pylons on a beach

How Slashing My To-Do List Made Me More Productive Than Ever

By May Steinberg
June 09, 2021

In stressful times, staying productive can be a complicated two-step. Setting and achieving goals can help manage stress and boost our happiness, but the pressure to keep up the same pace despite our challenges can make getting things done a slog.

I felt this pressure when I lost my full-time job at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the stress a layoff can cause, I tried to stay optimistic as I threw myself into projects. I thought, ‘This will give me more time to write and to learn new pastry techniques and to work on my Spanish.’ Even though I no longer had a 9-to-5, my days were quickly filled with the things I’ve always wanted to do, but never had time for.

In my rush to cross everything off my to-do list, I temporarily overlooked the fact that I live with depression, anxiety, and Seasonal Affective Disorder—all of which already force me to push myself harder mentally in the best of times. But as the days got shorter and the public health of our nation worsened, it became increasingly difficult to accomplish anything. I felt endlessly exhausted, and the collective trauma we've all felt living through a pandemic made me extra distracted and unfocused. Frankly, the only thing that became easier was beating myself up for not getting more done, which only made me feel worse and sapped my motivation even more. So much for making use of my extra time.

I talked with my therapist who suggested I start making a list each day of three things I can do. Then, when I'm done with those three things, I'll feel less guilty about taking time to rest, binge episodes of The Real Housewives, or savor a new book. It sounds too simple, right? But, to my surprise, it worked!

I figured there must be some science behind this, and I was right. Researchers have found that writing down a to-do list can help alleviate anxiety. A study from USC reported that setting micro-goals releases dopamine in our brain and keeps us motivated to achieve our bigger goals. There were even other stories about folks with anxiety who used micro-goals to help them get through the day.

Here are some tips that I’ve picked up in my micro-goal journey. Feel free to take what you need.

Be Kind to Yourself

This is number one, always. We’re collectively living through so much; it can be easy to forget just how much we've had to bail out our boats to keep from going under. Take a moment to recognize that all that has happened has been A Lot. Then, put yourself down as a priority. Practicing self-compassion is essential, and it should fuel your to-do list. Go ahead, indulge in behavior that you may initially deem as “unproductive.” Taking care of your needs is productive.

Use Micro-Goals to Feed Your Macro-Goals

You can achieve your aspirations, whether you take them on in leaps and bounds or you diligently chip away step-by-step. This is also a proven strategy for goal-setting in “normal” times. Say you want to start a podcast, that’s a big project that requires lots of planning. By breaking it down into smaller elements—acquiring microphones and other needed equipment; playing with and learning how to use the editing software; setting up the social-media accounts; and, reaching out to potential guests—we can start inching toward the larger goal. Plus, each of these smaller tasks can be further broken down into even tinier tasks, if reaching the goal still seems too daunting. The important part is that you do a little bit every day to move closer to the finish line. Before you know it, you’ll have completed your goal, and had enough time for yourself to be the best podcast host you can be!

Everyday Tasks Count

Everything on your list doesn’t have to be a step toward a larger goal. On those days when just thinking about tackling the big tasks is exhausting, you can keep propelling yourself forward by going small. So, don't forget to include tasks like making the bed, steeping a cup of tea, taking a shower, or washing the dishes on your to-do list, and congratulate yourself each time you mark an item as done. Make sure you do your chores mindfully for a bonus happiness boost.

Share Your Accomplishments with Family and Friends

Let's be honest, dinner-table conversations with our families during the pandemic can get kind of stale.

“What did you do today, Dear?”

“I don’t know, Honey, you tell me. You were sitting next to me on the couch for most of it.”

Sharing your progress on your to-do list can not only liven up the dreaded “How was your day?” question, it can also keep you accountable in following through with your goals.

Give Yourself Time to Do Nothing

Is this the millionth time you’ve heard the term “self-care” in the past year? Well, here it is again; it is a pandemic, after all. It is completely okay to indulge in extra self-care whether that’s bingeing TV, putting your phone on Do Not Disturb mode, or doing a puzzle. Once you finish your third task of the day—big or small—taking some “me time” is proof to the negative voices in your head that you have accomplished something. Say it with me now, “I am entitled to a break.” Look to your list as evidence when you’re getting down on yourself, and feel proud of all that you’re doing.

Keeping your daily tasks manageable will keep you motivated and give you peace of mind. Just because we are living in extraordinary times, that doesn’t mean the onus is on us to be extraordinary, too.

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