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Ways of Getting Things Done When You’re Anxious

Getting things done when you're anxious can be a challenge. Use these simple tips to get it done even when you're suffering from anxiety.

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

Getting things done when you're anxious can be a challenge. Use these simple tips to get it done even when you're suffering from anxiety.

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:

  1. Write everything downIf 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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:

  1. 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?
  2. 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?
  3. 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.

You can find Greg on his website, Twitter, Google+, and Facebook.

Photo of male in dark shirt: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

16 thoughts on “Ways of Getting Things Done When You’re Anxious”

  1. Mary,

    It’s very tough. I go through periods where I really struggle to get anything done when I’m anxious. I’ve had a very hard week with it this last week.

    About the only advice I can give is, break your housework up into little chunks, and do them one at a time. Let yourself rest between chunk, and reward yourself each and every time you accomplish one of them.

  2. I have Anxiety and keep having panic Attacks and I find it very hard to do any housework. I keep having so many things going through my head at times I just have to lye down. I need some motivation to get over this. Can you help as i’m so sick of feeling like this.

  3. Thank you so much .
    I’ve just left a relationship that kept triggering my anxiety due to his unpredictable drunken rages .
    I’m also after spending a year with my terminally ill mum who passed 6mths ago n I was living in hell with anxiety .now I’m suffering daily panic attacks but am getting huge support and now finding this forum is fantastic …Thank u so so much x

  4. I am feeling positive that grasping at a helping hand is going to be exactly what I need to proceed on a positive path. I am so tired of being alone and yet I am happy to finally be alone. I just need a little push sometime and need to stay focused. I am in therapy now and working on several issues. I am being treated for AADD, PTSD and extreme
    anxiety. I have requested also that I would like to come to a decision being made on whether I am or am not bipolar. I look forward to sharing your blog. THANK YOU.
    Priscilla

  5. Greg, I look forward to following you. I am living on my own with a TBI. Most of the time my lists turn into mini list and it keeps going in a circle until I have a stack of post it notes that I can’t remember where I put it! I can’t find my way out of a paper bag!! I’m a perfectionist. I need tasks “dumbed down”! When it gets too overwhelming I have to cry out for help. I can’t stand piles of paper in counters and tables. My brain is cluttered enough. I come from an architectural and design background. It all has to be evenly spaced! I’m a mess. I sure hope you can help!
    Lillian

    1. Hi Lillian,

      I understand completely. It’s hard to balance out planning vs doing. The purpose of planning, after all, is to get things done, not get trapped in planning. I suffer from similar problems, so I’ll be talking about perfectionism a lot since it’s one of my struggles. Great to have you here. 🙂

  6. This is just what I need for guidance. When you suffer from anxiety and panic disorder, tasks are usually overwhelming. I will try these tips! Thanks for posting.

  7. I’m sorry, but you seem to make it look so easy… I have Generalised Anxiety Disorder and nothing is easy. A list would make things feel overwhelming for me. Sometimes my problem is that I tend to procrastinate so making a list might aid that. I tend to worry over every little detail and problem that could happen when I want to achieve something. Sometimes the best thing for me is to just do it instead of stewing about how to do it. And it never is as bad as it seems! I don’t want to upset you by this comment and I’m sure it will help people. But for some who suffer severe anxiety it isn’t that simple.

    1. It’s not easy, not matter what I or anyone else says about it. I too have generalized anxiety, and nothing is ever easy. I get where you’re coming from. There are different strategies for procrastination, and one of them is just jumping in and doing rather than planning or making lists.

      Your comment does not upset me in the least. You made a valid point here. It’s not easy, and not every strategy is right for everyone.

      Nice to have you on board. 🙂

  8. Thanks for the article on how to get things done when anxious. Do you have any idea how to get tasks done that are actually so over whelming they are causing or contributing to your anxiety? It is like procrastination times 1000! I feel very very stuck. Frozen is a good term to explain it.

    1. Hi Tamara,

      When I’m faced with completely overwhelming tasks, breaking them down into smaller tasks is what helps me. I break them into progressively smaller tasks until each smaller task feels manageable.

      Almost any task can be divided into smaller pieces. Can you give an example of a task that you feel “frozen” about?

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