When you’re anxious, getting things done can feel like a Herculean effort. How do you make sense of the tangle of your to-do list items so you can actually do them? In this post, I’ll explore some strategies for listing, prioritizing, and executing tasks.
Anxious People Have a Tough Time Getting Things Done
Why is this the case? For me, it’s because my list (and when I say “list,” I’m being generous) of undone, half done, and need to get done tasks merge into an amorphous blob in my mind. If you’re like me, you need a way to make all that stuff in your head stop moving. Here are some things that help:
- Write everything down — If you don’t know where to start, start with this. Take 20 minutes and write down everything you need to get done that you can remember. It doesn’t matter whether it’s something that needs to get done today or three months from now. Get it all down in one big list. Get as much written down as you can in 20 minutes, then stop. This is a time management skill. Good job! Now go reward yourself for completing this step. This is where I usually go get more coffee.
- Make a “short” list — From your master list, transfer everything that can be done in two minutes or less to a separate list titled “Shortlist.” That doesn’t necessarily mean the list itself is short; it means the items on the list are short tasks you can do in two minutes or less. Examples of this are calling the bank, opening today’s mail, starting the washing machine, and checking your email.
- Consolidate similar tasks — From your shortlist, group tasks together that naturally lend themselves to being done in a block. This is great for running errands. You can go to the hardware store, pick up your dry cleaning, return the video you rented yesterday, and stop by the ATM at your bank. Chain as many short list items together as you’d like. It’s amazing how much you can accomplish simply by grouping related tasks.
You’ll probably have some things on your master list that don’t need to be done immediately. Put a star next to them and leave them. We’ll talk about planning for the future in an upcoming post.
Getting Things Done Despite Being Anxious
Okay, enough with the list making. I have limited patience with it. Actually, I have limited patience, period. It’s time to move into the execution phase. Here are some things to help you move into doing:
- Match tasks to your energy level — Don’t know what to do first? Take a moment to check in with yourself. How’s your energy level? Do you feel exhausted? Are you brimming with creativity and mental stamina? Start with the tasks that most closely match your current energy levels. When I’m tired, I like to make phone calls. It doesn’t require much thought. When I’m okay but not great, I like to run errands. It’s harder than making phone calls but still fairly easy. And on those rare occasions when I feel loads of mental energy, I like to hole up and work on tasks that require stretches of undivided attention. So, what should you start with right now?
- Get more “granular” — Granularity describes how many little chunks a big project is broken into, kind of like sand. You may find yourself getting overwhelmed as you execute a task on your list. This often indicates the task is really several smaller tasks that didn’t get listed properly. When you feel overwhelmed, take a moment to examine the task at hand. Can it be broken into smaller pieces?
- Don’t try to do it perfectly — Getting things done when you’re anxious also includes coping with perfectionism. This is especially difficult for people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). I’ll talk more about perfectionism later. For now, all I will say is, it’s better to do an average job than to do nothing. Focus on the task at hand and just get it completed, even if it feels unsatisfying. The idea is to create forward momentum.
Anxious people still have to live in the real world, the world of doing. The foundation of getting things done when you’re anxious is good organization. Get to-do items out of your head and into logical lists. Then think of the nice reward you’ll give yourself when you’re finished. Now go.
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