Q : My to-do list is piling up on me, and my motivation to tackle it is disappearing. Are there any stress-management techniques that can help me stay motivated?
A: You started a to-do list because you thought it would help you get your stuff done, but that list has gotten so long that it seems hopeless to even try. Sound familiar?
To-do lists are great and help people stay focused. I always recommend them to my clients. But they can also be stressful, especially if you have a lot on them and don’t know where to begin. It will be useful to keep two lists - one with weekly tasks and another with monthly tasks. Here are three things to consider.
1. Are you being a perfectionist?
Perfectionism tends to stop people from doing what they have to do. A sign that you may be a covert perfectionist is that your fear of failure is so strong that you avoid doing the task at all.
See if you can pass off any tasks to a partner, relative or coworker. Most people don’t delegate because they think it is easier to do the task themselves. It may be easier in the moment, but over time you are setting yourself up for failure. If you are used to doing everything yourself, then take baby steps. Ask somebody to do something small. For example, ask your partner to pick up an ingredient for dinner or pay a bill. It may seem silly, but it will help you let go of your need to do everything yourself.
2. Is your to-do list unrealistic?
Are you expecting yourself to work full time, go grocery shopping, pick up dry-cleaning, make dinner, and pick up a gift for a party on the weekend?
Take your to-do list and write the length of time it will take to do each task. Overestimate rather than underestimate the time. You know you can’t do a week’s groceries in 20 minutes. You think you can do them in 45? Write one hour. The worst-case scenario is that you have extra time. It is worse for your mind and body to be running from one task to another without having enough time to do everything: this increases your cortisol levels and takes a toll on your body.
After this step, decide which tasks need to be done this week and which can be done this month. Then put the tasks in your calendar with the length of time it will take to do each one so you can be realistic. Make sure you do not fill up every day in your calendar: leave yourself time to relax and have a life.
3. Is the task so big that you’ll never get it done? Will it take you six long hours to complete that report?
If you think of your task in these terms, you won’t be motivated to work on it. It helps to break daunting tasks down into smaller steps. Say your report requires you to do research, speak with clients, look at past sales and present your conclusions. Break the one large task into these smaller tasks, and give yourself a mental checkmark for every one you complete. You will be well on your way to taking control of your to do list, instead of the other way around.
Natalie Shay is a Psychotherapist and Life Coach specializing in stress management and emotional eating since 2006. She coaches individuals and consults with organizations with respect to such topics as stress management, preventing burn-out, achieving work/life balance and learning how to stop eating with emotions. Her purpose is to work with clients to help them uncover ineffective habits and create new healthier ones. Natalie can be reached at