Science Says Creating a Daily To-Do List Can Help Reduce Anxiety
And researchers say that you should think of each task as a mini "goal" rather than a "commitment."
Alarm clocks and reminders from loved ones are just a couple of ways people can stay on track throughout the day. Another helpful tip? Creating a daily to-do list. But rather than just keeping a list of tasks you must complete before the end of any given day, experts say it's better to frame them as a list of small goals; this, reports CNN, can help give you more structure in your life. "Goals are interesting as they are almost these autonomous agents that kind of live inside you and occupy space in your mind," says E.J. Masicampo, an associate professor of psychology at Wake Forest University. "When a goal is unfinished it might be a weight on your mind in terms of anxiety or worry and it colors how you see the world, because it's sort of tugging at the sleeve of your conscious attention."
A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Masicampo and co-author Roy Baumeister, a professor of psychology at The University of Queensland, from 2011 noted that people who didn't complete their short-term goals had trouble performing with other tasks they had planned. But when the study's participants had a chance to make a plan of action to accomplish their goals, the stress melted away. "We were able to find that you don't have to finish the goal to offload it—you really could just make a specific plan for how to attain it to get it to stop occupying that mental space," Masicampo said. To avoid getting stuck on daily to-do tasks, he recommends adjusting the goals on a smaller scale each day. "Something that's been sitting there for too long is probably just stated in too big terms."
To help limit your stress levels, it's also helpful to avoid making all of your tasks must-haves every day, Jordan Etkin, an associate professor of marketing at Duke University, said. "To-do lists are interesting because they sometimes become commitments. Once you write an activity or goal down on a piece of paper, it's work undone," she adds. "The more things people put on their lists, the more open they are to creating goal conflict and its sort of negative downstream effects."
While each to-do has its fair share of weight, Etkin recommends prioritizing them by what truly needs to be accomplished by a specific day and time. "To-do lists can be very helpful for informing how you should be directing your time and cognitive resources," Etkin said. "I think where challenges emerge is when people treat to-do lists like wish lists, rather than the things they definitely want to do today." And also realize that each day is not a sprint—it is best to give yourself time to simply rest when you have the opportunity. "It's also important for people to have protective time in their lives where they're not striving towards any goal." she adds.