Everyone’s had those days. When there’s so much to get done that we don’t know where to start. The ones when you have a gazillion little things to sort out or the mammoth days that demand you spend your time hacking away at one or two goliath tasks. We might even have days when there’s nothing to do, but we feel bad for doing nothing.
Whatever days you’ve been having lately, you’re here to get some tips on how to make them more manageable, or because I sent you a link to this post and demanded you read it! (You know who you are and I appreciate you xxx)
Overwhelm is a surprisingly underrated emotion. We often don’t give it the attention it deserves or realise the damage it can do. That’s because we’re so good at disguising it. Overwhelm can look like a relaxing Netflix binge, a random outburst at an unsuspecting friend, an ‘out of nowhere’ crying session or even a moment of stillness.
Overwhelm is linked to stress, which means your body reacts to it in the same way it would to physical threats and dangers. It gets our adrenaline pumping, our anxiety spiking and our fight or flight response triggered.
The to-do list helps to turn that flood of emotion into an objective, organised plan on how to get through.
I’m sure I don’t need to tell you about the magic of the to-do list. Our little allies, sometimes carved in cursive across bullet-journal pages or scratched in shorthand on the back of a bank statement, are there to help us get our thoughts in order. It turns out that our love for listies comes down to psychology, according to Dr David Cohen.
‘Cohen puts our love of to-do lists down to three reasons: they dampen anxiety about the chaos of life; they give us a structure, a plan that we can stick to; and they are proof of what we have achieved that day, week or month.’
Now we’ve renewed our appreciation for the humble to-do list, I’m going to give you some guidance on how to make the most of them when you’re feeling overwhelmed. My first five tips will give you some different styles to try out and the rest will help you with getting the most out of whichever type of list you choose.
I use brain-dumps as a way to empty everything out of my head and onto paper. This is a method I use for blogging too, but at those times I very creatively change the name to ‘blog-dump’ or ‘blog-storming’. Absolute genius, I know.
For you juvenile delinquents who can’t read ‘dump’ without thinking of a toilet, then you can use any funny, onomatopoeic word that you like. I personally like ‘brain-plonk’, ‘brain-chuck’ or ‘brain-bung’. The last one even has alliteration! From now on we’ll go with brain-plonking.
Brain-plonking is a flexible listing style where the only requirement is that you fill a page (or two or three) with everything in your head. Everything in your head includes everything you need to do, feel obliged to do, even things you can’t control. It doesn’t even have to be things to do, just whatever is occupying your mind.
The important thing is to get it out! A great, green mind once said, ‘better out than in I always say’. Annnddd we’re back to toilet humour.
2. Morning Pages
Morning Pages are similar in some ways to the brain-plonk. For one, they share the purpose of emptying your head. I’ve been writing Morning Pages as a casual part of my morning routine for quite some time now and I notice the difference in the days that I do write and the days I don’t.
“The Morning Pages idea originally comes from Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way and is just one of the methods used by Amy [Landino] to ensure a productive morning. Cameron suggests writing three pages every morning, stream-of-consciousness style. Getting everything from your head onto paper, good and bad, works well to get those cogs turning.”
3. Ivy Lee Method
There’s no school like the old school; unless the old school is flawed of course. Luckily, Ivy Lee seems to be standing the test of time for time management and battling overwhelm. It’s recommended to write your Ivy Lee list at the end of the day, to relax your mind and set yourself up for calmness and productivity.
Your goal is to write down six things that you need to get done the next day and then number them based on their importance. Do this and you’ll be able to sleep easier knowing that all your needs are accounted for and you’ll be primed and ready the next day to get going.
The next morning you see number one on your list, bite the bullet and get it ticked off as soon as possible. The perk with Ivy Lee is that even if you only get one thing done that day, that one thing was your highest priority task.
You can read more about the Ivy Lee method from Amy Landino, my productivity guru. She explains the method in clear, concise detail. Give it a read and, while you’re there, have a wander around her beautiful site- her goal is to ‘help you go after the life you want’ and so far she’s been a helpful resource for me!
4. Must/ Should/ Could Lists
I use my Must Do/ Should Do/ Could Do lists whenever I have lots of little things to get done. While these little things wouldn’t usually take long, when they start to build up and web together you know I’m going to be freaking out.
I’m moving back to the UK from Japan on 25th July (how crazy is that!?) and this style of list has been a godsend for organising the seemingly endless amount of things I need to do before moving away.
