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How to Reduce Anxiety about Getting Tasks Done


Many of my clients describe seeking food when they’re not hungry to put off doing tasks or because they feel anxious that they haven’t done them. This is a habituated response to emotional discomfort, nothing more, nothing less. The way to break the habit is to attack the problem from both ends: do the tasks and not feel anxious if they’re not accomplished. 

The psychology behind to-do lists and how they can make you feel less anxious” explains how to-do lists can help you stop putting off tasks and actually get them done. Says its author, Lauren Kent, “The trick is to reframe your to-do list as a set of miniature goals for the day and to think of your checklist items as steps in a plan.” 

E.J. Masicampo, associate psychology professor at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, adds, “Goals are interesting as they are almost these autonomous agents that kind of live inside you and occupy space in your mind . . . When a goal is unfinished it might be a weight on your mind in terms of anxiety or worry and it colors how you see the world, because it's sort of tugging at the sleeve of your conscious attention . . . It can be omnipresent whether you're aware of it or not."

According to this article, “your to-do list's mini-goals also need to be well defined and have short time frames.” You also must be flexible in how you view the list because things change from day to day. Keeping a short-term list works better than a long-term one. What’s on the list must be a plan, not a wish, not a “maybe someday” exploration, and items cannot conflict with each other such as spending the afternoon visiting your mother and refinishing an antique chair. A to-do wish works best when you rank the items on it in order of importance for the day.

The article also points out that we need to take time out and this is usually a problem for dysregulated eaters as well in two ways. First, with all-nothing thinking, they often figuratively overfill their plates with things to accomplish, push themselves hard, and feel exhausted but won’t allow themselves relaxation time. Second, even if they do, they worry about all the tasks they didn’t accomplish and can’t ever really clear their minds. Even when they’re supposed to be chilling, they’re still stuck on getting things done.

One thought about to-do lists. Just the idea of them makes some people want to run away because “doing” is synonymous with “having to do.” Perhaps there’s another word you could come up with that would make your list seem less ominous.