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.
How a To-Do Lists Reduces Anxiety
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.