Dealing with Anxiety About Tackling To-Do’s

July 10, 2023

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Do any of these phrases feel familiar:

  • “What do I do when I get anxious about things I’m not able to do right now?”
  • “What do I do about the anxiety caused by focusing on one thing while other things wait in line in the calendar?”
  • “How do I overcome anxiety hindering my focus?”

Women wrote in asking me to address these issues. So, let’s talk about it.

** Disclaimer: I address these issues from the standpoint of anxiety as used in the general, colloquial sense – not a medical one. I’m not a medical and psychology professional – I just have a time management system that works for me and many other women and talk often with women describing these feelings. All that to say, take my input with that context. 

To take my free 5-day program, the Reset and Refresh, click here: https://kellynolan.com/reset-refresh.

To learn more about and sign up for the Bright Method 8-week program, click here: https://kellynolan.com/the-bright-method-time-management-course-with-kelly-nolan.

I also share actionable bite-sized time management strategies on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/_kellynolan_/. Come hang out with me there!

Full Transcript

Episode 11. Anxiety When Tackling To-Dos

[Upbeat Intro Music]

Kelly Nolan: Welcome to The Bright Method Podcast where we’ll discuss practical time management strategies designed for the professional working woman. I’m Kelly Nolan, a former patent litigator who now works with women to set up The Bright Method in their lives. The Bright Method is a realistic time management system that helps you manage it all, personally and professionally. Let’s get you falling asleep proud of what you got done today and calm about what’s on tap tomorrow. All right, let’s dig in!


Hey! All right, so today we’re gonna talk about anxiety when tackling to-dos, and just to be clear, I’m using the term anxiety in more of the general sense, more than obviously a clinical or medical one. I’m not a therapist or a mental health expert. But it is the language that the people who asked for this topic to be covered used. So I think it’s helpful to use the language because it’s how we think of it. It’s how a lot of us think of it even if it’s not clinical anxiety.

So a few people wrote in asking about this. I got two Instagram submissions and one email submission that all kind of related. So I figured we’d talk about them together. Just a side note: if you have a topic you want me to address, feel free to let me know! Send me a DM on Instagram. Send me an email to ke***@ke********.com. I really want to make sure this podcast is relevant to you. So definitely let me know if there’s something you want to address.

So what people asked for — I’m just gonna read what people said first so you understand what I’m responding to. These are the three submissions that first came in. One person said they wanted to talk about what to do when you get anxious about the things you’re not able to do right now. The next one was addressing anxiety caused by focusing on one thing while other things wait in line in the calendar. And then the last one was how to overcome anxiety hindering focus. When I asked for a little bit more clarification on that last one, this is what she said. Just so you know, it’s framed in a mom context, but I think no matter if you’re a mom or not you’ll relate to at least some element of it. And so, in this episode, just to be clear, we’ll address moms and not-moms and anyone who’s listening.

But what she said was, “Being a mom, firstly, there’s so much to do that even when I make a commitment to sit down and focus on one thing, the other things are still swirling around in my head. And then when you sit down to focus on that one thing, oftentimes with kids, there are fires to be put out right then and there. And then when that thing you’re trying to do doesn’t get done, anxiety builds up, which further reduces focus.” I think we all understand and relate to at least part of that.

So let’s dig in! I want to talk about five things, today, that can help with some of this anxiety that people are feeling along these lines, and I hope that you get one or two nuggets that work for you!

One: Time Block Tasks in Your Calendar – 2:42

So the first is time blocking tasks in your calendar. Now, I think that what’s really important to say here is that you need — at least I needed — a lot of guidance and strategies around that. Now, time blocking is one of those things that I think a lot of us are familiar with. You might think of it as time boxing or task blocking, and basically, it’s the concept that we talked about putting tasks in your calendar. Like actually assigning time that you’re going to do tasks in your calendar, not just keeping to-do lists separate from your actual calendar that manages your time. It’s not easy.

I think it’s one of those, as with a lot of things time management, it’s like, “Just time block.” But it’s actually really weirdly hard to implement. Obviously, it’s not hard to physically or just logistically put something in your calendar, but to make it work in a sustainable way, I do think it’s harder than it sounds. At least it was for me. So if you’ve tried it and are amazing at it, that’s amazing. I struggled with it a lot, and I think that a lot of people do struggle with it because people don’t explain how to do this stuff very easily.

