Is Your To-Do List Doing More Harm Than Good?

Is Your To-Do List Doing More Harm Than Good?

Our lives have become more hectic over the years. Whether it’s a societal push toward greater productivity, higher expectations from both within and from the wider community, or access to technology and information that makes us think that we need to be so much more, anxiety levels in virtually everything we do have jumped through the roof.

We often turn toward the to-do list as a solution to our hectic lives, excessive expectations and far-too-lofty goals. We tend to believe that if we write down everything we need to do, we will finally be able to get it done and regain the peace of mind that we so desperately long for.

However, while the to-do list can be a very useful tool in organizing our lives, they can also be misused, putting us into a perpetual cycle of higher expectations and greater frustrations when we fail to meet them. And the use or misuse of a to-do list is not limited to our work world – we often find the very same concerns in our personal lives as well.

It’s only a To-Do List. How Bad Could It Actually Be?

Yes, the to-do list may be a simple piece of paper or a checklist on your phone or computer, and yes, the to-do list itself is not the problem. It’s our expectations and how we use the list that is the core of the issue.

  • First, it is easy to think that not having a to-do list is holding us back from being as efficient as we expect to be. This is rarely the case. Yes, not having a to-do list may add to our frustrations when we forget a task or two, but a list simply adds some structure to what we should be doing already. Believing that a to-do list will actually make us work harder or smarter is unrealistic.
  • Second, the to-do list may make us focus on the smaller items that we can take off our list quickly and easily, while procrastinating on the bigger items that, while more complex, may also be far more important and satisfying to complete.
  • Without perspective, our new list may also increase our stress and anxiety levels. Related to the point above, we tend to list only the high-level project goals and not the many elements that need be completed to achieve that broader goal. It can perpetuate an all-or-nothing mentality.
  • There is always the risk that maintaining a to-do list creates obsessive behavior. For example, waking up too early or going to sleep very late just to get one more to-do crossed off the list can lead to added stress by not taking care of ourselves and our needs.

So how does this tie into our collective mental health situation?

Four many of us, neglecting our personal health in the form of poor diet, exercise and sleep, as well as setting ambitious, unrealistic, expectations for our personal and work life combine to create stress and anxiety. This may lead to sleeplessness, weight gain, sedentary lifestyle, and chronic fatigue.

While our bodies and minds are built for stress – and stress can be a good thing in small doses – continual stress can have a compounding effect that leads to mental health troubles as well as substance-abuse issues in some cases.

The rates of chronic anxiety disorders, as well as depression, have steadily increased over the years. Over the past 10 years, depression amongst Americans of all ages has increased significantly, and teens have been most affected, with over 12 percent of 12-17 years suffering from depression. Further, mental health and substance abuse disorders are affecting ever-younger people. In fact, heart attacks in people 40 and younger are on the rise.²

What is the solution?

The solution may be, in part, to reduce societal anxiety and stress levels by simplifying our work and personal lives. We are spread too thin, our lives and kids overscheduled. However, any mention of such “radical” change can undoubtedly be met with resistance . “Its simply can’t be done without ___(add problem or consequence here).” And to some degree, without a societal shift in expectations and a deeper understanding of mental health and work-life balance, we will be hard-pressed to simplify our lives.

¹“Depression Is on the Rise in the U.S., Especially Among Young Teens.” <www.mailman.columbia.edu/public-health-now/news/depression-rise-us-especially-among-young-teens>.

²American College of Cardiology. “Heart attacks increasingly common in young adults: Youngest heart attack survivors have same likelihood of dying as survivors 10+ years older; substance abuse may be contributing to trend.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 7 March 2019. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/03/190307081026.htm>.

Originally Published March 22, 2019