How to Stop Feeling Stressed by Your Never Ending To-Do List

Are you plagued by a never ending to-do list?

Do you find yourself getting quickly stressed or overwhelmed when you think about everything you need to do?

If so, I’ve got some great news for you.

It’s possible to kick that stress and overwhelm to the curb.

And what’s more, you can feel better even if your to-do list stays a mile long.

Because guess what…it’s not your to-do list that’s making you feel stressed.

Really, it’s true!

Listen to episode 57 of the podcast, and I’ll explain everything.

By the time you’re done listening, you’ll have all the tools you need to reduce your stress, quiet your overwhelm, and start taking action.

You can listen to episode 57 below or stream it on your favorite podcasting app here:

Prefer to read? Keep scrolling for the entire podcast transcript.

LISTEN TO THE PODCAST HERE!

IN THIS EPISODE, YOU WILL DISCOVER…

  • The real reason you’re feeling stressed and overwhelmed
  • The importance of identifying your circumstance
  • How to quiet your negative emotions, take control over your experience, and start getting things done. 

LINKS FROM THE PODCAST

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Episode 57: How to Stop Feeling Stressed by Your Never Ending To-Do List

Hey, everybody. Welcome to the podcast. Thanks for tuning in today. It always means so much to me that you take time to tune in and explore these concepts during your busy week so welcome. I love that you’re here.  

And speaking of a busy week, today we are going to talk about your to-do list, stress, and circumstances.

With the school year starting back up for most people over the next couple weeks, I know that schedules are getting a little bit busier. And while we talked about how to work with this transition back to school a couple of episodes ago, I think with this more general transition from Summer to fall generally – whether you have kids or not – there’s often a bit of a shift. 

We often notice an increase in the number of things on our calendar as we move away from the relative flexibility of the summer and into the fall. And of course, nothing is normal this year. But nevertheless, I do think that schedules are picking up a bit, even if most of its virtual, and those to-do lists are getting a little bit longer. 

Stressed By Your Never Ending To-Do List? This Episode is For You

And if this sounds like you. If you feel like your schedule is picking up a bit. If you’ve noticed your to-do list growing a little bit longer. Or maybe you’re simply noticing a little bit less flexibility in your schedule. Then this episode is for you. And alternatively, if you are not feeling particularly stressed out or anxious right now. If you are thinking that your to-do list is super manageable right now, but you are feeling anxious or stressed or overwhelmed in some other area of your life, then you’re going to want to stick around as well. Because I promise you, it’s all related. And I think this episode will help relieve some of that pressure.

I’m going to keep this episode a bit on the shorter side because I think this is a topic that you might want to listen to whenever you happen to feel stressed or anxious or overwhelmed. And because I know you listeners are big go-getters.  And since many of you are fellow ADHDers like me. You likely also have long to-do lists with lots of goals and projects and plans just waiting to get done. Am I right? I thought so. Keep listening. 

Too Many Things To Do. 

So here’s the deal. One of the most common things that I coach on is overwhelm, stress, and anxiety. And usually, whenever I ask my client about why they are feeling one of these emotions, their answer usually sounds like some version of this.  I have so much to do, and I don’t know how to get it all done. There are so many things that I need to get done in the day, and I don’t know where to start. Or there are so many things on my to-do list, and I have to do everything. Nobody helps me out around here. Or there are so many things on my calendar, and everything is equally important. I’ve no idea where to start because it all needs to get done now. 

Now, when we think about any of the scenarios I just mentioned. And we think about the model – the self-coaching model that I use with my clients and that I’ve talked about on the podcast. These emotions of overwhelm, stress, or anxious, these are all located in the feeling line. So as a quick reminder, we have our circumstance, thought, feeling, action, and result. So overwhelmed, stressed, and anxious, are all feelings. They go in our feeling line.

Now, here’s where we run into trouble. We think it’s our to-do list, or the tasks on the to-do list, or the fact that you are doing the tasks yourself, that’s making you feel so overwhelmed. You think it’s the stuff you have to do that makes you feel anxious. You think it’s the amount of work that’s causing you to feel stressed. And I want to suggest to you today, that that is not true. 

