7 Ways to Banish To-do List Anxiety from Your Life

Photo by Uday Mittal on Unsplash

Don’t let your to-do lists encase your mind and steal your peace

We live in a culture that values busyness. The longer our to-do lists, the more hours we punch in at work, and the more we “stay on top of things,” the better we’re thought to be.

However, our to-do lists, which are at the center of everything we do can actually be the reason that drowns us into pools of anxiety. It seems ironic at first — lists are lifesavers. In moments of stress and overwhelm, making a list is a big relief, at least for me.

Yet, occasionally, they can backfire and get the better of us. As tasks pile up, lists get longer and the paucity of time kicks in, we lose our minds.

Thankfully, there’s a way to avoid it. But before that, let’s understand why these lists stress us out in the first place.

Problems with To-do Lists

If you’re feeling overwhelmed every time you look at your list, chances are that you’re not making the list correctly. You might be writing down tasks as they come to your mind without a sense of prioritization or categorization.

Or you may be treating big and small projects with the same real estate on your list. At any rate, let’s dive into a few causes of to-do list anxiety in detail.

Every task looks the same

“Writing an article” doesn’t take the same time as “folding laundry.” However, seeing them on a list next to each other, makes us feel as though it should. When we write to-dos, we don’t include enough context about the tasks.

Similarly, we forget to break them into smaller chunks and are then surprised to know how much work really needs to be done when we get to it.

On a list where every task looks the same, we gravitate towards what’s easy and thus procrastinate on the bigger ones. In fact, iDoneThis found that 41% of all tasks on to-do lists are never completed.

When we add more context to a task — like deadlines, the time needed for completion, sub-tasks, and so on — it’s easier to set the right expectations and get started. Without it, they’re just a bunch of letters that clutter our minds.

No prioritization

After years of reading about and using productivity tools, I still like to stick with a pen and paper. To be honest, it works out well for me. But one thing I’ve never been able to overcome (at least permanently) is the complexity of prioritization in a to-do list.

When we put something on top of the list, our brain perceives it as the most important task. Even though that might not be the case.

And even if I force my brain to not think that way, I find myself going through the whole list every 30 mins figuring out which task I need to pick next. Needless to say, that’s exhausting.

We need some sort of prioritization to avoid decision fatigue. One way to do that is of course add due dates. That makes the urgent and important tasks come to the top while others trickle down. Yet, there’s another problem with lists which brings me to my next point.

The dreadful rescheduling

There’ve been times when I add optimistic timelines and due dates to my tasks thinking I’ll wake up like Bradley Cooper from Limitless. However, life always gets in the way.

Some other task pops up. A friend calls. Or the demon of procrastination kicks in. Whatever the case, my well-planned to-do list starts to feel like a trap. Or more like an unattainable prize that I have no motivation to strive for.

It’s easy to feel guilty for wasting time or not planning well in advance. But guilt pushes us further down the road of misery where there’s no sign of progress.

The insatiable urge to ‘d_o’_

One of the worse things about to-do lists is that we can add absolutely anything in there. A movie to watch, an errand to run, a report to draft, or a presentation to complete. Just because we can, we do and soon end up having everything there.

So the next time you add something to your to-do list, make sure you absolutely need to do it. One trick I use to solve this is to use a very small notepad which allows only 10–15 items on a page. This gives me ample space to fool around a little but still not go overboard.

The problems with our to-do lists are immense. And the sad truth is that they might never get as short or as neat as we want them to.

But what we should do is to stop stressing ourselves out. That extra bit of worry and confusion is just not worth it. So let’s look at a few tips to manage our tasks better while still using lists in a better manner.

Do a Brain Dump

Tell me if this happens to you.

You open your email inbox to access an important piece of information. You’re bombarded with five other emails that you get lost in. After you close the tab, you have no idea why you opened it in the first place. Familiar? Thought so.

When we try to remember all the different things we do, the brain is constantly trying to not forget the information. In the quest to remember, it stops performing.

Your brain has limited cognitive capacity. And when you use it to store things and worry about stuff, you lose the opportunity to do valuable work. How many times have you woken up in the middle of the night thinking about the one client you forgot to follow up with?

Small bits of information and tasks like these start to pile up inside your brain if left unchecked.

The solution is to sweep the deck and do a brain dump. Once you’ve essentially vomited your mind out on a piece of paper (or screen), you can begin to think about prioritization. Once you see all the tasks in one place, it’s also easier to batch similar tasks together and save time.

Use your brain for what’s it really designed for and relieve it from the burden of doing things that a piece of paper can do.

Do a “Commitment Audit”

It’s easy to get too optimistic and commit to doing everything. Thinking that we can do that is highly unrealistic, however. I used to make lists that seemed formidable at 8 am but I thought “No worries, I’ll do everything today.”

Gradually, coming up to 2 pm, it still seemed formidable. And not much changed at 6 pm after which I had no option but to postpone the tasks to the next day. In the end, I’d be exhausted and couldn’t stop thinking about how much harder I’ll have to work to handle this backlog.

The point is that we like to commit to more than we can handle to make ourselves and others feel better. But this is only an ego-balm that has nothing but adverse effects.

The wiser option is to only bite what you can chew and be relaxed enough to face your list another day.


