How to stay sane when your to-do list starts threatening you

Your desk is cluttered, you’re running out of things to eat and have a deadline tomorrow. There’s just too much to do, too little time.

Overwhelm and panic start to creep in, and positive affirmations ain’t gonna cut it this time.

The Question:

How do we get ourselves back into a state of feeling good when we feel threatened by our to-do list?

I’ve lately been in a situation where I had to find out. It was messy, and I wasn’t sure if I was gonna make it out alive.

When life decides to not be all sunshine and sparkly fairies

I had been following the core principle of my hot new happiness philosophy (greatly influenced by Danielle Laporte): Focus on doing things that make you feel good. Ditch the rest as best as you can.

Alright. So I was flowing through life, had synchronicities piling up everywhere and felt invincible. “I got this!” I assured myself, “Living this way is the smartest thing I’ve ever done.”

Everything was plain awesome. Until…well, until I woke up one morning and noticed myself repeating my to-do list over and over before I was even fully conscious.


I realized I was feeling stressed. Old buddies like anxiety, pressure and overwhelm started to stop over at my place more and more regularly.

Under these circumstances I couldn’t help but should all over myself a few times per day. Note: “should”, “must” and “need to” have become my personal indicators of ill-being. These words are symptomatic for me putting too much pressure on myself.

Of course I did my best to ignore that. I thought it didn’t matter all that much so I better focus on pushing through this and get some stuff done. I wasn’t that unhappy, after all. Right? RIGHT?!

Here’s the deadly cycle – see if it sounds familiar

The problem is that it always starts out that way. We notice the to-dos piling up as we get behind on things. We panic a little, and decide that we just need to suck it up and get shit done faster. So we try that.

We start feeling more and more stressed, and before you know we stop singing in the shower, or humming on our way to the grocery store. We realize that this might actually be worse than we thought it was.

We play it down, because by now we’re convinced that the world will blow up if we don’t get everything done right now. Our life depends on our to-do list.

This is not a good situation to be in (thanks, Captain Obvious). And it’s the start of something that could turn into a big messy unhappiness crisis if we go on for too long.


How do we get ourselves back into a state of feeling good when we’re feeling behind on everything?

One of my favorite lessons from the work I did with a former coach of mine, Sally Hope, was this: “You always have a choice.”  She constantly reminded me of this one. And, funny enough, I often wanted to disagree with her. In my mind I was all like: “Yeah no. My situation is different!”

Turns out, no situation is different. You always have a choice, in each and every moment. Even when it totally doesn’t feel like it.

Even when you think the world is gonna blow up if you just start saying no to people so you can get some breathing room.

Or when you feel like you need to have all this work done tomorrow (at the latest!), and then kill yourself over the deadline without realizing that it’s totally self-imposed and you have a choice to let it go.

Sometimes it’s hard to focus on creating positive feelings in your life, when all we wanna do is hide in bed and forget about those stupid obligations. Fear not, you awesome happiness seeker you, I’ve gone through this quite a few times now and here’s what I figured: 

How to go from overwhelm to ease

self-awareness. Most people have a pattern they fall back into when they go into stress mode. There are certain symptoms that come with being overly stressed. For me, these are mostly verbal cues. When I’m stressed I have a tendency to should all over myself using words like “need to”, “must” and “busy” several times throughout the day, especially when someone asks me how I feel. Noticing these symptoms can help you become aware of your stress level, and awareness is the first step to any change.

choose to change. Once you grudgingly admit that you’ve maneuvered yourself into stress mode, it’s time to consciously make a decision to get yourself out of it again. Remember that you always have a choice. Now if your immediate reaction is to wanna start yelling at me, explaining how your situation is different and life just keeps throwing shit penguins at you, take a deep breath. This is probably another sure sign of yourself being deep into stress mode. Pay close attention to the next step as it might be helpful:

challenge your assumptions. “I have to do it all now.”, “Bob will hate me if I don’t hand this in tomorrow”, “Life’s just being a bitch at the moment, nothing I can change about that”, “I just need to push through this right now”. These are all assumptions, even though they feel very real if you decide to believe them. Thing is, most of us don’t consciously decide to. Make an effort to challenge your assumptions. Most of the time, you’ll be surprised at how exaggerated your expectations and sense of urgency are.

get minimalist on your to-do list. Once you’ve taken a closer look at your assumptions, you’ll probably realize that you don’t necessarily need to, or want to do everything right now. Get minimalist on your to-do list. Cross out everything that doesn’t absolutely need to get done this week. Ideally, have only 1-3 Most Important Tasks on your list. This step is mroe likely going to work if you’ve gone through the previous ones. Doing less is so counter intuitive when you’re deep in stress survival mode.

focus on feeling good. Remember that the primary intention is to feel good. Happiness is the bottom line in life. Do one thing that will make you feel good today, no matter how small it is. Make life a bit fun again. Rinse and repeat tomorrow, or in 5 minutes. Whatever feels right for you.

Patience, grasshopper

Going through these steps might take you a few days, or even several weeks, but I’d recommend that you give it a try anyway. If it works, it can feel like a miracle. And yes, these are in a particular order, because focusing on self-awareness makes it easier to eventually focus on feeling good. Got it? Cool. Let me know how it goes.

Author: Iris

Iris Barzen is a psychologist + productivity coach est. 2013.