So if you have tried and struggled with it, and you’re like, “I’ve tried time blocking. I put stuff in my calendar, but when the time rolled around, I never did the thing, and therefore, time blocking doesn’t work for me,” I would just encourage you not to rule it out. I just think that no one actually explained how to do it, which is not your fault, and it is totally understandable why you struggled with it or why you don’t think it worked for you.

Now, there are many reasons that I think time blocking fails for a lot of people. I just want to address one of them today. What typically happens is, understandably, people are like, “I want to try out time blocking,” so they only put a couple things on their calendar, and then they get to that time, and they don’t do the thing because they get worried about other things. That makes complete sense. The reality is, it’s really hard to just try out time blocking. I really think you actually have to time block everything (like 95% to 100% of everything that you do) to really understand why this is gonna work for you. The reason for that is you have to trust the system to capture everything you need to do so you can rely on the system. So let me just give you an example.

If you’re like, “I’m gonna try out time blocking, and I’m just gonna time block Research X. That’s gonna be a task. I put it in my calendar for, let’s say, 45 minutes, an hour and a half,” whatever makes sense to you. I put that in my calendar, and then I get to it, and I just am worried about the 20 other things on my to-do list that’s sitting on the to-do list on my desk, or the 15 emails that require a lot of time in my email inbox, or I have a task management app and a lot of to-dos live in there. And so, I’m sitting there looking at Research X, and I’m not sure if Research X is the right thing to be spending time on.

And so, instead of doing Research X, I start ping-ponging in between all to-do lists and things like that trying to figure out if that’s what I should be doing, if there’s something else I should be doing, and then I get pulled away, and then the time runs out and I didn’t do anything. Totally fair, and the reason it’s really fair is that researching X might not have been the thing that you should have been working on at that time. You know, maybe things on that to-do list or the task management app or anything like that were more important.

So your instinct was not wrong. Your instinct was right. It’s just that the system failed you because you couldn’t trust that the system was telling you to do the most important thing because researching X might not have been the most important thing.

Compare that to if all of the to-dos on that to-do list, in the task management app, in your email inbox, all of those to-dos actually were also in your calendar at different times that were protected to do those different things. You knew it worked for the deadlines. You knew that it would all work. Then you get to Research X, and you’re like, “What if something else is more important? Nope, that thing is in my calendar for a later time. I don’t need to worry about that right now, and I can focus on Research X.”

Do you see the difference between those scenarios? Now, I know there’s a lot of work that gets to those different scenarios, but just from a high-level concept, do you see why it’s completely understandable that in a previous, maybe, experience that you’ve had it didn’t work for you, but if you can imagine if everything was in your calendar and you could address it, why you actually would be able to do the thing when the time rolled around?

Now, just to be clear, I’m a big believer in flexibility. So if you’re like, “Eh, I don’t want to research X when that time rolls around,” even if everything is in your calendar, and you can move things around and the plan still works, please go for it. I’m not an advocate of live it rigidly. I just more, from a rational standpoint, wanted you to understand that distinction.

Now, just a side note. I fully recognize that putting everything, like 195% of everything that you do, in your calendar can completely result in a cluttered mess, and that’s why I think that we do need a lot of scaffolding and help when it comes to knowing how to do this stuff, and that is what I teach within The Bright Method program. So I just want to throw that out there, that I fully recognize that. I teach strategies how to make it not a cluttered mess, but at the end of the day, that is still what we need to do. We just do it in a specific way. So hopefully that makes sense to you.

So when it comes to managing your anxiety about doing things and being able to focus on the things even when you have scrolling thoughts of other things you need to be doing or you’re worried about other things that you need to do, that is the first strategy that I really believe in in giving you the peace of mind to know, “Okay, I can focus on this, and that other stuff can get done in the future.”

Two: Being Overworked – 8:19

The second point I want to say on this front is that time blocking in the ways that we’re talking about also helps you really understand what is a reasonable amount of workload, what’s a possible amount of workload, and then what is not. When are you getting into I’m-being-overworked territory, and not just by your job, but just in life. When am I putting an impossible amount of work on my plate?

