Using To-Do Lists to Help Manage Anxiety

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

To-do lists are one of the oldest productivity “hacks” in the book. These days, they’re as popular as ever, thanks to the proliferation of bullet journals and task-scheduling apps.

For most of my life, I never bothered with to-do lists. I dismissed them as superfluous and had trouble understanding why anyone found them helpful. That changed when I got my first job as a lawyer. Suddenly, I found myself faced with far more tasks than I could possibly keep track of in my head. To-do lists quickly became an essential part of my scheduling and time-management strategies.

While using to-do lists for time-management, I discovered another, unexpected, benefit of the lists: they helped me to reduce my anxiety.

I’ve struggled with anxiety for most of my life. Even small, trivial tasks often feel completely overwhelming to me. It feels as if they’re spinning around in my head, distracting me from everything else, until they’re finally completed. Putting the tasks on to-do lists helped ease these burden to a surprising degree.

Much of my anxiety comes in the form of a vague feeling that there is something I was supposed to be working on. Whether I was watching TV, eating, or even in the middle of working on something productive, I always had a feeling in the back of my head that there was something else I was forgetting to deal with.

Sometimes there really was something else I needed to deal with, and other times it was just a phantom feeling that didn’t seem to link up with any particular task. Either way, this type of anxiety can be extremely debilitating, completely distracting me from what I’m trying to do, whether it’s work or relaxation.

What I discovered through using to-do lists was that the simple act of writing down a task actually helped to take my mind off of it. In a sense, I was giving myself permission to devote less attention to a task because I knew that I had it physically written out somewhere that I wouldn’t forget it. This allowed me to redirect my focus to the tasks which were actually at hand, while my anxiety about the remaining tasks slowly faded.

In addition, after establishing a practice of using to-do lists, I stopped having as many “phantom” anxiety feelings. At this point, I know that if I have something important I need to do, I will have added it to my list. If I get the feeling that there is something else I’m supposed to be doing, I can more confidently dismiss it, knowing that it’s just an effect of my anxiety.

Complex task keeping systems, such as bullet journals or Google Tasks, offer a variety of advanced features that build on a traditional to-do list. For my purposes though, none of that is necessary. I’ve found that just keeping a basic list of things I need to get done is more than enough to ease my anxiety.

I’ve alternated between physical and digital lists. I have a slight preference for physical lists because there’s a certain visceral satisfaction to crossing out a task after it’s complete, but a digital list works fine when I don’t have any paper. In both cases, I keep the list no-frills, and simply cross out or delete an item after it is finished.

I try to keep just one list going at a time. I’ve found that having too many lists can become distracting and difficult to keep track of. Rarely, I’ll create a separate list for a set of related tasks, but only if I know they can be done quickly.

On some days, I finish every item on my list, but on most days, there are still some left. Regardless of whether I finish the list or not though, I feel the same reduction in my anxiety levels. I can enjoy other parts of my life without the feeling that something is hanging over my head, because I know that when it’s time to return to doing something productive, my tasks will be clearly laid out for me.

If you’re struggling with anxiety, especially if it’s related to the feeling of always having something to do, I strongly recommend trying a to-do list. It’s not a cure-all, and my anxiety hasn’t disappeared completely, but the lists have certainly caused a noticeable improvement.

I’m a lawyer and teacher from North Carolina. I write about sobriety, mental health, running, and more. Buy me a “coffee” at

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