Are you feeling stuck in a cycle of overwhelm and worry—constantly behind as you tackle an unending To-Do list? If you’re wondering how you can handle stress better, long task lists are not the answer. Let’s talk about what is.
“The mind can go either direction under stress—toward positive or―Frank Herbert, Dune
toward negative: on or off. Think of it as a spectrum whose extremes
are unconsciousness at the negative end and hyperconsciousness at the
positive end. The way the mind will lean under stress is strongly influenced
My client, Sharon, texted me to say she would be late for our coaching session with this message: “Ass meeting alligators. Will be there in ten mins.”
I replied with my standard, “All is well.”
When she joined our Zoom meeting, strands of her straight, blonde hair had fallen across her eyes. A little out of breath, she straightened in her chair before fully focusing on me.
“It’s been a week,” she said.
Sharon told me about the multiple projects she had going on and how all of them seemed to be falling apart simultaneously. She said, “I’m at the point now that I’m so overwhelmed, my brain has shut down. I can’t think straight, and I’m exhausted from lack of sleep and endless worry. I keep thinking I can just knock these projects out, but nothing is working.”
I nodded and waited.
Sharon flipped through her legal pad and studied the pages, dark with ink. Line after line of tasks, calls, and fires needing tending. She asked, “So what’s your go-to hack for amping up your productivity?”
“I ask myself: What would Jeff Bezos do?” I said.
“Huh? Isn’t he on a yacht somewhere with Lauren Sánchez?” Sharon asked.
I laughed. A boisterous, Bezos-like laugh. “Let me explain,” I said.
Years ago, when I began preparing to launch White Oak Realty Group, I became the Queen of Lists. I had always had a fondness for list-making—writing things down and crossing them off. It was satisfying to feel I was on top of things when most of my life was chaotic.
A few months before my launch, though, my lists began getting longer and longer. More and more details. More things to figure out and do. I was adding line after line to my pages and not crossing much off.
I started to panic. My brain had begun shutting down in the very way Sharon had described.
One afternoon, I happened across an interview with Jeff Bezos. I clicked play and realized I had been approaching my work all wrong. Below is a 2-minute clip from that interview about how you can handle stress. Take a moment now to watch it.
In talking about how you can handle stress, Bezos says, “Stress primarily comes from not taking action over something that you can have some control over….Stress doesn’t come from hard work….”
Why Long To-Do Lists Are Not the Answer to How You Can Handle Stress
I immediately understood where I had been sabotaging myself. By simultaneously trying to focus on every item on my unending To-Do lists, I had very effectively confused and inundated my brain. And because I was drowning in the deluge of open tasks, I was not taking consistent action.
I’d try to hack off a sliver from a task mountain and work a bit on it here. Then I’d turn my attention to another project and do a bit there. But I wasn’t making any real progress as my attention was fractured, and my cerebral cortex wasn’t firing on all cylinders.
My stress mounted. It wasn’t long until I stopped doing focused work entirely because my anxiety over all the open loops and unresolved pieces of work had crushed my drive. This put me in a full-on stress spiral. The very place Sharon had landed.
I wasn’t taking action on the things that I had some control over.
Our brain runs hot when it has too many open tasks to conquer. Like an ongoing drain on your computer’s RAM when too many browser tabs are open, our brain will keep trying to solve for X when handling multiple, unresolved tasks.
In other words, our To-Do lists are entirely too long. So let’s talk about how you can handle stress by reorienting to your To-Do lists.
How You Can Handle Stress: Cooling an Overheated Brain to Get Back On Track
1) Disbelieve the cultural lore that more productivity is the answer. Reframe your thinking and acknowledge that doing less will help you achieve more, better.
2) Scan your lengthy To-Do list. Select one item to take action on.
3) Put the list somewhere out of sight.
4) Have a heart-to-heart with your subconscious mind about how you can handle stress. Take out your journal and write a brief letter to your subconscious mind. Acknowledge that you have a lot on your plate and you understand it is going to want to keep trying to solve open challenges. Give it permission to let the rest of the list go for now; you’ll handle it one task at a time.
5) Ask your subconscious to bring focus to the item you have selected to focus on first.
6) Take delicious, decisive action.
7) Rinse and repeat.
When we are kind to ourselves, to our brains, everything begins to shift. It does not serve us to bludgeon ourselves with towering task lists or endlessly search for the right productivity hack to do more and more. Productivity hacks are not the solution to how you can handle stress.
Our brains and souls crave decisiveness, resolution, and focus. Taking thoughtful action on what we can control (one inspired action at a time without perseverating on lists of shame) is a cool compress on our overheated minds—and ultimately, the answer to how you can handle stress.