The Magic of Making Lists

Basically since I learned how to write, I’ve been making lists. Lists of things I want to do, things I need to get, things that I want to read, research, ideas, etc. This is a habit that has stuck with me all my life. Possibly one I even somewhat inherited from my mother, who is a prolific list maker herself. Even though, at times, the lists I make can seem repetitive they are always helpful for a multitude of reasons, all of which help greatly in reducing my overall stress.

Organize Your Thoughts

Sometimes when I have a lot of things on my plate, it can feel like my mind is a fishbowl that has been stirred up. The tiny rocks of my thoughts are spinning around and around rather than resting gently at the bottom. I begin to feel rushed, panicked. I have this nagging feeling that I am going to forget something important. Sitting down to make a list of everything swirling through my mind is a great way to get the water to settle. I don’t feel the need to keep thinking about all of these things. I can find comfort in the fact that it’s all written down. It gives me confidence that I won’t forget so I can get on with the rest of my day.

Prioritize & Visualize

Another great reason to make lists is to help you prioritize. Sometimes things seem so jumbled and complicated in my mind. It is hard for me to decide where to start. Writing everything down allows me to get a better idea of what I need to do first and what can wait until later. It also helps me to visualize the tasks I’ve set for myself. It gives me a clearer concept of how much I really have on my plate. Before I make a list, it always feels like I have a huge number of things to do. I feel helplessly overwhelmed. However, once I write it out, there are usually only a handful of tasks. I feel much calmer after realizing this. My lists always look manageable and allow me to feel more capable of completing everything I have to do.

Routines

There was a period of time when I started to become frustrated by my lists. It felt like every morning I was writing out the same exact things, and I was getting tired of it. My bullet journal allowed me to solve that problem. Most bullet journal tutorials online will include something called a habit tracker. Every month you can make a chart with a list of all of the things you would like to do everyday along with a designated box for each day of that month. You can come back to that page each evening and color in a box for each habit you completed that day. It is a great way to get into a routine or begin a new habit. It also saves a lot of time. No more writing out the same exact list over and over again.

Satisfaction

One of my favorite things about making lists is the satisfaction of checking things off of them. It’s funny the small seemingly meaningless things that can make us happy. Adding a check to a box, crossing off a line, or coloring in a square, don’t really strike me as pleasurable activities. But somehow the brain gets a dopamine hit for each one. It is such a delight to look at a finished list. Especially when it’s a completely filled in monthly habit tracker!

Ta-Da List

The other day I stumbled upon another great way for lists to help reduce stress. A Ta-Da List is something you can write to help you feel pride in what you’ve accomplished. Instead of all the things you need to do, a ta-da list is a list of everything that you’ve already done. You can even cross them all out as you go for that extra satisfaction. Sometimes at the end of the day, even though I know I have done a heck of a lot, it still feels like I haven’t done anything. This type of list can help you to acknowledge all the hard work you’ve done and give yourself credit. It can really ease an anxious mind that is afraid you’ve wasted the day away.

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Focus

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Yesterday I found myself having a rare moment of pure peace and happiness. I sat down to start planning out and scheduling when I was going to do different cleaning and organizing chores around my house. Before forcing myself to begin this task I had been feeling rather anxious as I usually am during that point in the afternoon. Yet I realized that focusing my mind on something made all that anxiety fade into the background and dissolve for awhile.

It’s strange. Whenever I am feeling super anxious I feel incapacitated. My inner voice tells me I simply can’t do anything. I’ve just got to sit and try to relax or do something mindless to avoid how I’m feeling. I start to focus on my anxiety, which makes me more anxious, which starts a dizzying cycle, winding me up inside. That was how I felt yesterday before starting my task. I told myself I couldn’t do it. I’d have to put it off until another day. Somehow I got myself to start and realized I was having a great time.

At that moment I had a very interesting thought. I’ve often felt that my higher than average intelligence contributes to my anxiety. A brain with a lot of processing power and nothing to process will scramble around and chase it’s own tail until it drives itself crazy. A brilliant mind with no direction will soon devolve into chaos. At least that’s my theory.

My problem is that as a child I somehow came to associate any kind of “work” or “effort” with something negative. I saw how my parents hated their work. It seemed like a necessary drudgery that I wanted desperately to avoid. I resisted anything besides “leisure time.” I wanted to lay around, watch TV, frolic outside, go online, play video games, munch on snacks, and occasionally write or draw. Anything else felt forced. An egregious waste of my precious time. An impingement on my freedom.

At some point, however, I began to recognize that bizarre perspective for what it was, ridiculous nonsense. There is nothing inherently “bad” or “unpleasant” about hard work or being challenged. I was just choosing to perceive it in that way. Only recently have I realized that, like most humans and even animals, I enjoy those things quite a lot. It feels good to work hard at something and reap the well-earned rewards of that effort. It is fun to challenge yourself or to be challenged. That is how we learn new things. That is how we grow. That is how we surprise ourselves. These are the things that make life interesting.

Trying to keep my brain from working on anything, trying to spend all my time lounging around in some strange attempt to enjoy life more, has led me only to an existence fraught with anxiety. At least now I can start to shift away from my old mindset that brought me here.

It can be very hard to convince myself to start working on something when I don’t feel like it. I’m the type of procrastinator that waits around for inspiration to strike before I do anything. But I’ve learned that once I actually make up my mind to begin, that is most often when the inspiration finally comes.

Even though it may not seem appealing at first, setting your focus on a task will often lead you to that blissful flow state. That state where time no longer matters and you are fully consumed by what you are doing. There is no room for anxious thoughts in that state. The mind is too busy to be anxious. It is the idle mind that is anxiety’s playground.

I hope to come back to this post in the future when I am feeling too overwhelmed to do what I had planned to. I want it to be a reminder that the hard part is just to start. The next time I feel anxious I am going to close my eyes, take five slow, deep breaths, and then focus my mind on what I want to do.

It will be like a meditation. Each time I feel my mind going back to a state of anxiety, I will gently guide it back. I will focus on my task just as I focus on my breath during meditation. Because that is truly what makes meditation so blissful. It is not necessarily the stillness or even the breath itself. It is our diligent focus. When the mind finds focus, everything else falls away. When we are focused we are truly present in the moment. And when we are truly present, joy and peace are sure to arise naturally from within.

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