Let’s talk about those damn to-do lists.
Searching for “to-do lists mental health” brings up a lot a ton of results. Do them, don’t do them. They are too stressful, they are helpful. Studies show that but opinion says otherwise.
You get my drift.
So, I’ll cut to the chase: I love them, I think they are helpful in managing my mental illness symptoms and no, I’m nost just saying this because I am a librarian.
When you are in the throes of a mental health crisis, the last thing you want to do is create a damn list and follow it. The idea of that simple act can be, and typically is, anxiety producing. It doesn’t help people tend to overwhelm themselves by putting too much on the lists. But here’s the thing: You can prep the list for days when you may not mentally feel good and you don’t need to do all the things on the list which can help in alleviating that stress. (But you should probably be walking your dog on a daily basis. Just an FYI.)
Let’s head back to the lists. There are literally a million and one ways to create and use lists. Apps, websites, plus good ole pen and paper are usually used. People swear by apps and websites like Remember the Milk and Trello. There is also Pomodoro and GTD as techniques. Don’t even get me started on Bullet Journal fanatics as those people are unhinged (and I mean that in the most loving of ways).
I’ve tried them all, constantly adding apps, buying and canceling subscriptions, spending too much time and money on washi tape, stickers, colored pens and markers for the Bullet Journal. I was also spending a lot of money on blank journals and to-do list paper notebooks. I found myself half-heartedly using a particular method for a few days or spending way too much time color coding things. I was utterly overwhelmed, exhausted, broke, and still not getting shit done.
2018 began and I swore yet another time I would start a to-do list to get myself organized. I bought a Moleskine 2018 pocket sized daily planner (it was 50% off. I do not understand people who buy dated material before it begins when you can get calendars and such typically 50% off after January 1). I was going to create lists and carry it in my purse so I always had it with me.
That lasted a week because I found it was too small for my needs.
I work from home and I juggle a lot of projects. I have a Filofax A5 Domino planner (holy cats! It’s only $22!) that I bought back in 2015. I’ve been carting it around for ages and using it on and off to keep track of said projects which more or less works out okay. An idea hit me that perhaps I should get some calendar paper and give my Filofax a whirl for creating my to-do lists. I bought four months of page a day paper and got to work.
First, I needed to come up with what I was to-do-ing. I didn’t need to list walk the dog or eat because even in the darkest times, the dog still got walked 3x a day and I would at least eat something. I made the bed every day and while the ritual soothed me, I also didn’t need to add it to the list. I definitely needed to add stretching because while it was a daily thing, I was not doing it or remembering it late at night and opted to skip with the intention of doing it the following day which almost never happened. Doing my DBT coursework— the same thing as stretching. I needed to do it, conveniently forgot, and it would be weeks before I did anything typically pushing me back to the beginning of the workbook.
So, I needed to make a list that reminded me to do things, often on specific days so even when I was huddled up as a ball on the bed, I didn’t have to add the stress feeling guilty for doing nothing to my already chaotic mind. I believe a lot of people are like this: just as creating a list when you’re anxious or depressed can add stress, the same can be said if do not create the list.
Here’s what I have for today:
- Post to A Courtesan Poet
- Update Excessively Diverting Quotes
- Brush dog’s teeth
- Read poetry (April is National Poetry Month)
- Post to Effing Mindful
- Drop off donations at the charity shop
That’s part of the list but you get my point.
I then started repeating things on specific days. I needed to update A Courtesan Poet daily for National Poetry Month but I only need to brush the dog’s teeth every other day. I can knock out a few weeks of Excessively Diverting Quotes in an hour-ish so that became a weekly thing instead of hustling to get it done when I remembered. The nice thing is I get so much done on the quotes, I can skip a week if I need to without feeling guilty. I only needed to do the collection of my website and social media stats so I choose the 1st of the month to complete that task. Then there are always one-offs such as dropping off donations to the local charity shop.
I was also mindful of things I needed to do but had no specific time. I carried over “shred paperwork” day by day but accepted it wasn’t getting done this week so I just moved to the beginning of next. My recent bout of mania made it impossible for me to begin studying for the CCENT so I moved that a few weeks out. I worked on being self-aware of not to overload the list when I realistically knew I could not finish the task (aka adding more stress).
Here’s what I found: Using a simple page a day calendar saved me a lot of stress and I got shit done because I wasn’t directing my energy elsewhere. I didn’t need color coding indexes or tabs and sub lists to get said shit done. The list was simple, practical, and it helped me get focused on doing the least minimum amount of work during those especially hard days. And honestly? There was a huge sense of pride that I was able to complete some tasks such as brushing the dog’s teeth or taking a shower because sometimes that’s all you need. Knowing you have completed something, even if it as simple as taking a shower, helps the mood considerably.
Bullet Journal and the apps and websites claim they can be as simple or complex as you want but what is often ignored is the user experience and interactions with those services. With a plain piece of paper and a pen, you know exactly what you’re getting without complications, software upgrades, or running out of colored pens.
Should you create to-do lists? Here are nine reasons why:
- Planning ahead, even small things like remembering to shower, can help elevate the mood when you’re in crisis
- You will have a concrete list of things to do when you’re feeling better without the guilt of “forgetting” them
- It helps clear your mind allowing you to stay focused on the tasks at hand
- It helps you to be better organized so you’re not overwhelmed when you are in crisis
- It helps better manage your time
- It’s a great coping mechanism, especially when you cross things off, when you’re depressed or anxious
- Your lists don’t have to be to-dos. Lists like gratitudes (or adding to your to-do list to write a new gratitude a day), movies you love, or whatever can also be used a coping skill or as a self-soothing process
- Your lists can be as granular (take a shower, brush my teeth) or as broad (write the great American best seller) as you want. There are no limits
- It keeps your mind focused instead of letting it wander to your chaotic thoughts
I created a simple printable download* to get you started. Of course, not everyone are to-do list people but it doesn’t hurt to at least give it a go. Now go forth and to-do!