What to Do When Your To Do List Is Stressing You Out

Step 1 of 1: Stop blaming your stress on harmless pieces of paper

Nothing can stress you out except stressed-out thinking.

Let me say that again:

Nothing can stress you out except stressed-out thinking.

If that rings a bell, then my read-rate be damned: stop reading now and go live your life. Because that is truly the only thing you need to know about stress.

Don’t take my word for it, though. Heck, you can’t take my word for it. You’re going to have to see it for yourself if you want to stop feeling like a victim of your planner, Bullet Journal, Google calendar, Wunderlist, Evernote, or Post-It collection.

Raise your hand if you’ve tried them all. Me, too. I’d spent countless hours trying to use new kinds of To Do Lists to manage the stress caused my To Do List…until I realized… wait for it…

Nothing can stress you out except stressed-out thinking.

If you could make a graph with Length of To Do List on the x-axis and Stress Level on the y-axis, the graph would look something like this:

Sometimes your To Do List is long but you’re in such a great mood you don’t even notice how long it is. Sometimes your To Do List is short and you’re still stressed out. Or sometimes you’ve had a powerful experience of just how much you can do in one day, so no matter how long your To Do List is, you feel like a champion who can do anything.

The point is, there is no direct correlation between number of tasks and stress level. Try to connect the dots and you get something like this:

Of course you can’t graph your stress level over the length of your To Do List, because as soon as you start thinking about the length of your To Do List, you’ve added a third variable. If you’re anything like me, when you start to think about the length of your To Do List, you start to feel stressed. (Unless you don’t, in which case you’re already hip to where stress comes from, and I say again: get out of here and go live your life.)

The more stressed we think we should be, the more stressful feelings we experience. Imagine for a moment that your To Do List is impossible and horrifying. How stressed out do you feel? Now imagine that your To Do List is a piece of cake. Feel better? The graph would look something like this:

It’s as simple as that.

Nothing can stress you out except stressed-out thinking.

Ok, so what? What do we do with this information?

Well, since stressed-out thinking is causing our stress, we should stop thinking stressed-out thoughts. We should think happy, relaxing, I-Have-Enough-Time-To-Do-Everything thoughts.


That’s the conventional positive-thinking, Affirmations-On-Your-Mirror wisdom, to be sure. (More Post-Its!)

But managing our thinking is a big task. Nay, I’d say it’s Sisyphean. How much sense does it make to add an impossible task to your already-long To Do list?

Trying to reframe your thoughts all day is like playing an eternal, unwinnable game of whack-a-mole. If you want to do that instead of getting through your To Do List, go for it. But of course that’s not what you want. (Unless you’re a cat.)

What’s more effective and achievable than positive thinking?

In my experience and that of my clients, simply understanding that our stressed-out thoughts are just thoughts, that they are not telling us anything about our To Do Lists or the tasks on them — that understanding alone can move mountains.

It can take what once felt like a mountain and turn it into a mole hill. It can turn Insurmountable into Fun, Confusing into Clear, and Overwhelming into Obvious.

This shift in understanding gives us our power back. It helps us take our stress less seriously. It unleashes our innate resilience. It keeps us from making rash decisions (like quitting our volunteering commitments! Or yelling at our kids for running late! Or telling our subordinate to fuck off!) from a crappy, disempowered, panicky mental state.

It can help you see that your To Do List is not actually a million things all at once. It is in fact one thing at a time. And you can do one thing, can’t you, friend? Of course you can.

Now get out of here and get to work.

Brooke is a mentor, writer, and recovered worry wart. She helps fellow angsters get out of their heads and into their lives.

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