Because even though it’s not said in the kinds of questions that people are asking, I really believe, just personally, that a lot of our anxiety of trying to do it all is likely related to trying to do an impossible amount of work. Because when you have too much on your plate, then no scheduling is going to save you from that, and that’s not a your-fault thing. That’s not an it’s your fault you can’t get more done. It’s just an impossible, from a fact-standpoint, amount of work, and obviously when we are trying to do an impossible amount of work, there is anxiety around that, especially if we’re not clear if it’s impossible.

So then we start either getting overwhelmed that we’re never gonna be able to get it done because it’s impossible or it’s a character flaw with us because we can’t get it done because we’re not sure if it’s an un-impossible amount of work. I’m a little bit rambly there, but that is at least where I used to be. Those are the thoughts, the feelings, the visceral reaction to things that I used to feel when I was in this state, and I just want to name it in case it’s helpful to you to understand what’s going on as well.

Going back to I think it was episode four where we were talking about prioritizing. I used an analogy of packing, and just to be really clear and hit this home, you’re trying to shove a car full of stuff into a carry-on suitcase. It’s never going to fit. When you’re trying to do that, and you’re just like, “I really need to get it all in. I really need to do it,” of course you feel anxiety around that, and that’s very understandable. But there are no time management strategies I can give you that will make that happen. I just need you to really be able to absorb that and understand that, often, anxiety can be a sign that this is an impossible amount of work that we’re trying to do, and I don’t want to address these issues and give you strategies without acknowledging that. That said, there are strategies around (and we’ve talked about this so I’m not gonna go into it a lot) that you can get more clarity around what capacity do I have, what is my current workload, does it fit together, and if not, how do I talk about that with specifics with the people that it’s relevant to, whether it’s at home or whether it’s at work.

I’m not gonna go into it a lot. I know I’m a broken record on that. So revisit past episodes if you’re interested in learning more about that, but that is something that I would be remiss if I didn’t address is that to the extent that this anxiety is around trying to do an impossible amount of work, I didn’t want to neglect talking about that in case that’s what’s going on with you. Really, what it comes down to is embracing the reality of your capacity and how much work is on your plate. That can be frustrating, but it does lead to less anxiety.

So just for an example, in March of this year, we made the tough decision to pull our youngest daughter from a daycare. Without going into all the reasons, we had to do that, and with the state of daycare and childcare in this country, I don’t think anybody who has a child is surprised to hear that we couldn’t get her in anywhere until June. And we made the call to pull her knowing that, but it was still tough to realize that, okay, we’re gonna have her home for many months, and it was the right move, but it’s tough. I had to have a real sit-down moment of what the work that I planned on doing over the next I think it’s like three or four months, is not gonna happen because we’ve made the decision to pull my daughter out, and I will be the main primary caretaker during that time.

When I could get clear on my much-diminished capacity and what I could do at that time, yes, there was frustration, but there was a lot of that frontend work that came with that frustration. It allowed me to plan realistically throughout the next coming months to have a lot less anxiety around where my time was going. When we can be clear on our capacity and embrace reality about whatever our capacity is going to be and then what our current workload is, we are much more empowered to address that in a more realistic way, and we are also less anxious because we are not completely overloading ourselves and being constantly anxious of whether we can get it done.

On the flip side, you also can get really creative. I probably could have been more creative about how to get childcare during that bridge period, but it is what it is, and we don’t need to go into the details of my life. But I do think it’s important to, when you embrace the reality of what your capacity is, what your workload is, and how those interact, you’re more empowered. Of course there’s frontend frustration, but you have more clarity, and you can be more creative of how you want to solve it, and in relation to the topics we’re talking about today, there is just less day-to-day anxiety because you’re not overloading your plate and trying to demand that you get it all done, whether it’s intentional or not.

So, before we move onto the third point, just to recap, the first point is time blocking tasks in your calendar with strategies and scaffolding and a lot more handholding than just like, “Just time block.” A lot more strategies behind that will help you reduce your anxiety because it eliminates all those swirling thoughts, gives you the peace of mind to understand how things can get done in the future. They don’t need to get it all done right now, which allows you to focus on what you want to focus on and be more present when you’re not working. The second point is I would just be remiss in not addressing that some of that anxiety might be coming from being overworked, and I truly believe that time blocking all your tasks in your calendar helps you understand both your capacity and also your current workload so you can avoid those over-work situations to get less anxiety in your life.