This is Why You’re Feeling Stressed 

What your to-do list really is, is a circumstance. So what that means is you would put your to-do list, or the tasks on your to-do list, or your schedule for the day, in the circumstance line. 

And this is critically important not only if you are trying to coach yourself using the model, but it’s perhaps even more important in terms of helping you take back control over your current situation. 

So let me explain what I mean here. Let’s start by talking about what a circumstance is specifically. Because while we’ve talked about it in passing, I don’t think we’ve ever done a real deep-dive into it.

What is a Circumstance?

Circumstances are simply things that happen in the world. They are things that exist or unfold in the world that are factual. In other words, if everybody looked at that circumstance, they would agree yes, this is true. We all see the same thing. 

An example that I like to use concerns the weather. If we think about the weather, and we see that the thermometer reads 89 degrees Fahrenheit, that would be a circumstance. Everybody can look at that thermometer and say yes, it says 89 degrees. 

What we can not put in the circumstance line is the sentence “it’s super hot outside”. Because while I might think it’s ridiculously hot, someone else might think it’s perfect. So it’s not factual. Not everyone agrees. 

Similarly, if we were writing own a circumstance about how fast you’re driving, you could make the circumstance be, “I drove 73 miles an hour.” But what would not be a circumstance is, “I drove super fast down the road.” Because again, super-fast is relative. Not everybody can agree on that. But we can agree upon 73 miles an hour.

Circumstance Are factual

So the first thing that we want to think about when we are creating our circumstance is that we’re making it incredibly factual. If we gathered 15 people to look at your circumstance line, would everybody agree on it? Would there be any questions? 

And what I mean by that, is: “well how hot is hot?” Or “How fast is fast?” When we say it’s exactly 89° or we were driving exactly 73 miles an hour, there is no question. We know.

Circumstances Are Out Of Our Control

Another component of our circumstance line is that it is out of our control. So a circumstance might be someone else’s behavior. Our circumstance could be our past. So this could be something that happened to us in the past, something we said in the past, something we did in the past, etc. The circumstance could be our economy or COVID-19. Again, circumstances are factual and outside of our control.

Circumstances Do Not Impact Our Feelings

Now, as I mentioned, most of us believe that it’s the circumstance that causes us to feel something. Or it’s our circumstance that makes us act a certain way. In other words, my schedule makes me feel so overwhelmed. She made me feel so sad.  It’s this person or that person’s fault that I acted this way. 

And the problem with this line of thinking is that we cause so much suffering for ourselves when we think this way. Because when we believe that things outside of our control can make us feel bad. When we believe that things outside of our control can create our emotions or our actions. This belief leaves us completely powerless. When we think that things outside of us can influence how we feel, then we are simply at the mercy of everything outside of us. We have no control.

Our Thoughts Create Our Feelings

But the reality is that a circumstance cannot impact the way we feel at all until we have a thought about it. When something happens in the world, or when someone else says or does something, we are not impacted by it until we have a thought about it. 

Now, I know that some of you might be really pushing back against this idea. You might be thinking this can’t be true. There must be circumstances in the world that make me feel something. If this is you, stick with me. I promise you, a circumstance cannot affect the way you feel. It can only exist. The only time you ever have an emotional reaction is when you have a thought about that circumstance.

Circumstance – Thought – Feeling – Examples

So let’s think about winning the lottery. Imagine how you would feel if you won the lottery. Excited? Disbelief? Ecstatic?

What I want to show you, is it is not winning the lottery that makes you feel that emotion. It is not winning the lottery that makes you feel however it is you might be feeling. Here’s how…

Let’s say they drew the numbers on Wednesday night, and you checked Friday morning because you remembered that your partner got a ticket at the gas station. For two days, you didn’t know that you won. And your emotions remained unaffected, even though you were a lottery winner. 

Once you found out that you won, however,  that is when you felt an emotion. And that is because you had a thought when you learned that you won. It’s because you had a thought like, “oh my gosh I’m set for life,” which created that feeling of excitement. Or you had the thought, “oh my gosh I can’t believe it,” which created the feeling of disbelief. It wasn’t the actual circumstance.

Or have you ever had a job interview or took a test that you thought you nailed? Perhaps you were feeling super confident about it. But then you get the news that you didn’t get the job, or you got half the problems wrong on the test and now you feel awful. 

