doesn’t sound like much, but eliminating just one of these “I’ll get around to it at some point” tasks can lift your energy and free up time in your day for more important and impactful ones. 

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