It’s probably not going to be revolutionary and life changing for me to tell you that lists can be a great way to reduce stress and anxiety. I’m sure if I took a moment and googled it, there would be endless blog posts on the great life hack that lists are. (I’m not going to do that just at this moment because it’s not on my list 😉 ). But list can be a life saver when you’re overwhelmed.
So why am I talking about it here, today?
Because list making is another one of my recent epiphanies – and this time I’m really paying attention.
I’ve used lists a lot in my life. When I was a single parent at university, I used lists to keep on track with my class reading and what was going on in my son’s life. I ALWAYS take a list with me to the grocery store. It’s not to keep me within my budget. It’s so that I actually remember to buy everything that I need. I make equipment lists when we go camping and packing lists when we go on vacation, so that I don’t forget anything. I even put things like my purse, wallet and cell phone on the list, because I’ve been known to forget them in the chaos of leaving. At work, I use lists to keep track of all the important tasks so that nothing falls through the cracks.
Somehow, despite the fact that I’ve demonstrated to myself over and over again that lists are useful – sometimes virtually life-saving, I’ve gotten out of the habit of using them in my daily routine at home.
MY CURRENT ROUTINE
I currently don’t have a steady routine. I’ve spent the summer with my kids, without the structure of having to get up each morning and report to my job. Even now that the kids are back in school, I’m only working casual hours. Basically, I’ve spent about three months without any sort of agenda. I’ve just been flying by the seat of my pants. Since my twins were born almost seven years ago, I’ve spent much of my time in this sort of scenario.
Over the last three months, my anxiety has been steadily growing. It was subtle at first. It was masked underneath the chronic pain that vies for all my attention. But, it came to a head last week. I don’t know if it was because I got some unsettling lab results, or if it was just that the anxiety became acute enough for me to finally listen. The anxiety was so severe, that I almost couldn’t care for my children.
I wasn’t functioning.
WHAT DID I DO?
As I was huddled on our couch under the green afghan that my mom crocheted for me, watching my children play with their father, unable to join in, I realized that the problem was the overwhelming amount of tasks that I had pinging around in my brain. They were making me unable to concentrate enough to get anything done. To compound the problem, they were making it so I couldn’t sleep.
I realized that I couldn’t engage with my kids because I was too panicked about what I wasn’t doing while I was with them. My load was just so overwhelming that it was taking all of my mental energy just to keep track of what I needed to do. It left nothing to actually get the work done.
I can’t explain why, but the next morning, when I’d finally dragged myself out of bed, I sat down at the kitchen table and made a list on the back of a yellow school notice that just happened to be sitting on the table. I wrote out the next four days. Then I started filling things in under each day. The first things I listed were the critical things – things with a ‘deadline.’ Then I added the things that I strive to get done every day – things like working on my blog and editing my novel. Finally, I chose one or two housekeeping tasks for each day. I even included the obvious things like making supper and taking a shower.
Suddenly, my workload didn’t seem quite so overwhelming. I still had just as much to do, but I could actually focus on getting something done. I could actually see in front of me what today’s work load was. It became possible to ignore the distractions of the tasks I hadn’t gotten to yet. I knew they were ‘scheduled’ on my list.
You see, I think the problem was that I couldn’t settle into a task because all the other tasks were pulling my attention away. At the end of the day, I was exhausted and in pain and struggling to fit in critical things, like making my kids’ lunches for the next day, and I felt like I hadn’t accomplished anything.
IT’S ABOUT SEEING WHAT I’VE ACCOMPLISHED
For good mental health, it’s important to reach the end of the day and feel like I’ve accomplished something. I don’t know if this is my driven, perfectionist, anxious, type A personality talking, or if it’s something that holds true for the human race as a whole. The accomplishment doesn’t have to be earth shattering – it could be as simple as getting the laundry done.
And the thing is, even without the list, I might have accomplished exactly the same amount of things in the day, but they’d get lost in the chaos. The never ending cycle of housework and child care duties can obscure how much I’m really doing every day. Because, at the end of every day, I feel like I’ve been busy all day but haven’t gotten anything accomplished. I’ve got nothing to show for my energy output. And, I have chronic pain, I don’t have any energy to spare – so, it needs to be productive.
But not on LIST DAY! When I write a list, I have physical proof of all I’ve accomplished, even if the evidence of it is completely undone by my family’s daily living. There might be dishes on the counter, but my list says that I unloaded the dishwasher and filled it at least once today – mission accomplished.
The difference in my outlook was almost instant. On that first ‘list day,’ I felt focused and upbeat, and like maybe I wasn’t doing such a terrible job at navigating my life. I felt this sense of pride – maybe? Whatever the feeling was, it felt good, and I hadn’t felt it in a long time.
I don’t use my list to prove to other people that I’m actually, despite any evidence to the contrary, a productive person. It’s just for me. It’s for my own validation. Because, let’s face it, I’m the only person I really need to answer to – you know in a healthy psychological way.
IS IT FOR EVERYONE?
I guess my one caution would be to not overpopulate the list. Be realistic about what you can get done in a day – keeping in mind that the amount you can ‘schedule’ will be different each day depending on what you’ve got going on. If it helps rein you it, you could always put a number on it. You could limit yourself to say 10 things or whatever works for you. Also, it’s important to stay flexible. It’s perfectly okay to move something from today’s list to another day. You can’t predict everything that’s going to happen. Some jobs take longer than you think they will. Or maybe your friend invites you last minute for tea – move the vacuuming to tomorrow and go for tea!
Okay, I see now that I actually had two cautions 😉
EXPECTATIONS FOR A LIST
Now, to be real about the expectations we put on a list, the efficacy of list making in reducing that anxious feeling that being overwhelmed induces, is going to depend on a lot of things.
One of them is your belief in the process. If you just start writing words on a piece of paper in a half-hearted attempt to change your situation, it isn’t going to work. You have to be ready for a change. You have to want it.
Another important factor in deciding to ‘list’ or not to ‘list, is the root source of your anxiety. If you’re overwhelmed because of a lack of structure and focus, like I apparently was, then making a list might just be the magic you’re looking for. On the other hand, if you’ve over-packed your life, no list is going to save you. You’re going to need to take some of that time that you just don’t have and figure out how to dial back your responsibilities. It’s time to decide what’s important – not an easy task, especially when society is constantly sending us messages about what we ‘should’ be doing.
WHEN IT’S ALL SAID AND DONE.
For me, for the moment anyway, embracing the power of the list is giving my mind a rest. And let me tell you, that when my mind gets a chance to set down its worries, there’s no telling the amazing things that will spring up – my creativity is unleashed. I start to feel like the person that I know deep down I was meant to be.
A list is a simple thing, but it has the power to make a change in your life. It can lay out your tasks and responsibilities – all the things you have to do – in a neat (or messy) and orderly way, so that your mind can focus on what’s important, and you can get some things done.
Plus, let’s not forget the amazing feeling of crossing things off of a list! It’s super cheap therapy. You don’t even have to pay for the paper, if you use scraps. I often use the back of notices that haven’t made it into the recycling bin. You could also use an electronic list, but for me, I like it on paper. I want to scratch things out as I get them done.
I’m not saying that something as simple as a list is going to revolutionize your life. It’s not going to make your workload any lighter or make the pace of our society any slower. But, it just might make facing it, a little less overwhelming.
And that’s a win in my book 🙂
Have a great day, I have to go and cross ‘write a blog post’ off of my list,
I’d love to hear about your anxiety-reducing strategies.
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