The circumstance didn’t change. What happened in the past – at the job interview or taking the test – didn’t change. The only thing that changed was your thoughts.

Circumstances Are Neutral

And what’s more, that circumstance remains neutral until you have a thought about it as well. And the reason why we know it is neutral is that people have different thoughts about the same circumstance. 

Test Score Example

I can remember when this concept really clicked in for me. I was handing back tests to students a couple of years ago, and two students had the same test score, 83%. And when I handed the test to one student, they responded with a resounding YES! And their face was filled with relief.

I then handed the test back – with the same score – to the other student and their face fell. Within five minutes of the end of class, they were at my office doors waiting to talk with me about what went wrong, what they missed, and how they could make up the points. Same circumstance, different thoughts about it. And because each student had a different thought, they created a vastly different experience for themselves.

Job Example

Or think about somebody you know who absolutely loves their job. When they think about it, they completely light up. It’s all they want to talk about. And their partner has to pull them away from their computer at the end of the day because all they want to do is keep working. They are just so excited about it. 

Now think of someone else in that same position who dreads every single day that they go to work. They dread pulling up their calendar. They hate the meetings. And they dread the tasks and the responsibilities. Same job, completely different experience. Again, it is all because they have different thoughts about the same circumstance. About the same job.

Reclaim Control Over Your Experience

So why am I driving this point home so strongly? 

I am stressing this point so strongly because I think it’s one of the most empowering things that I could possibly tell you. 

You see, the reality is that you get to choose how you respond to every circumstance. Whatever you decide to think and believe about that current circumstance will determine how you feel, which in turn influences how you show up and the results you create. It will determine how you experience that circumstance. In other words, how you choose to experience any circumstance is completely in your control.

It’s Easy to Forget

And I’m also driving it home quite strongly because it’s – quite possibly – the easiest thing to forget as well. We might know the concept intellectually. But in the heat of the moment, we forget it. And then when our partner does that thing that “drives us crazy,” or our brother-in-law makes that comment, we completely forget that we are in control of our emotions. 

And when this happens, we immediately hand over the power. We tell ourselves that they made us feel bad rather than stepping back and realizing that our thoughts made us feel that way.

Or when our inbox has a hundred unread messages, and we start feeling super overwhelmed, we forget that the inbox is neutral. We forget that people could have different thoughts about that inbox. 

One person could think, “oh my gosh, I have a hundred emails I’m never going to get through this.” And someone else who used to have 3,000 emails might think, “oh my gosh, 100 emails? I’m basically done!” It is all about how you choose to think about the situation.

How to Stop Feeling Stressed and Overwhelmed From Your Never Ending To-Do List 

So let’s bring it back to you.

Think about that thing that you’re super stressed about. Or think about why you’re feeling really overwhelmed right now. How come you’re feeling a bit anxious? 

Take a minute and let your brain answer these questions. 

Because chances are, your brain is going to blame it on the circumstance. And that’s okay. All of us do that. It’s what our brain does. So nothing’s going wrong if this is what happens for you. 

The skill is being able to notice it, and then stepping back and separating our thoughts from our circumstances.

Find the Circumstance and Keep it Factual

So if your answer to the question, “why am I feeling really overwhelmed right now?” is: “there’s too much to do.” We can’t write that in the circumstance line. Because it’s not factual. It’s not neutral. We have questions about that. If I was coaching you, I’d ask, what does “too much” mean? So we’d have to get more factual. What are the specific things on your list?

Because here’s what’s true. Most of us don’t even slow down to think about the specific things. We just say, “I don’t know, it’s just so much. There’s just so much to do.” But that’s just your brain spinning out in overwhelm. Because it’s easier to feel overwhelmed than it is to get clear and start taking action. It feels safer to your brain, even though it’s super uncomfortable, to stay stuck in overwhelm than energy to do something.

2 Kinds of Stress: Distress and Eustress

The same goes for stress. And especially if you have moved into distress. 

There’s two different types of stress. Eustress and distress. Eustress is usually the type of stress that feels relatively good. It’s the “doable” deadline that pushes you along without feeling like you’re going to crumble. 