Another way to make your lists seem less dreadful is to separate them into:

  • “Today’s priorities” — a list of a maximum of 5 things you need to focus on today.
  • “This week’s to-dos” — you can list as many tasks as you like here.
  • “If-I-have-the-time-to-dos” — these are tasks that are not as important but still need to get done. Like buying toilet paper or getting your door handle repaired. The purpose of separating them as such is to not lengthen your main to-do list so much that you wake up in the middle of the night thinking about calling the carpenter.

Once you’re done categorizing, cut as much as you can from the second and third categories. Either delegate them or remove them completely. You can follow this step immediately after your brain dump to make your list a bit more manageable.


Once you have your list as per the above categorization now is the time to batch similar tasks together. The purpose of batching is to minimize task switching.

Every time you switch a task, you waste precious brain energy in doing so. This constant switching wears you out quickly and gives you the feeling of not having done anything at the end of the day.

Multiple studies prove that we need at least 15 minutes (the average is 23 minutes) to get fully concentrated on one task after switching to another. And if we quickly change from one task to another, we lose about 40% of our productivity.

Simple examples include checking emails only at certain times during the day, combining errands, batching phone calls, cooking, writing, etc.

Cross Off 20% of The Things

We suck at planning. We always underestimate the amount of time it will take to complete a task. And so, when you make a plan, cut some of the things away.

The longer your last is, the more your brain is spread thin to give every task the attention it deserves, thus directly affecting your performance. Plus, the urge to make a dent in the list is so great that we often spend time checking off the easy ones, leaving the big, important ones last.

So chop, chop, chop. Remove the things you know are not going to get done and save yourself the guilt.

Use Parkinson’s Law

Parkinson’s Law states that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” Basically, it means that if you give yourself 1 hour to do something that could be done in 30 mins, it’ll still take one hour.

Those 30 minutes are just lost for nothing. If we reduce the time we need to complete a task, we can actually end up achieving it. The idea here is to prepone our deadlines just by a little so we have the extra motivation.

The trick here is to assign just the right amount of time — not too loose and not too tight. It takes some experience to strike a balance between slacking off and being anxious, but it’s a great tip to achieve the same amount in less time.

The Ivy Lee Method

Charles Schwab who was at one point, one of the richest men in the world, once arranged a meeting with a productivity consultant named Ivy Lee. He asked Lee, “Show me a way to get more things done.”

“Give me 15 minutes with each of your executives,” Lee replied.

“How much will it cost me,” Schwab asked.

“Nothing,” Lee said, “unless it works. After three months, you can send me a check for whatever you feel it’s worth to you.” After three months, Schwab wrote a check for $25,000 to Lee which is equivalent to roughly $400,000 today.

So what did Lee do with each of the executives? He taught them a simple, yet effective routine:

  1. At the end of every day, write down 6 tasks you need to complete tomorrow. Only 6, no more.
  2. Prioritize them in order of importance.
  3. When you get to work the next day, focus only on the first task. Work on that task until it gets done and do not switch to anything else.
  4. Once done, move on to the 2nd item and focus on it. Then repeat with the other 4. At the end of the day, remove any unfinished tasks to the next day.
  5. Repeat steps 1–4.

This system seems stupidly simple. So let’s see why it works:

  1. Simplicity leads to action: Complexity leads to confusion and procrastination. I can’t tell you how many times I resolved to use a hot-shot to-do-app only to fall back to pen and paper. Why? Because everything else seems too damn difficult. Yes, this method doesn’t account for every little thing in your day — but no method can. So you’re much better off using a simple method.
  2. If you commit to nothing, you’ll be distracted by everything: By capping the number of tasks you do in a day, it forces you to only work on the crucial elements of your work. When you strictly follow this simple method, you won’t take unnecessary projects or answer trivial emails throughout the day. You’ll actually get serious work done.
  3. Single-tasking: As we saw above, task-switching costs a lot of time. You can’t do a task well and quickly if your attention is spread thin between ten different tasks.
  4. Eliminates decision fatigue: Using this method you don’t have to make any decisions during the day. Everything is decided the night before. The fewer decisions you make the more mental power you’re going to save for the task at hand.

Final Thought

If not handled properly, to-do lists can turn into nightmares. To recap, here are some things you can do to avoid that:

  1. Do a brain dump: Do not use your mind to merely store things and ideas. Write everything that you’re thinking about and then sort them out. It’s much easier to untangle the mess when you can see it on a piece of paper.
  2. Do a “Commitment Audit”: Be ruthless in asking yourself if a task needs to be done and if it really needs to be on your to-do list.
  3. Categorize: Use simple categorization to split a big list into smaller chunks and make them more manageable.
  4. Batching: Batch similar tasks like checking email, phone calls, errands, etc together so you don’t waste time on them throughout the day.
  5. Cross off 20% of what you plan: We highly underestimate the time it takes to complete a task. So when you’re done with your plan, cut off 20% because it won’t probably get done anyway.
  6. Parkinson’s Law: Use Parkinson’s Law to set mini-deadlines for every task and push yourself to complete it quickly. This small commitment to yourself actually works wonders.
  7. Use the Ivy Lee Method: Write down 6 tasks, prioritize, and then get to work. Focus on #1 and move to the next only when you’re done.

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Written on July 27, 2021