To-do lists cause anxiety and depression

Picture of a to-do list on a smartphone

Has your to-do list become your enemy.
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

To-do lists cause anxiety and depression

By David Joel Miller, MS, Licensed Therapist & Counselor.

Is your to-do list getting you down?

I’ve been struggling with my to-do list for a long time. I probably should say to-do lists, plural. I do a lot of different things in a day. I spend my day teaching classes, doing supervision, and of course, as a licensed mental health professional, I see a lot of clients. To-do lists have become a big problem for me and almost everyone I know. I think I may have found a solution for this problem.

Rattling around in my brain all day are those ideas for creative things I would like to do. There’s a blog post, a YouTube video, and that novel I’m working on. There are also all those topics that pop into my head that I need to research because no matter how long you have been working with clients, someone will present with a new problem that you wish you knew more about.

Trying to remember six things I want to do when I’m done with this session fills my head up so much I can’t concentrate. As a result, I have learned to use a little pad that sits next to me on my desk as a sort of external hard drive.

Every time an idea pops into my head, I quickly write it on the pad, which means I don’t have to remember it. Then, when the list gets full, I tear off the sheet and toss it onto a pile on my desk. That pile has become the home of my to-do lists. Periodically I go through those notes and try to create one or two consolidated to-do lists. The sheer number of things waiting on those pages to be done used to be overwhelming.

The to-do list phobia syndrome.

My pile of to-do lists became so large that I started placing a book on top of them just so I didn’t have to look at them. I’ve learned from the work I’m doing with both counseling and coaching clients that I’m not the only one who struggles with massive to-do lists. Many of my clients tell me that the length of their to-do list is making them anxious, and at the end of the day, when they look at the items they have been able to complete and see how many remain, they become overwhelmed and depressed.

Does the sheer length of your to-do list make you feel like a failure? I do know, of course, that the reality is that many of those things on my to-do list don’t absolutely have to be done. I need to show up for my counseling appointments and my classes. I need to turn in my timesheets and do my billing if I want to get paid. But all those other things that I feel like I “must” or “should” be doing were making me anxious.

Before long, I think we will have to add a diagnosis for a new phenomenon I’m calling “to-do list phobia.”

Do you delete emails with the word “do” in the subject line?

Have you reached the point where as soon as you see the phrase in the subject line containing the word “do,” that email goes straight to the deleted email file? I had begun ignoring any communication which began with “I need you to do something for me” or “please do this as soon as possible.”

In fact, I was beginning to toss to-do lists of my own making directly into the recycle bin in the hopes that having written down the desire to do this at some point in the future would be enough to keep that thought from returning to my brain.

If you’ve reached the point where just looking at your to-do list, knowing that you have one, and seeing how little you have gotten done on it in the course of the day is leading to anxiety or depression, you have probably contracted a case of “to-do phobia syndrome.” By the way, that’s not an official diagnosis. Still, I see enough people obsessed with productivity and terrified by the undone things on their to-do lists that I think it’s helpful to look at the results of too many things on a to-do list as a productivity impairing syndrome.

How to make your to-do list your friend.

I have found one thing that seems to change my to-do lists from adversaries punishing me for my shortcomings into welcoming friends who encourage me to enjoy the things I do.

One reason I think to-do lists become the enemy for many people rather than helpful friends is that they view those lists as things they HAVE to do. That’s the way I had been looking at it. I get to my desk each morning and would find the list with ten or more things I HAD to do today. At the end of the day, looking back at the things I scratched off, I had finished maybe three out of the ten items. Thirty percent of the items completed feel more like a failure than a success.

Start making lists of things you WANT to do.

I stopped thinking about my to-do list as things I should do or must do and started looking at them as things I WANTED to do. Accomplishing three things that I wanted to do today feels pretty good. I know I won’t live forever. However, part of my life philosophy is that I try to keep moving forward rapidly enough to stay ahead of the Grim Reaper. It will never be possible for me to do all the things I want to do in this lifetime, but I’ve sure been able to do a lot of them.

What would it look like for you if you stopped beating yourself up with things you had to do and started looking forward to things that you wanted to do? If the things on your to-do list aren’t things you really want to do, maybe it’s time to re-examine the direction your life is going.

Does David Joel Miller see clients for counseling and coaching?

Yes, I do. I can see private pay clients if they live in California, where I am licensed. If you’re interested in information about that, please email me or use the contact me form.

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