It’s perfect for those days like when I’m like-
‘I need to write a post for Sunday and then I need to pick up presents for my friends and I need to write letters and I need to pack and declutter and I need to cancel my phone contract and I need to clear my desk and then get rid of my old furniture and I need to do some laundry too…’
It’s simple; you write your three titles- ‘Must Do’, ‘Should Do’ and ‘Could Do’ and then you assign all of your ‘to-do’s a column. I usually use my Morning Pages or brain-plonk as a pre-made task reference list. Once your lists are sorted you can get to work, starting with the ‘Must Do’s.
The only rule here is that your ‘Must Do’ list is shorter than your ‘Should Do’ list and ‘Should Do’ is shorter than your ‘Could Do’.
The reason I really like this style is that it makes you question the overused phrase- ‘I need to…’ It’s so easy to fall into the trap of overloading an already filled plate and the pressure that comes with that does us no good. This type of list pushes us to decide what is absolutely essential to get done, keeping us away from panicking and infinite listing.
While just like Ivy Lee in its focus on prioritising, the Must/Should/Could organiser differs in its timing. Unlike Ivy Lee you can write this whenever you want and it makes more sense for me to do it straight after emptying my head in first thing in the morning.
5. Things I want to do/ Things I’ve done
This method is a simpler, more reflective form of calendar blocking. (If you don’t know what calendar blocking is, watch this video!)
You start off writing all of the things you want to do and then begin to log what you’re actually getting done throughout the day. It’s a good way to review how you’re spending your time and to remind you that you’re probably being more productive than you think. It’s a good feeling to see yourself overachieve on your goals.
6. Review your list
It’s always important to check-in and your check-ins don’t have to happen just the once, in fact, the more the merrier.
Looking back over your list lets you see how you’re getting on and adjust your course (or your goals) when you need to. Plus, watching your how your list evolves throughout the day is always interesting to see.
As I said, my initial lists get written in the morning when I set my intention for the day. I’ll revisit my list every time I go back to cross something off. I give it a proper look over at lunch and then again after dinner ~8pm. Checking after dinner gives me the chance to get one more thing ticked off or delegated to future Jess, sitting at the top of the pile tomorrow.
One thing I wouldn’t recommend is reviewing your lists much later than 8-9pm; you don’t want to get yourself stressed out again right before bed.
7. Add self-care to your list
Whatever serves you, add it to the list. Tell yourself that your wellbeing is just as important as the other things you need to do- because it is!
Some ideas for things to add-
Make a brew (a cup of tea/ coffee if you’re not from the UK)
Take a long bath
Buy fresh flowers
Play positivity playlist
Call *whoever is certain to make you smile*
Do your facial routine
The facial routine has been my priority recently. Feeling overwhelmed makes it so easy to forget about skincare even when it’s needed most. Between wearing a facemask to work, Japanese humidity, coming on my period and the hormonal impact of stress- my face is dealing with a lot. Keeping up with skincare can be like a little therapy session, as you check in with yourself and listen to what your skin is telling you. Right now my skin is telling me to EXFOLIATE.
Adding self-care to your list makes a big difference and it’s a tick that you can look forward to. You’re never too busy to take care of yourself!
8. Have rewards
When I was studying for my GCSE’s in high school, I built a system that would help me get all of my revision and studying under control. I’ve always been a listoholic and I’m definitely a ticker- I love the feeling that comes with ticking something off.
So, there sat teenage Jess, surrounded by posters of insanely cool emo bands and anime characters, as I said…insanely cool. The soft melodic hum of Slipknot’s Iowa album teetered out from the CD player as I sat cutting out circle after circle of silver foil and writing out a detailed ‘token menu’.
My scheme was simple- each token represented 30 minutes of study and, like tickets in an arcade, they added up to get rewards. Rather than soft toys or sweets, my tokens bought me things to do in my free time.
Watching an episode of Jeremy Kyle would cost me 2 or 3 tokens, a takeaway would be like 5. Staying over at my friend’s house would cost a big 12- 15 (that’s at least 6 hours of studying!)
I had to work hard to get to Rachel’s house on the weekend, but the thought of being there surrounded by her horde of cats, the Nintendo GameCube and her mum’s amazing company and sweet-haul was motivation a-plenty.
It’s safe to say, I passed my exams.
But if you’re reading this and thinking ‘that’s a bit bloody intense Jess’- same. 16-year-old Jess was hardcore.
As a big, mature adult now, I can see that I’d gotten the concept right, I just needed a little more balance. Even as an emo teenager who was also surprisingly positive, I knew some things about getting things done. I knew that it was important to have rewards to help you get through things you might not want to do for whatever reason.
I’d also discovered that rewards are more effective when they’re already established which I still believe now. Rather than deciding your ‘I deserve this’ treat after you do something, planning out how you’re going to reward yourself beforehand is more effective. It gives you more reason to actually get started and lets you feel excited about it.