Distress, on the other hand, is when you start moving in the other direction into inaction. And when you start feeling so much stress, your body starts shutting down. 

So if you find yourself moving toward that side of stress, ask yourself: “what’s the thought that’s creating it?” 

It’s Not Your To-do List, Your Calendar, or Your Schedule

Because I promise you, it’s not your to-do list. It’s not your schedule. And it’s not your calendar. 

It’s not the things that your boss asked you to do or the additional responsibilities you have on your plate right now. 

The thing that’s creating that feeling of stress – that distress – is your thought. 

So maybe it’s a thought like, “there’s too much to do and not enough time.” Maybe it’s something like, “I can’t get it all done.” Whatever it is that you’re thinking, notice that that thought is what’s causing your emotion. And depending on what you decide to think about the circumstance is entirely responsible for whether you will feel a positive or negative emotion.

How to Handle Feeling Stressed, Overwhelmed, or Anxious

So what do you want to think about your circumstance right now? And if your brain offers you, “I don’t know. I have no idea what I can think.” then back up. 

How do you want to feel? Do you want to feel calm, confident, focused, certain? Choose the emotion you want to feel, and then ask yourself, what do I need to think about this circumstance in order to feel that way? And if that thought is not available to you, make sure you pop back to the previous episode – episode 56 – and start using a ladder thought to help you believe the new idea.

Have a Long To-Do List? Consider This

I want to share with you a big realization that I had about a month or two ago about my thoughts and my feelings toward my never-ending to-do list. Now, of course, we can’t put a “never-ending to-do list” in our circumstance line. But, I do consistently have a list of 20-30+ projects, goals, and tasks, that no person could reasonably get done in a day – let alone a week. (And if I’m honest – probably even a month.)

And I used to get really overwhelmed by this. I used to think to myself, “this is literally an impossible task. There are not enough hours in the day. I’m never going to get this done. This is hopeless.” And I would start spinning out in overwhelm. I’d start distracting myself. And ultimately, I’d waste my day away while stressing about not having enough time.

And then I was doing some thought work one morning, and I had this aha moment as I started challenging what I didn’t even realize was a thought.

My Thought Error

For the longest time, I thought that the ultimate end goal was to always complete my to-do list. My ultimate end goal was to – at the end of every day – check every single thing off my list. And since I had a to do list that started with walking Bruno at 5 am and ended with saving the world by 9 p.m. (with a million things in between) I was setting myself up for failure every day.

Because an incomplete to do list, to me, meant another failure.

And this is where the aha moment came in. 

An incomplete to-do list – or a to-do list at the end of the day that does not have everything checked off – doesn’t have to mean anything negative. 

And what’s more, I realized that I don’t want my list any other way. 

I realized, “Of course, my list is always full. Of course, there will always be goals and projects and tasks to do. Of course, there are things left undone.” 

That’s because I am a huge idea person, and I’m always looking for a new way to grow. I always want to be trying something new. I always want to be learning something different. And I want to be that person who is striving toward the next thing. I love that. I think it’s fun. So why on Earth would I beat myself up every single night because I have a list full of exciting goals and dreams and projects that completely light me up?

And it was this light bulb moment when I realized that a to-do list, or a list of tasks, doesn’t have to mean something negative. It doesn’t have to mean tons of work. And it doesn’t have to mean that I didn’t get enough done each day. Instead, I get to decide what I make it mean.

And I’m choosing to make my to-do list mean that I am living a life of growth. I am living a life of learning and striving and working toward goals. And I am living a life of doing. 

And that’s what I want. 

So of course my to-do list is full. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Try This Exercise

Today I invite you to rethink your to-do list. Think about what’s causing you stress or anxiety or overwhelm.

Then pull out the actual circumstance of the situation. What are the facts? What are the things that everyone would agree upon? Put it in the circumstance mine. 

Now, figure out what your thought is about it. What is the thought that is making you feel stressed or overwhelmed or anxious? 

Then notice that you are in complete control of how you feel about that circumstance. You are in complete control of how you experience this moment and every moment going forward. 

I hope that this fact helps you uncover the power that you have over this situation. Because it’s right there waiting for you to take it. 

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