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Anxiety and the Never Ending To-Do List

My mind races when I go to bed. I pull up the notes app on my phone and add another thing I don’t want to forget: call the children’s museum and renew our membership. I lie back down and wait. My mind spins through things I already did, things already on the list, and finds another new one: clean the upstairs toilet before our guests come over. I sit up and add it to the list. The list is endless. I will never conquer the list. When I do anything else, like workout, go on a date night with my husband, or play with my children, the list is there, taunting me with the things I’m not doing.

I’m a list person. I love lists. There’s nothing wrong with lists. Sometimes when my mind is spinning, it’s actually helpful to write it out and I realize there’s not really that much to do. But I’m realizing lately that when I get caught in anxiety-mode, the list tends to fill up needlessly. It fills with silly little things that really don’t matter, though they all seem vitally important. Get a lightweight jacket for my youngest. Return the shoes that didn’t fit my oldest. Wash the hand towels. Are these things worth stressing over? I’m learning to move some things to the To-Don’t list. Not a real list that I keep, but an empty void that frees up white space in my mind. I need white space to function.

Here are the questions I ask myself when my to-do list gets out of control.

  1. Will I forget this if I take it off the list? If the answer is yes, there’s a chance it’s worth forgetting. If it’s something I would forget and never think about again (maybe leaving a review for a purchase), then I let it go to the To-Don’t list. If the answer is no, then does it even need to be on the list? In the haze of To-Do Mode, I have put down silly things like “make dinner.” I’m not going to forget to make dinner. I can take that off the to-do list. It’s not something to stress over. I’ll do it this evening. If I might forget, and forgetting it would really be a problem (say, buying a gift for a loved one’s birthday), then it can stay on the list.

  2. Can I move this to a different list? Buying that jacket for my youngest? Move it to the shopping list. I’ll let go of the idea of checking all the kids resale shops and just buy it at Walmart next time I’m there. Off the to-do list, and now part of my regular weekly shopping trip.

  3. Can I do this in less than 5 minutes? If so, do it right now. Wash the hand towels? I can go grab those and toss them in the washing machine in less than 3 minutes flat. Cross it off and get it done. It’ll make the rest of the list feel more approachable.

  4. Can I let this go? Those shoes that need to be returned? They cost $15. It would probably be most responsible to return them, and of course save a few bucks. But maybe the 30-minute roundtrip to the store isn’t worth it. Maybe the stress of another item on the to-do list isn’t worth it. Maybe I can just stash them in the closet until they fit my youngest, or pass them off to another family.

Clearing out my to-do list creates breathing room in my mind. Once I stop and ask some questions about the list, I tend to realize life isn’t (or doesn’t have to be) quite as overwhelming as it felt only minutes ago. Add in a quick breath meditation with a positive phrase (one go to: “I am enough, I have enough”), and I usually feel refreshed enough to tackle the things on my list that actually matter.

Your turn! What is one thing you can cross off your to-do list, without actually doing it? Try it. It’s a whole new world of freedom once you do.


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