To Do List Anxiety Attuned Psychololgy

How to relieve To-Do List anxiety: Differentiate between Needs and Preferences

August 28, 2019

Many of us confront To Do List anxiety in this society and if you are currently, or have been a client of mine, you’ve likely heard me say this phrase; Needs vs Preferences.

I’m always honest and shared that this is one of those phrases that I developed entirely for myself, as a way to try and combat my constant need to get through that never ending To Do List without completely burning myself out. And, I’ve found my clients benefit from this strategy too.

So let me explain…..

The days of the neverending To Do List

I, like so many of us these days, have a lifestyle that means I have a to do list that can never, ever be totally completed. Hence, my reference to To Do List anxiety.

Even if I were to tick off everything on that list, by the time I get to the bottom, new things have already begun to be added and thus, I would be looking at yet another unfinished list.

If this sounds familiar, then I would ask you to please, put aside a few minutes, finish reading this blog, and you might just have a small but helpful tool to help manage that list….

If you’re like me, then that to do list is actually quite long, and perhaps even quite varied with regard to the types of tasks on there.

Now when I think/write/develop this list everything on there feels important, and I go about creating (not necessarily deliberately) the pressure and stress required to get through all of those items.

But here’s what happens.  I end up with plenty of stress and pressure, but rarely the satisfaction of a completed list.

This leaves me feeling like I stressed, rushed, or used my entire weekend for a lacklustre purpose, as I didn’t finish the list anyway, and managed not to spend any time actually relaxing or recharging (and I myself have written previous blogs about how important self-care time like this is).

Need vs Preference: Simplistically useful approach to To Do List anxiety

An obvious solution, and the one that is often offered to me by well meaning friends and family is “don’t worry about it”, “just sit down and relax” and other similar suggestions.

But here’s the thing, I can’t!

It’s like that list just sits there taunting me.

So I came up with “need vs preference”, and there is a simplistic usefulness to it…

I take a few moments out of my rushing and hurry to consider all the things I have on my list, ideally I would actually write it down (and I encourage you to do so), and then I look over it and ask myself, what things on this list are a preference?

In other words, something I would like to do or have done, but which do not have a major impact on my immediate life or are crucial in any way.

I then ask myself which items on that list are a need, something that will have an impact on my life and which are, in fact, quite crucial? (And even then, there’s normally some flexibility here too).

I then highlight the needs and try to ensure that I am as brutal as possible in deciding this so that I end up with a very small portion of that original list, and these needs are what I plan to ensure I fit into my time.

The rest I simply leave as options…if I genuinely feel like it, have more free time than I thought etc, then I will do some of those tasks too.

And there you have it, simply put……need vs preference.

Applying my approach to To Do Lists

If this approach really appeals to you, or you find it useful, you might also like to try expanding it to bigger choices in life, beyond the to do list.

For example, I might want a plan to go certain way, or want a particular thing to occur, and if I find myself getting stressed or anxious about this, or even in the wake of it not occurring, I can stop and ask myself…..is/was that a need, or a preference?

If it was a need, I can go about ensuring my plans or perhaps fixing my plans, but if it was a preference, I can then think of it as a good opportunity to practice flexibility in my life, and flexibility tends to make life just a little easier.

I once heard a great analogy….very structured, hard and inflexible spaghetti breaks under pressure, but cooked, flexible and bendy spaghetti does not …let’s ignore the fact that it typically gets eaten!

So there you have it “Need vs Preference”, it might just help you manage To Do List anxiety …. it may even help you to try out being bendy spaghetti!

Cara Crothers

Clinical Psychologist


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