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How List Making Can Help Relieve Stress and Anxiety

Make your mind clear by list makingYou wake up in the morning and your mind is quickly flooded with thoughts : Is it the deadline for my homework? Is there enough food in the fridge? What to cook for lunch and dinner? What to present to buy for my best friend? Having all these in your mind can be an overwhelming, even stressful situation. In this hectic culture with loads of choices, list making can be a way to discern, reorganize and move forward with a clearer mind.

Modern Life and Stress

There’s no way to escape it – modern life is really stressful. Unlike our ancestors who only worry about getting basic necessities such as food, shelter and clothing, we now have more complicated lives, more stressors and even more opportunities for such stress to mess up our bodies.

Thousands of years when our ancestors lived in caves, danger only arise from the weather and the animals they hunted for food and even clothing and these were all physical dangers. This kind of stressor was temporary and our ancestors responded to them with the same stress response we still use today.

Adrenal glands released a burst of adrenaline into the circulation, increasing blood flow and raising the heart rate and cortisol, which often called the stress hormone. The liver released extra glucose for fuel. Cortisol increased blood pressure to carry more oxygen to the muscles and the brain. But once the threat or danger had ceased, such stress response shut down and the body returned to normal.

This is quite different today. We are not only confronted with physical dangers but psychological challenges too. Our body still releases cortisol but there are much more stressors today. Work demands, financial pressure, busy schedules – all these are factors to increasing stress levels.

All these worries can ignite the body’s flight or fight response – workplace anxiety, bullying, paying monthly dues. These regular production of cortisol are definitely not good for you. It can weaken the immune system, damage brain cells and contribute to heart disease.

Chronic production of cortisol can lead to a condition called Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome. In general, the first symptom of adrenal fatigue begins with a period of feeling wired always. You may think you are doing things fine as it feels like you are doing so much. As you try to manage more stress, your normal daily cortisol cycle slowly starts to be disrupted. At this point, you may feel both wired and tired.

This is the point when you feel so drained that you can’t stand up from your bed in the morning, yet, when it’s time to sleep, you are wide awake for many hours. Chronic adrenal stress can lead to exhaustion, when you feel tired all the time. At this point, cortisol levels fall dramatically. Adrenal glands stop working normally due to constant stimulation.

5 Benefits of List Making to Your Brain, Sleep and Sanity

Making a to-do list offers many benefits not only to your productivity and performance but to your physical and psychological health:

A couple relieved from stress because of list makingList making can be a stress reliever. The main concern with today’s kind of work is that it never feels like ‘done’, ‘finished’ or ‘completed’. There’s a huge list of tasks to do and you could do and even those tiny open loops such as unread emails, unfinished books to read, commitments to follow up. All these things can generate subconscious stress. And the brain desperately tries to keep up with them but fail many times.

To add, much of the stress originates not from having too much on your plate but from trying to keep up with it all. This is the reason why when you feel so overwhelmed, you better sit down, get a pen and make a list. You experience instant relief doing this very simple task – even if what you listed remains unfinished. This activity permits your brain to relax a bit by offloading the task of remembering to an ‘external memory brain’.

List making gives back your sense of control. Crossing items on your list can be a satisfying experience. It makes you feel like you accomplished something, giving you more satisfaction. In addition, you also don’t have to keep on remembering completed tasks. Once it’s crossed off, it’s done and it’s out of your mind.

List making makes your brain memory’s job easier. Making a list of the tasks you need to complete is like taking notes when listening to a lecture. When taking notes, you have to sort out information and write down the most important points. Numerous studies have been shown that taking notes helps us filter information and recall it better than those who only read or heard it.

The brain is a smart machine that chooses the most pertinent information to keep for later, as a result of the amount of work you need to do to them. This is the same with making a to-do-list. While thinking of the tasks to be done, the act of writing it down and prioritizing items pressures you to exert some effort.

A study on both young and elderly adults revealed that those who spontaneously organized their lists recalled more items than those who didn’t. The more you mentally organize a piece of information, the better you will recall it. This is the reason why sometimes, it’s easy to recall what you wrote on your list even without looking at it.

List making before bedtimeWriting a to-do list before bedtime can help improve sleep. There are many ways for falling asleep, from sleeping in a dark room to counting sheeps. However, a recent study revealed that making lists could offer a new solution to prevent turning and tossing. Writing only 10 tasks for the next day can help you fall asleep faster.

Lead author Michael Scullin Ph.D, director of Baylor University’s Sleep Neuroscience and Cognition Laboratory told that worries of looming deadlines and unfinished work or even the pint of milk you forgot to buy can prompt brain activity, making it hard to doze off.

Making list can actually ease anxiety, as it is thought to offload nagging thoughts on what to do the next day. In the study, those who made a detailed to-do list were able to sleep 15 minutes faster than others. People today simply recycle their to-do lists in their minds, and so the researchers wanted to find out whether writing them down can counter difficulties of falling asleep. This may seem like picking things out of your head, literally.

List making can maximize the use of ‘found time’. Making to-do lists not only help de-clutter the brain but also allows you to make the most of ‘found time’ – those short periods when you finished a meeting early, waiting for your kids from their school practice or waiting for your order. Rather than thinking what you need to do next, your to-do list lets you maximize this short breaks by checking who you need to call, what to buy for lunch or what details needed to check on the Internet. Always bring your list wherever you do. You can do many things without allotting time for it to your day.

Tips on List Making for Stress Relief – How to Effectively Do It

Most people find a general to-do list even more stressful because they already feel overwhelmed just by seeing all things they have to do. In addition, they also don’t know how to prioritize items on the list, which gives a sense of confusion as home tasks are mixed with work tasks, etc.

But if you really want to achieve a state of stress-free, ‘mind like water’ alertness, you must have a ‘trusted system’ – a notebook, smartphone app or a Word file to list everything – every commitment you made, every task you’ve yet to finish or every future project idea you have had. Always bring it with you wherever you go.

There are four ‘golden rules’ to list making:

List making tip: Categorize your list

  1. Categorize. Based on studied, the brain already gets overwhelmed seeking a list of more than 7 options. Hence, you need to work on different list. Separate your to-do’s into categories. Make a ‘project list’, ‘what-to-buy list’, ‘follow up list’.
  2. Include estimations. After categorizing, add another column and write how long it’ll take for you to complete it.
  3. Prioritize. Divide your tasks into four categories. Some tasks are IMPORTANT AND URGENT, while some are NOT URGENT BUT IMPORTANT. Add 2 more categories - NOT IMPORTANT BUT URGENT and NOT IMPORTANT OR URGENT.
  4. Review. For this list to work effectively for you, it must be used as a daily tool to manage your time. Review it regularly.
    Finally, never see any of your lists as something set in stone. This makes your list stressful and overwhelming. Use it only as a guide and give yourself the gift of clearer, calm mind by unloading your thoughts using a pen and paper.

© Copyright 2018 Michael Lam, M.D. All Rights Reserved.

Dr. Lam's Key Question

There’s no single best method to list making but there are effective ways to make it work for you. Follow the four golden rules – categorize, include estimations, prioritize and then review.

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