If your to-do list is stressing you out, with no end in sight, here’s a silver lining to that cloud: You’re definitely not the only one feeling overwhelmed. During the worst of the pandemic, almost everyone was pushed into doing more than usual, says Gloria Joy Sherrod, LCPC, the creator behind the popular Adulting With ADHD Instagram. And though we’re well into the “new normal” era, many of us are still (often subconsciously) dealing with the fallout of a global pandemic. Add the serious crises happening around the world, and our brains have a hard time keeping up with it all.
“This is a very anxiety-provoking and isolating time for a lot of people,” Sherrod says. “There’s a lot of trauma wrapped up in this moment in terms of grief and loss, and all the different things that we’re constantly consuming and being exposed to.” That’s why many of us are existing in survival mode. “When we’re in that part of our brain that is just helping us get by because we’re overwhelmed or anxious, our planning and our organizing brain goes offline. So it’s harder for us to use that higher-order, thinking to plan and prioritize properly.”
So no, it’s not just you feeling the stress. But there’s some more good news: You can do something about it. Here, Sherrod shares her techniques for getting your to-do list under control.
Say no—for now
It’s easy to say yes to tasks, parties, and opportunities—but nobody can do everything. For those who work from home, it can be difficult to set limits as the boundaries between work and home blur. “I think people think they have more time to do things that they actually don’t have time to do,” Sherrod says. “Maybe we’ve eliminated a commute, so people think they can replace that time with more work—but we’re not robots. It’s not easy to just pile on more work and think that there won’t be consequences to us mentally, that we won’t get burnt out.”
So while you get your to-do list into a better place, say no to anything non-essential. Yes, some non-negotiable tasks do have to get done. But for anything optional, Sherrod says to stop adding to your to-do list. “Many people that I work with have trouble just saying no,” she says. Sometimes, she notes, that’s because of people-pleasing or wanting to be seen as a hard-working person who can get things done. Other times, though, she says we say yes before accurately assessing the tasks we’ve already committed to doing. “We’re chasing the next shiny thing that we can do without considering the fact that we might not have as much time as we think we do.”
Use a time logger
Ever put off doing a task, only to have it loom larger and scarier in your mind—and then, surprise, it takes a total of 10 minutes to get done? Yeah, about that: Using a free time logger such as Clockify will help you understand exactly how long certain tasks take to accomplish. “Track how long different things take in your day to day so that you don’t have those moments where you’re overestimating or underestimating what you have to do,” Sherrod says. It’ll also help you with this next part.
Manage a calendar, not a list
Lists can trick us into thinking that we don’t have much to do, which leads us to underestimate the time it will take to accomplish tasks. “We can see this long list of things to do, but we may downplay how in-depth that list is,” Sherrod says. She suggests putting to-do items in a monthly calendar, not a list, assigning realistic blocks of time to each task. “Even if you don’t think you’re going to do [a task] at that exact time that day, put it on the calendar, so you can see what your workflow really looks like on a given day.” That way, you’ll see how your day is coming together—and how much time you do or don’t have.
Schedule your self-care
Your to-do list shouldn’t just be about work; it should include all of the things going on in your life. “Schedule your breaks, your meals, and sometimes chores, walks—whatever self-care that you need to do,” Sherrod says. Put it all in the calendar to get a bird’s-eye view of the time it takes to be human, not just get work done.
Take time to process
After you create your calendar, refer to it before committing to new tasks. “If someone asks you to do something, always say no first or ‘Let me think about it,'” Sherrod says. Then, look at your calendar. Is there free time? Do you have the mental and/or physical capacity to take on more? Before moving forward, Sherrod says, envision what your day would look like with that additional commitment. “Look at it systematically,” she says. “A lot of us say yes because something sounds nice or we want to help, but we don’t take that extra step to actually look at the calendar in depth.”
Break big tasks down
For tasks that take longer than 30 minutes, Sherrod advises breaking them down into a series of smaller tasks. “It’s really easy to look at a to-do list and say, ‘Oh, that looks really simple,'” she says. “And then in the grand scheme of things, that one task is actually five tasks.” Fill your calendar accordingly and feel the satisfaction of knocking out five smaller tasks rather than stressing about one bigger one.
Recruit a buddy
An accountability buddy may help you stay focused, say no to non-essentials, or otherwise get the support you need to be less stressed. “Find a buddy who knows that you are good with overcommitting,” Sherrod says. “Look for someone who will tell you, ‘Okay, are you sure you have time for all that?’ and check you when you might be over-committing.”
Follow the 30-second rule
If a task will take 30 seconds or less, Sherrod says, just do it. Don’t even bother writing it down. Just get it done.
Automate, then delegate
If you can automate a task, do so. “Most calendars and most technology have automation built into them, whatever technology you’re using,” Sherrod says. “And whatever you can’t automate, delegate. Whatever you can’t delegate, that’s what you’re left with.”
Accept some overwhelm
No matter who you are, there will be periods of unavoidable overwhelm. Rather than fight those times, accept the reality, says Sherrod. “When we get the feeling that we aren’t supposed to be this overwhelmed and stressed out—you know, having anxiety about the anxiety—it can help to be in the chaos. It’s less frustrating to think that way.”
She notes that for parents, to-do lists can be never-ending—and that’s normal. “Accept that it’s going to be really difficult, busy, and hectic, especially in those first five years where children are not very self-sufficient,” she says. “You can’t really delegate some of their own things to kids.” Sherrod, who is a mother, says that as children grow, it’s wise and helpful to delegate age-appropriate tasks that you may have done for them in their younger stages. (For example, a two-year-old can put his dirty clothes in a hamper; a nine-year-old can fold laundry.) “It can be really easy for parents to take those things on,” Sherrod says, but teaching kids self-sufficiency is beneficial for parents and children.
A note on ADHD
Anyone can become overwhelmed by a to-do list, but among people with ADHD, it’s even harder to manage the stress. “There are a lot of different barriers for people with ADHD when it comes to to-do lists, in terms of our ability to just use our executive functions,” Sherrod says. Those executive functions include skills like planning, initiating tasks, prioritizing, and time management. In neurotypical people, these skills come naturally or can be developed with practice. But people who have ADHD have brains that work differently. “No matter how much someone with ADHD practices doing these things, it’s still a skill that just is not fully developed,” Sherrod says. For instance, someone with ADHD may struggle to accurately assess how long a task may take, which makes it difficult to plan the appropriate number of things on a to-do list. It’s also harder for people with ADHD to do less-favorable tasks, which adds to anxiety around the ability (or struggle) to tackle tasks that require focus and sustained attention.
If you think you may have ADHD, Sherrod suggests seeing a primary care physician. “Other things could be at play,” she says, “so you want a doctor to check for other possible diagnoses and rule out any physical health conditions.” (Such as vitamin deficiencies, for instance.) Otherwise, a psychologist can provide a thorough assessment to see if you have ADHD or could benefit from techniques and strategies used to help focus.