Stressed Out? Make a Checklist.
This one simple strategy can help you significantly reduce your anxiety and stress.
You have a lot going on. And all those countless tasks are bouncing around inside your head. Maybe you have a demanding job, and you’re a full-time student. Maybe you have three kids who have all kinds of activities and appointments. Maybe you’re just starting your business. Maybe you’re also caring for your ailing parents.
And you’re officially stressed out. You’re overwhelmed and exasperated.
There’s too much to do, and you feel like it all rests on your shoulders. Of course, one invaluable strategy is to delegate. But sometimes you’re so stressed out that you don’t even know where to start and what tasks to hand over.
So, what can you do?
Start a checklist.
This might seem like an odd (or obvious) suggestion. But checklists can be incredibly helpful. As author Alexandra Franzen writes in her encouraging, practical, wonderful book aptly titled The Checklist Book, “checklists are like an extra storage tank for your overwhelmed brain.”
Because most of us can only hold four things in our brains at a time, making a checklist brings us relief, Franzen writes. We stop fearing that we’ve forgotten something. We stop fearing that all these important tasks will remain undone.
According to Franzen, making a checklist “can help reduce the levels of cortisol (a hormone associated with panic, threat, and stress) throughout your body. When your cortisol levels drop, this leads to a relaxed and creative mind, deeper sleep, optimal digestion and metabolism, a stronger immune system, and overall, a life that just feels significantly better.”
She also notes that checklists reduce decision fatigue, feel rewarding (which our brains love!), and help us accomplish our goals—everything from completing a creative project to drinking more water.
In The Checklist Book, Franzen shares invaluable, actionable insights for creating stress-busting, life-giving checklists. Here are three checklists to create from her book:
When Franzen’s sister, Olivia, a full-time, straight-A grad student who worked part-time and had zero free time, felt like she was drowning, Franzen suggested she start with a seasonal checklist. Together, they wrote out Olivia’s biggest priorities for the next three months. This included what she wanted to accomplish and experience.
Looking at the bigger picture helps you better understand what you really need to do and then distill that into a single day, and then another, and then another…
So, what are the most critical tasks you need to complete in the next 90 days? What about meaningful moments you’d like to experience? After all, these are also important in helping us reduce our stress levels.
This checklist focuses on one day—tomorrow—so you have a clear-cut, realistic, and totally doable plan. And so, you feel empowered and proud of yourself, instead of frustrated and frazzled.
Franzen suggests starting your checklist by writing an inspiring word, phrase, quote, or song lyric at the top. Think of this as a pep talk from a friend. Something to pull your mindset into a positive place.” For example, you might write: “Keep going. One tiny goal at a time,” or “You can do challenging things.”
Your daily checklist can also include your very first moment and your final moment. These are the things you’d like to experience right after waking up and right before going to bed. For instance, your first moment might be stretching for a minute, kissing your spouse, taking three deep breaths, or saying a prayer.
Your final moment might be reading for 10 minutes, setting your coffeemaker for the morning, or writing a few things you’re grateful for.
Franzen stresses the importance of adding several easy wins to your checklist, such as making your bed, texting a good friend you miss them, and drinking delicious coffee.
She also suggests adding several tasks that are important responsibilities, commitments, or urgent/time-sensitive necessities. An example would be carving out an hour to answer as many emails as possible.
Finally, add in a few moments. Franzen defines a moment as an experience that feels pleasurable, delightful, or meaningful, or makes you feel happy, healthy, or more alive. This might be anything from listening to a 2-minute guided meditation to watching a funny video on YouTube to penning a love note to your partner, she writes.
Sometimes, you’re so stressed out that you just need to survive. When Franzen’s five-year relationship ended, she was shattered. She struggled to sleep, lost her appetite, sobbed constantly, and couldn’t think clearly. Some days, she even felt like she couldn’t breathe. To navigate this complicated, emotionally-wrenching time, she created a survival checklist.
According to Franzen, this is a brief list for navigating any tough time—from a breakup to a death to a diagnosis to a stressful career transition. It “includes steps you can take to feel a tiny bit better, calmer, stronger, more empowered, and more grounded during this time.”
She suggests including four categories: basic hygiene (e.g., brush your teeth); support from loved ones (e.g., text _____ when you’re upset and need to talk); professional support (e.g., make an appointment with a therapist); and emotional and physical self-care (e.g., take three breaths to settle your nervous system).
Ultimately, a checklist provides us with a roadmap. What once seemed nebulous and impossible becomes clear and concrete.
If creating a checklist still feels overwhelming, ask a loved one to do it with you, like Franzen did with her sister. Often, loved ones yearn to help but don’t know how. This can even turn into a bonding experience.
Franzen asserts that checklists will change your life. This might seem like an overly ambitious statement. And it also might prove true for you.
Read Margarita Tartakovsky’s “9 Tips for Enhancing Your Emotional Wellbeing in 2020.”
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