Three: Embracing the Reality of Your Situation – 14:26

Turning to the third point, along the lines of embracing reality is really embracing the reality of your environment. Now, I just want to touch on this in relation to kids, but don’t tune out if you don’t have kids. But I’m addressing it because it came to mind when she said, “You know, I’m trying to do these things, and kids are having things come up.”

Now, of course there are gonna be the anomaly situations where you have a loss of childcare because someone’s sick or a daycare closes or your nanny’s sick or something like that where suddenly you have kids at home, and those are not really the situations I’m talking about because of course you’re trying to do your best to make it work, and you might have to do some things that you wouldn’t typically do when kids are around. But from a baseline level, I just want to throw out there to embrace the reality of your situation.

So if you are trying to work at home with children on a consistent basis, I just want to throw out there that just kind of really confront reality of how realistic that can be. Now, it doesn’t mean I’m not necessarily saying don’t work at all when kids are around. I understand that often you have to. But really try and matchmake the type of task you’re trying to do with that context, that environment.

So for example, you might not want to be — I’m gonna go back to my legal world — outlining and drafting a major brief when you’re also trying to watch children at the same time or kids have at least access to you and you know you’re gonna be interrupted all the time. What you might want to do is pick those more lower-energy or lower-focused things like processing your email inbox. They’re bite-sized things. You can do them. You can get interrupted, and it’s not gonna completely derail your whole thought process, typically, and you can really kind of deal with those little, small, bite-sized tasks that email lends itself to in a way that’s realistic with children around.

Then you can save those more higher-energy, higher-focus-required tasks for when you don’t have kids around. So you just kind of want to be a little bit more intentional there and embrace the reality of the types of things that you realistically can get done within a kid context or some other situation where you’re getting interrupted and then save that more focused work for a scenario, an environment, when you can do that. I think really embracing the reality of those situations can lend itself well to reducing your anxiety because you’re not constantly banging your head against a wall trying to do stuff that you kind of, if you took a step back and looked at the situation, would be like, “Yeah, I’m probably not gonna get the focused work that I need to be able to do.”

And again, kind of bringing up that when we embrace reality we can get more creative is you might say, “Maybe I need a couple more hours of childcare so that I do get that focused work done,” and I know that can sound counterintuitive to the people who already feel like they don’t have enough time with their kids, but I’m a firm believer that sometimes (not for everybody) getting more childcare help, while it technically means you have more hours away from your kid than before, really can allow you to do the stuff, like the high-focus stuff that you want to do or just relax or workout or whatever you want to do, and then the quality of time that you have with your kids when you do have time with them, even though it’s less time, it’s better and it’s higher quality because you’re not stressed out and worried about all the things that you want to be doing with your time.

So I know that was a bit of a tangent, and I know that was kid-focused, but I think that it’s really important to think about that. Anyone, whether you have kids or not, can extrapolate out from that. If you have an office environment that is super interrupted, like people swing by your desk all the time with questions and things like that, there are strategies that I like to use to help with that, but at the end of the day, if you know when you go into the office, let’s say two days a week, you’re gonna get interrupted all the time, save the more interruption-worthy things for that time, like email, meetings, things like that. And then save your higher-focus work for when you’re at home or flip it if your situation is different. All of our situations are different. You’ve got to be a little creative here, but you’re also really smart, and you can think about it in these ways. It’s just kind of taking a step back and really thinking about it and, again, embracing reality.

Four: Consider the Reality of Your Mental State – 18:37

Now, point four is another embrace-reality thing. It’s really also thinking about your mental state. This was something that I think was addressed in one of the questions. Maybe I’m just projecting my own things onto it. But it’s kind of like when you have other things in your calendar, like let’s say you have a couple things scheduled for later in the day that are maybe a little stressful to you, and so, you’re trying to focus on things earlier in the day but you just kind of keep turning to the later-in-the-day things because you’re stressed out about them. And maybe this is me. Maybe I’m projecting something onto this, but we’ll address it anyway.

