Don't Fear Your To-Do List

If you're like most people, you sometimes feel overwhelmed at your job.  Standard advice for battling overwhelm is very simple: Make a to-do list. This is generally good advice.  I make lots of lists, and most of my clients do, too.  But this can be risky, especially if you ONLY make lists when you are feeling overwhelmed.  A risk can be a scary thing--if you let it.

Think about it.  Imagine that you are in the midst of an overwhelming workday (maybe you don't even have to imagine).  You sit down and make a list of a few, or a few dozen, items.  What happens next?  You might experience thoughts like, "This is impossible.  There's no way I can accomplish all of this.  There is just not enough time."  These thoughts alone might be enough to make you just put the list away and log in to Facebook.

But if you suppress that urge and stay focused on the list, you might start to notice some feelings that come up: Frustration. Anxiety. Maybe even dread.  These feelings may be enough to make you put the list away and start organizing your file drawer.

But if you avoid that temptation, if you stay in the present moment and pay attention, you might start to notice the catastrophic beliefs that drive those feelings: "I can't handle this.  I'll get fired.  It'll be awful."  You might start to notice memories of other times you felt overwhelmed.

And this is where you can start to turn the tide.  This is where you have some choice and control.  You can start to ask your self questions like this:

1. "Does everything on this list really need to get done?"  Think about it.  Is everything on the list crucial to your job?  Are there things you don't really need to do?   Try this: Next time you come across an old forgotten to-do list, check and see whether you ever got around to doing everything on it.  If you didn't, what were the consequences?

2. "Does everything on this list really need to get done NOW?" I mean, honestly.  It often FEELS like we need to do everything right away.  But is that real urgency?  Or just anxiety-driven impulsivity?

3. Do I have a history of letting the important things slide? This is a key question.  Maybe you are somebody who's in the habit of dropping the ball.  Maybe you have a habit of forgetting about the big things.  But if you're not--if you've managed to generally succeed in work and school and life--you may be applying an overlearned habit.

With practice, you can become increasingly comfortable with the fact that you have, have had, and hopefully always will have, a lot to do.