To establish your rewards you can either write it down (you don’t need a token menu don’t worry) or tell someone your plan. It’s as easy as telling your mate ‘After I declutter and sort out my wardrobe, I’m taking myself out for lunch!’
9. Be specific with your goals
Writing goals like ‘get fit’, ‘sort out essay’ or even ‘clean house’ are going to add to your overwhelm, not combat it. When you finally build up the energy to tackle your mammoth generic tasks you then have the problem that we all struggle with, dealing with the nuance.
Instead of spending your time getting sh*t done and ticking things off, you’re debating with yourself. What does a ‘sorted’ essay look like? Is the house really ‘clean’- what defines ‘clean’? A sweep through and a tidy, but what about the dishes? Do you need to clean behind the microwave? You can almost hear Derrida chuckling somewhere in the différance, sorry, distance.
Setting a specific goal, like ‘do one load of laundry’ or ‘write 500 words of essay’ leaves no room for debate and takes away the pre-task panic.
10. Be achievable
Following specificity, I’m pushing you to make your goals manageable. When I say manageable, I mean actually, realistically, manageable taking into account your current mindset and situation. Let me repeat.
Your goals should be manageable IN YOUR CURRENT MINDSET AND SITUATION!
You can’t swim when there’s no water, right? So don’t set yourself things to do that you’re going to struggle with; especially if a) it’s not essential and b) you’d fly through it any other time. It’s about being straight with yourself. When you’re stressed and overwhelmed, how likely are you to breeze through an entire essay/ an extra shift?
We all do it, unnecessarily give ourselves too much to do, get overwhelmed and, instead, watch the same dog fall in the same rich kid’s pool on the same social media feed.
If you feel like sh*t admit it and then make a plan based on how you actually are.
My plans look very different depending on my mood. If I’m feeling stressed out, my list is long enough to cut down the amount I need to do, but the goals are small and achievable. When I’m sad, you know that list is full to the brim with self-care. For those times that I’m overwhelmed, I’ll brain-plonk and use that to short-list my priorities- I might even add in the times I plan to get it done.
Bonus Tip Time!
What’s this!? Bonus tips! I’m so generous I know.
Write a list, but make it fashion
Never underestimate the power of a good-looking list.
Spending time with your lists, making them colourful and doodled-up helps. Not only will you be de-stressing by powering up that creative area of your brain (there’s science behind it!) you’ll also be spending more time in that planning zone. You’re letting your mind consider and plan what you need to get done and how. So before you’ve even started, you’re halfway done.
Give yourself a headstart
My not-so-guilty pleasure is putting already completed tasks on my to-do list so I already have some ticks before I get started. It’s similar to putting some of your own money in a tip jar to encourage more tips! I’ll write things like ‘have breakfast’ or ‘go for morning walk; some would call it sad, but Tallahassee from Zombieland said to ‘enjoy the little things’ and I very much intend to.
What to do with your lists afterwards?
Decluttering is key so I’d suggest throwing your lists away once you’re done with them. Taking photos of them is a good way to save them without taking up space because believe me, as someone moving across continents and needing luggage room, notebooks take up SPACE!
Saving particularly productive lists can be worth it. You can use them for inspiration when you’re lacking or you can look back on a list from a few weeks earlier to see how far you’ve come since then.
Overall, I think the best method for when you’re overwhelmed is to clear your head with either a brain-plonk or Morning Pages, set up your priorities in a clear and manageable way and keep checking in on your progress. The best system is the one that works for you so give them a go and enjoy cutting that overwhelm into pieces!
You’ll get through, I’m sure of it!
Sources/ Recommended Reads:
‘Jacques Derrida: Deconstruction and Differance’ Lucie Guillemette and Josianne Cossette – For anyone who didn’t get my Derrida joke, I am funny, honest.
‘Creativity, brain and art: biological and neurological considerations’ Dahlia W Zaidel, Frontiers in Human Neuroscience
‘The psychology of the to-do list- why your brain loves ordered tasks’ The Guardian
‘The Ivy Lee Method’ Amy Landino @ GATLUW
‘Reduction of Cortisol Levels and Participants’ Responses Following Art Making’, Girija Kaimal, Kendra Ray and Juan Muniz (Journal of the American Art Therapy Association)
‘At Any Skill Level, Making Art Reduces Stress Hormones’, DrexelNOW
‘Study Says Making Art Reduces Stress, Even If You Kind Of Suck At It’, Huffpost
‘Here’s What’s Wrong With Your To Do List’, Psychology Today – A simple explanation behind why an overloaded to-do list doesn’t help!