Feeling overwhelmed? How to reduce anxiety using to-do lists

Feeling overwhelmed? How to reduce anxiety using to-do lists

In this second article in our Career Skills series, teacher, teacher trainer and ELT author Rachael Roberts outlines how you can reduce anxiety with well-managed to-do lists. 

Rachael also goes into the psychology behind to-do lists and shows exactly how you can make the most of your own lists to get back on top of your priorities. 

Help reduce anxiety using to-do lists
Every teacher I know has a to-do list a mile long, or maybe even several to-do lists in different places.

Theoretically, a to-do list is a good idea. When we write something down, the brain can stop holding onto it quite as tightly, which can reduce anxiety and any feeling of overwhelm.

This tendency to obsess about unfinished tasks is called the Ziergarnik effect, after the Russian psychologist Bluma Ziergarnik, who noticed that waiters only remembered orders before they were served. As soon as the meals were delivered, the memory vanished.

So, if your brain is constantly nagging you about tasks which remain undone, write them down or make a rough plan and the anxiety will often disappear.

The downside to ‘to-do’ lists
I once had a list of jobs that needed doing about the house which had some items dating back several years. Simply writing down a task doesn’t guarantee that it will get done. A lengthy to-do list can, in fact, enable you to procrastinate and avoid doing important tasks as they are hidden amongst any number of others.

Long lists can also be overwhelming and off-putting in themselves, and as you cross items off the list becomes cluttered and disorganized.

Making better use of your to-do list(s)

1. Learn to prioritize
It is vital to distinguish between tasks as this will help you decide how to prioritize, delegate and ignore. Categorize your tasks in the following way:

Important and urgent (prioritize these).

Important but not urgent (book in a time to do these, and stick to it).

Urgent but not important (see if you can delegate these, or consider if you need to do them at all).

Not urgent and not important (you could almost certainly take these off your list altogether).

2. Keep separate lists for separate areas of your life
It’s much easier to see what needs to be done and to prioritize things if you keep separate lists. If you are comfortable with tech, there are plenty of apps to help you with this. You can flag things as important and set reminders and deadline alerts while keeping separate lists. Wunderlist, Trello and Monday are just a few of the options available. If you’re more old school, you can simply have separate pages in a notebook.

3. Break tasks down
It is understandable that you would tend to avoid getting started on a big task that is going to take a long time. There never seems to be a suitable time slot to get it done. Instead, break it down into smaller tasks and tackle one at a time. For example, break down marking 30 books into three slots of marking ten books.

4. Know your next actions
Before you finish work on part of a bigger task, make sure you know your next step, so that when you come back to it you can get started straight away. This also works well when you decide at the end of a working day what the first task is that you’ll do tomorrow.

5.  Review weekly 
A regular review is essential. Look through what you’ve achieved and feel good about it- and remove it from your lists. Analyse where you tried to do too much (try to stick to 3-5 tasks a day) and consider this when setting yourself tasks for the following week. Take note of any tasks you should have done but didn’t get round to and, assuming a certain task really is a priority, decide exactly when you are going to do it the next week.

Good luck!
Teaching requires you to juggle 101 different things, and that’s before you take your home life into account as well. Get on top of your to-do list, and not only will you feel less overwhelmed, but you may also even find yourself a bit more free time.