If I find that I have something that’s more stressful in my day, it will probably distract me from doing anything ahead of time, and it’s just hard for my brain to focus on something if I’m really stressed out by something later in the day. Now, if it’s a task that I can move up, then obviously just move that high-stress thing up in your day so you can just get it out of your way, do it, be done with it, and then move to other stuff. But often for me, the context that I’m thinking about this is like a presentation or something like that. What I just want to throw out there is also embrace the reality of that, of your mental state.

So if I know — here’s just an example — later this week I’m giving a really big workshop. I’m flying to a different city. I’m giving this big corporate workshop to an organization. It means a lot to me. I’m kind of stressed out about it. I really want to deliver well. I’m trying to figure out all the logistics and things like that. I need to accept the reality that the morning of that and even the day before that and even earlier in the week, my mental ability to focus on other things is a little bit diminished and then progressively more diminished as the week goes on. And just embracing that reality will cause me to matchmake tasks that I can do to that time (again, lower-focus things, smaller bite-sized things, things like that) that will allow me to be less stressed out and anxious the rest of the week.

So again, if you know something’s going on later today that I’m gonna be stressed out about, don’t, again, try and do that high-quality, really-focus-required work. Instead, try and kind of corral the lower-energy, bite-sized-tasks things into that time. That will help you be able to actually do the things and, therefore, have less anxiety about doing the things because you’re not struggling to do them as much and therefore beating yourself up for not doing the things. I hope that made sense.

Okay, similar to that is maybe the flip of that, maybe in addition to it (I mean, you kind of have to know yourself) is also understanding recovery time. If you have a huge presentation and you’re doing all the prep work ahead of time and things like that, you might finish that presentation and be zonked. And so, also embracing the reality of that, that you might want to schedule time off or a doctor’s appointment or a haircut or a lower-energy task during that time after the fact when you will be exhausted.

Again, I’m trying to bring this back to reality. I know I sound like I’m going everywhere, but it really does come back to anxiety, to me at least, is when the complaint is, and understandably so, “I try and focus on things, and I can’t do it, and that causes me anxiety,” you might be trying to do things that you just don’t have the energy for in that moment.

And so, if you have a massive deadline or a massive presentation, just understand that after it, you might be exhausted, and instead of trying to then write a major brief after it or put together a major presentation or do something else that, really, you need your brain for, and if you try and do it you’re gonna be anxious because you’re gonna be struggling to focus and have that cycle of “I can’t do it so I’m stressed, and I’m stressed so I can’t do it,” and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, you really want to be like, “Okay, I know I’m not gonna be able to do it during that time, so let me plan something that I will have the capacity to do, the mental and energy capacity to do,” and again, that might be a doctor’s appointment or a haircut or taking the day off for processing email and cleaning up your desk.

Whatever it might be, just be aware of that, embrace the reality of what your mental state will be, and then plan tasks that kind of account for that mental state, and you will experience the flow of being able to do it more, which helps with the anxiety to be able to do it more. Obviously, you still have to know that you can do those higher-energy things at a later time, which hopefully are all laid out in your calendar, but that will really help you with that as well.

Five: Don’t Stress Over Rolling Tasks Over – 

The last point I want to make is don’t unnecessarily stress over rolling things over. So, this kind of gets to the last point that someone that wrote in saying, “You know, I’m stressed because I’m not getting the thing done,” which is totally fair if there’s a real deadline and things like that. But what I want to throw out there is that often I have seen clients really beat themselves up for not getting something done when it really didn’t have to get done during that time. We’re all human. We’re all gonna have times where we are trying to do something and it doesn’t work or it takes a ton more time than we thought, and I just want to throw out there that if you — I roll over things often. I’m often like, “Ugh, something came up. Didn’t get to that thing. Move it to a different time.” If I can see that it still works at a different time, it doesn’t prejudice any plans that I have or anything like that, that’s fine. There’s no reason to beat yourself up or judge ourselves. I think sometimes we almost judge ourselves just because we didn’t play the plan out even if the new plan totally works.

