What if your to-do list is so long it actually becomes the source of your anxiety?

Honestly, there’s nothing quite like that sweet, sweet feeling of crossing an item off my to-do list. I admit it!

But wow, there’s also nothing quite like that certain brand of anxiety that comes from a to-do list that just. doesn’t. end.

There’s a long-held belief that to-do lists can reduce procrastination and, in short, help you get stuff done. This is related to something known as the Zeigarnik effect, which is basically our brain’s obsession with outstanding tasks until they’re completed.

Writing tasks down in a — you guessed it — to-do list can reduce these persistent thoughts.

But what if you’re like me (or most of us) and you have a bajillion incomplete tasks? What if your to-do list is so long it actually becomes the source of your anxiety?

I was overwhelmed with my to-do list anxiety, and I remembered something: I’m an occupational therapist. We occupational therapists have a lot to say when it comes to the science of how, why, and for what purpose people do things.

Using my occupational therapy knowledge, I decided to tweak my to-do list — and the result has had a really positive impact on my mental health.

But first, what’s an occupation? Hint: It’s not your job.

The World Federation of Occupational Therapy defines occupation as “the everyday activities that people do as individuals, in families, and with communities to occupy time and bring meaning and purpose to life.”

My lengthy to-do lists are full of occupations: work, grocery shopping, cooking, Zooming with my grandma, more work.

These scattered lists used to not only look like a mess, they made me feel like a mess, too.

I decided to get things under control by writing my to-do lists in categories — occupational categories, that is.

Occupational therapists have historically categorized occupations into three main categories: self-care, productivity, and leisure.

  • Self-care doesn’t just refer to face masks or baths, it also encompasses all the things you do to take care of yourself, like cleaning, bathing, feeding yourself, getting around the community, handling finances, and more.
  • Productivity typically refers to your job, but it can also apply to school, personal development, parenting, gigging, and more.
  • Leisure can include hobbies like gardening, surfing, reading a book, and so many others. These occupations are meant to bring you pleasure.

The benefit of categorizing my to-do list wasn’t purely organizational or aesthetic — it also improved my mental health.

This is thanks to a concept called occupational balance. Occupational balance refers to the balance between the various occupations we spend our time on.

When we experience occupational imbalance — like the classic example of working 80 hours a week, or maybe not working at all due to a global pandemic — this can negatively impact our health.

Research shows that occupational imbalance can lead to, among other things, stress-related disorders.

When I first decided to write my to-do list in categories, I was oh so naive. I really had no clue how imbalanced my occupations were. I just knew that I felt stressed.

When I transferred my old, scroll-like to-do list to the new categories, I discovered approximately 89,734 items in the productivity category. Okay, I’m exaggerating, but you get the idea.

There were about two in the leisure and self-care categories. My stress suddenly made a lot more sense.

To keep my categories balanced, I’ve had to reduce some of my work-related occupations and come up with more leisure and self-care tasks. Cue the online yoga classes, daily meditation, baking on the weekends, and actually doing my taxes!

To tweak your own to-do list, I recommend coming up with a few categories of occupations. Try to give each category an equal number of items under it to ensure balance.

I personally create a weekly to-do list, and so far have used the classic self-care, productivity, and leisure categories. I give myself 10 items under each category.

Under self-care, I put things like grocery shopping, cleaning the toilet (yep, it’s self-care), ordering medication, therapy, and others like this.

Under productivity, it’s usually work-related tasks. To keep this category from getting overwhelmingly long, I focus on larger projects instead of small individual tasks.

Under leisure, I put things like running, yoga classes, finishing a book, Zoom calls with friends and family, or a Netflix sesh. These are specific to me and yours might look different.

You’ll also notice that these categories can fit into both self-care and leisure. Do what feels right to you.

Personally, I sometimes find it difficult to prioritize the self-care and leisure categories. If you’re the same way, start small.

When I first switched to this weekly to-do list, I told myself to do just one thing in each category per day. Some days, that means do the laundry, go for a long run, and submit a big work project.

On other days, it might mean shower, meditate for 5 minutes, and send one important email. Basically, you have the freedom to customize it to what you feel physically and mentally capable of on a given day.

  1. Come up with 3 to 4 categories for the type of meaningful things you do each week. These can be the categories above, or you can create your own. Parenting, relationships, creative projects, or hobbies all count as occupations!
  2. Choose an achievable number of things to accomplish for each category. Don’t get too granular. Keep it broad and simple.
  3. Fill out your list and do your best to keep the same number of items in each category. If you can’t, that’s okay, too. It will just show you where you could use a little more balance in your life.

Many people experience occupational imbalance due to things out of their control.

“Restoring balance” is easier said than done when you have children, care for an older relative, work overtime, or any number of other situations that might make you extra busy or overwhelmed.

Try to be kind to yourself and realize that the first step is just realizing where your imbalances lie. It’s okay if you can’t change things right now.

Creating and categorizing your to-do list can bring some much-needed awareness, and that’s important on its own.

Just being aware of your tendencies toward certain occupations (like mega-productivity for me, or spending all your time caring for others and not yourself) is a powerful mental health tool.

Over time, you can use this awareness to guide your choices.

You might feel more empowered to ask someone else to step in from time to time to help with responsibilities. Maybe you can set up a scheduled weekly (or monthly) class in something you enjoy. Or maybe you finally allow yourself to chill out on the couch and do nothing without feeling guilty.

We can best help others when we’re taken care of first.

You’ll also notice some occupations that don’t seem to fit anywhere. That’s because there are quite a few issues with this categorization system.

Some argue that the triad categorization isn’t culturally sensitive or inclusive. It’s also somewhat individualistic and doesn’t account for other meaningful things we do, like religious activities, caring for others, or contributing to our community.

Occupation is complex and just like people, difficult to pin down. I encourage you to play around with your own categories and find what’s meaningful to you.

Thanks to this adjustment in my to-do list, I realized I was overworking myself and not dedicating as much time for occupations that would bring me joy, pleasure, restoration, and purpose.

Actually writing out my to-do list has been an actionable way for me to do something about my stress.

I still tend to overload my productivity occupations because, you know, life. But overall, I feel more in control, more peaceful, and, to sum it up, more balanced.

Sarah Bence is an occupational therapist (OTR/L) and freelance writer, primarily focusing on health, wellness, and travel topics. Her writing can be seen in Business Insider, Insider, Lonely Planet, Fodor’s Travel, and others. She also writes about gluten-free, celiac safe travel at www.endlessdistances.com.