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You Are Not Your Task List

Anxiety Creates Extra Tasks - And Problems

Have you ever had one of those ‘super-productive’ days where you burn through all of your tasks and then feel... strangely hollow?

This feeling arises because, as much as we hate to admit it, many of us define ourselves by our task list. When we don’t have anything urgent to do and all of our tasks for the day are completed we start to panic: What will I do know? How will I know what is meaningful?

We all know people who constantly need to stay busy in order not to freak out -- checking their phones even when they haven’t buzzed, tidying the house when it’s already tidy enough. These people create extra tasks for themselves in order to feel like they are doing something productive at all times. But let’s be honest: aren’t we all like this, at least to some extent?

How many items on your task list arise out of anxiety? We often assume that our anxiety comes from not being able to accomplish everything we have to do, telling ourselves and each other that “we're overwhelmed,” but in fact many of the items we think are necessary arise solely out of anxiety.

Have you ever had an experience at work where you jotted down a task that seemed important at the time, somehow forgot about it or misplaced it, and then came across it again later, long after it was ‘due’? The world didn’t implode, did it? In fact, nothing happened at all. You forgot all about the task and so did everyone else, and most likely there were no negative repercussions. This is because you invented the urgency of the task to begin with. You created it out of thin air in order to give yourself something important to do, another problem to solve. How many of the items on your task list meet this description? 

Separate Your Ideas From Your Actions

My suggestion to reduce anxiety is to begin streamlining your task list, separating your ideas from your actions (i.e. tasks). Ideas and goals are a springboard for actions but they are not actions. As Scott Belsky says in his great book Making Ideas Happen, all actions must start with a verb. For example, “Call John.” If a phrase does not start with a verb it is not actionable.

Train in this way and begin to purge all of your jottings or nebulous ideas that do not clearly start with a verb from your task list. Immediately you’ll see how many of your grand ideas are totally unactionable. Even some of the items on your task list that start with a verb need to go; you can finally remove “Get novel published” from your task list -- since this is more of a goal, not an action you can take -- and replace it with “Submit novel to XYZ Agency.” It is important to distinguish between ideas (the nebulous root concepts that turn into visions of the future), goals (clear visions of future outcomes), and actions (the steps necessary to accomplish a goal).

Once we begin purging the unactionable items from our task list we can go a step further. We can start to separate tasks that arise from anxiety from tasks that arise from wisdom. A good way to do this is to keep a notebook, either physical or virtual (I use Evernote or Google Drive), in which you jot down all of the ideas, goals, or potential tasks that you think of. It is important to keep this notebook separate from your actual task list so you do not confuse what you may wish to do one day with what you actually need to do today.

You can periodically review your notebook and see if any ideas or potential tasks keep popping out at you and coalescing into actual, actionable tasks. It’s nice to give these preliminary ideas and potential tasks a place to cool off for a while -- a sort of task limbo state -- before you decide whether they are essential to take action on.

Enjoy the Present While Planning for the Future

However, even when we’ve (1) purged unactionable tasks from our task list and (2) created a separate idea/potential task notebook we still have to face the underlying problem: We often have no idea what to do with ourselves when we aren’t feeling overwhelmed with tasks. Our minds seem to naturally create problems, skipping ahead to whatever we think we have to do next and worrying about the future so much that we rarely enjoy anything we are doing. What is the remedy for this?

Some people would say platitudes like “stop planning for the future and live in the present.” This kind of advice feels shallow and meaningless to me. Preparing wisely for the future is essential in order to improve your conditions and increase your ability to accomplish your goals. That being said, solely planning for the future and not focusing on what’s going on right now would be like a squirrel gathering up nuts for the winter and then not eating them when winter comes around because he’s too busy gathering up nuts for the next winter. At some point we have to learn to enjoy.

The ideal interaction between the future and the ‘present’ is complicated. Envisioning the future creates a context that gives our present actions meaning. But where is the present? What is it that we should enjoy?

Fortunately for us, we don’t have to choose between focusing on the future and enjoying the present: the mind is capable of doing both simultaneously. And the best way to create a future that we will enjoy is to gradually focus in on the actions that are most beneficial for us to fulfill our goals and let go of all of the unnecessary actions that we created out of anxiety.

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A Couple of Free Tools for Task Management:

Action Method - simple and effective. I use this.

Asana - this seems interesting but a bit more complex than the Action Method.

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Image Credit: Shutterstock

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