Is My To-Do List Bad For My Mental Health?

mental health
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I recently quit my job. Well, not really "quit" and not really "my job." I work at a restaurant, one day a week. The money is consistent and I get to see some of the friends that I’ve made while working there over the past few years. But my schedule has gotten fuller and I wanted to free up a day until the summertime. To do this, I needed to go in and give my notice. I’d been pushing it off for a while, because who wants to quit a job? It’s awkward, sometimes messy, and it elicits one thing: change. For me, I was mostly bothered by the last one because I’m a Taurus and a bit of a control freak. 

So, I reminded myself, verbally, more than once over the past few weeks and I even had it penciled down in my planner. It said, “Quit *$&%*@,” in red ink, so there was no way I could’ve missed it. And yet, I didn’t go in. I think I even had it written on two other notepads that I keep around (actually, I know it was on those pads). But still, I continued to push it off. I knew they would oblige my request and send me off with love; there was absolutely no reason for me not to follow through. 

Except maybe the fact that I have six other jobs that I’m constantly bouncing around for. That’s right. Not one, or two, but SIX. To pencil in time to travel downtown, hope my manager is in, talk to him for five minutes, and then go about my day was not really gonna happen. 

So instead, I emailed him my two week (more like 7 day) notice. And I know that was the least professional thing I probably could’ve done, but at least I didn’t just ghost them. Luckily, my manager understood that. I’m telling you all of this because I want you to know just how satisfying it was to cross that belligerent red ink’d note out, more than one time. It gave me a feeling similar to that of eating a Hershey’s Chocolate bar. I once described this feeling to my mother as “making my toes tingle,” which is both disturbing and vividly clear. 

I know I sound like some kind of fiend, but I really love the whole process of crossing things off my to-do list. I time and date stamp pretty much everything — even if I’m just going to throw it away after. I make my grocery story list in the order of that specific store’s layout. I just love crossing things off or checking a little box. It makes me feel happy and productive and like I can breathe a little lighter. This feeling is something that I’ve come to crave; I’ll even write something down that I just completed, just to cross it off. Crazy, I know. Part of it is normal, as I’ve encountered many people who rely on to-do lists to manage their busy lives. But part of it, for me, has to do with my experiences with mental health. 

I had ADHD before having ADHD was cool. Adderall and Ritalin weren’t just something I did to cram, or let’s be honest: to party. And the little blue pills that were on full stock in the kitchen pantry weren’t for anything other than regulating my mood and making sure I didn’t hide out in a dark room for 29 hours at a time. I had a schedule, my teachers had the same schedule, and my mother was the ruler of keeping said schedule in order. She equipped me (with the help of my first therapists) with an invisible toolkit that helped me navigate the SECOND GRADE. The first thing on that list was of course, "Make a clear to-do list, with the most important things on top!"

The combination of ADHD, depression, anxiety, and a tiny bit of OCD, at seven years old, is enough to ruin someone. But with drugs, lists, and notes from my mom, I was, as the kids say, "Gucci." I wrote everything down the best I could. I crossed things off and rewrote entire notes when I messed up one letter. I took breaks in the afternoon to take a second dose of meds and eat a granola bar, despite the snickers of those mostly white class around me. And honestly, not much of that changed over the next 10 years. 


I also got super into stationary, journals, and notepads because I found out about Target (basic, I know). Looking back at the massive amount of my journals hidden in my parent’s basement, I found list after list detailing who I was, at different points in my life. I found birthday party guest lists, plans for what I was going to be in the future, lists of boys I wanted to kiss, tons of the game MASH, stories of times my mother made me mad, moments of darkness, bits of light, and so many lists that I never even finished. 

This freaky trip down memory lane left me with one big question: Have my to-do lists helped my mental health over the years or are they just making it worse?

What I have a problem with is constantly monitoring my lists — mostly because I have too many.

What I found was that shockingly, little research has been done on the affect of to-do lists on mental health. That was both cool and disconcerting. What I did find was predominantly one-sided. In May 2017, The Guardian compiled multiple main studies on to-do lists into one article that gave a big picture view of it all. In one study done by psychologist and author Dr. David Cohen, the importance of to-do lists was narrowed down to three factors. “They dampen anxiety about the chaos of life; they give us a structure, a plan that we can stick to; and they are proof of what we have achieved that day, week or month.” Another study done at Wake Forest University found that even the act of putting a plan down on paper helps to lower levels of anxiety. 

When I look at them this way, I fully reap the benefits of my to-do lists. I thrive on structure and seeing progress perks me up. But what I have a problem with is constantly monitoring my lists — mostly because I have too many. Sometimes I start a list in one room, get distracted and move to another room, totally forget about that list, and go on wasting paper. And often, when I find that list later, I don’t even remember what I was going write in the first place. There was sort of an answer for this: Dr. Cohen highly suggests that being on top of your to-do lists is the only way they’ll be effective. Luckily, I’m not the only one who doesn’t finish lists. Dr. Cohen recalled finding an old notebook with unfinished things from six years back. 

As I'm writing this, I have about 26 tabs open on my browser. I just knocked one off many lined sticky notepads onto the floor. Just before writing this, I was trying to organize the stack of running lists that I've compiled onto my kitchen table. Where do I even keep these?, I thought. Do I buy a trapper accordion home for these notes that I'm constantly looking for, editing, and leaving for my boyfriend to read and question? Or do I just toss them and lose my mind until I'm not bothered by my lack of structure? With the latter option, I think I'd be undoing 12 years of hard work — not to mention way too many paper goods. 

For now, I think I'll keep writing my notes, but I'm definitely going to work to do a better job at being clear, concise, and considerate to the future-reading version of myself. I'm going to try to remove the power from the lists and use them as a backup to my already established structured lifestyle, instead of the foundation. I'll take advantage of the whole page, instead of throwing a fit because I don't like how I wrote, "groceries." And I'll continue to hoard them just in case I suddenly decide to publish them in a tell-all tale of the girl who wasted paper. 

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LAUREN TURNER

Writer of things. Lover of babies. Addicted to food. Potential wino. I do not social meed, but I need more mead. 

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