So I just want to end with that. I obviously understand that there are deadlines. I was a litigator. I totally understand deadlines. In that scenario, I understand the stress, but I do want to just nudge you to really question, “Why am I beating myself up? Why am I feeling this anxiety? Can I move it to a different time, and it would be totally fine?” Then do that. Whether it’s proactively or you just tried and tried and tried and you didn’t get to it and you have to move it to a different time, if it can still work, let it play out.

You know, I talk a lot about strategies with my clients of building wiggle room into your calendar to allow for that type of thing, but make sure that, one, you have the wiggle room in your calendar to do it, but two that you’re not beating yourself up just because you didn’t play out the somewhat arbitrary plan. As long as you’re not prejudicing anything that you’re trying to work on if it has to rollover.

If you struggle with that, I totally get it. If I didn’t use The Bright Method, I’m not sure how I would know that the plan would still work. But whether you use The Bright Method or a different method, just use a system that helps you see, “Okay, my new plan can still work out and I can move along from there.” I really think that can help with anxiety.

I think that some of the anxiety we feel around doing our to-dos or because we are — and I speak from being fully in this club of being type-A, very achieving, linear-thinker-type people, and when we don’t do the plan, sometimes that’s frustrating in and of itself, but we have to take a step back and be like, “This is the new plan,” and if an adjusted plan still works, let’s just play it out. We don’t have to beat ourselves up for not doing the original plan. This next plan works just as well. We’ll roll with it.

And my guess is, some extent of it is that you didn’t finish, which is a bummer. I totally get you just want to be done with it, but you also probably accomplished a lot that you aren’t fully appreciating, and so, really, also try and focus on what you did accomplish during that time, even if it was just noodling on it and understanding how something wouldn’t work, that’s still valuable for when you turn back to it on how it will work.

All right! So I know that these kind of bounced around a little bit, but I think that this is a complicated topic, and I think that we all kind of come at it from different angles and have things that have different pressure points for us on this front, but hopefully you found at least one thing that helps you with this kind of anxiety that a lot of us feel.

Recap – 26:33

So, to recap, first, was time blocking in your calendar, which will help you alleviate a lot of the mental load, swirling, all of that kind of stuff, and really lay out a game plan for you to see how things can get done in the future and not right now, which will help alleviate a lot of that anxiety.

I also just want to throw out and point to the time blocking in this way, when you do it across everything that you have going on in your life, you can really understand your capacity and your workload and see when your work transitions into overwork and the kind of out-stripping your capacity, and if you can then adjust and keep your workload within your capacity or as close as you can to it, that will alleviate a lot of anxiety because I do think that, even though it wasn’t exactly addressed in the questions, a lot of anxiety does come from “I don’t know if I can get everything else done because I don’t even know if it’s possible to get all of it done,” and that’s something that we want to address and make sure that we’re keeping your workload within your capacity to the best that we can.

Point three was along those lines: embrace the reality of your environment. If you’re in an environment where you foreseeably aren’t going to focus and do your best quality work, don’t try to. If you try to, you’ll have a lot of anxiety around that, and you’ll just be frustrated and anxious. And so, we really want to matchmake our tasks to the environment that we’re in, whether we’re talking about being in charge of kids or being in an office setting with a lot of interruption and things like that.

Point four is along those lines: also embrace your mental reality. If you know you’re going to be stressed or zonked, really make sure that you’re matchmaking your tasks to that mental state.

Fifth is don’t unnecessarily stress on rolling things over just because you didn’t play out your original plan. Use the system that allows you to understand how a new plan’s gonna work so that you can let it go without judgment, without attaching any further meaning to it beyond, “It just didn’t happen, and now we’re gonna move things around to a different day.”

All right! Let me know if there is another type of anxiety- or stress-related topic to time management that I didn’t address that you would like me to address. I think it’s a really fascinating topic, and I’d love to help, and I will do my best.

If you want a taste of The Bright Method, but you’re like, “I just want a taste of it. I don’t know whether I want to go full in yet, but I do want to take this for a test drive,” you can. I have a free five-day program. It’s called The Reset and Refresh, and you can find it at www.kellynolan.com/reset-refresh. I’ll also put it in the show notes if you don’t want to figure that one out. And I look forward to hearing what you think about it!

All right, I’ll catch you in the next one!

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