Get Started on To-Dos Without Anxiety

It’s all in the cards

Using a to-do list can be immensely helpful. But maybe, just maybe, your to-do list might start to overwhelm you. If you find yourself struggling to scale a mountain of to-dos, starting to panic that you’ll never be able to reach the top or work your way to the bottom, and contemplating just hurling yourself off the mountainside back into bed for the rest of the day—then try this.

It’s a card game. For fun, I call it Priorities Deathmatch, or sometimes Project Thunderdome. If you don’t like those names, you can call it anything you prefer.

You will need blank cards or the equivalent; index cards, stickies, even cut-up pieces of paper.

  1. Write one to-do on each card, for all the ones you want to consider right now (i.e. if you have ten to-dos you’re considering doing, you should end up with ten cards). When you’re done writing all the cards, you may optionally shuffle them.
  2. Stack the to-do cards in front of you, face down.
  3. Pick two cards off the top and turn them over. Here are two to-dos. Choose one that strikes the best balance between (a) being important to do now, and (b) your feeling prepared and willing to do now. You must choose only one of the two. (You can see why I alternately call it Priorities Deathmatch and Project Thunderdome: two tasks enter, one task leaves).
  4. Put the losing to-do in a discard pile, and take the next card off the top of the original stack. Repeat step 3: choose one of the two to-dos.
  5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 until there is only one to-do left standing. Now, do your to-do. If you complete it, great! Do whatever you want with the card—toss it, frame it, give it to your dog to chew… If you don’t complete the task, write a new card for whatever remains to be done, and stick it back in your to-do deck.

When you want to tackle another to-do, play the game again (reusing the undone to-do cards), end up with one, and do it.

Why the game works

This game is based on sound psychological and neurocognitive principles.

Two is a choice, all is chaos

How many to-dos are in a long to-do list? All of them. Can you do all of them at once? No. And often that’s the feeling that comes with looking at the whole list: I can’t do all of these!

Looking at only two to-dos at a time is a straightforward choice between two things. That’s what a choice is supposed to feel like:

This one, or that one?

Simple. Not overwhelming.

Executive functioning is fundamental

The process of choosing between two items based on the specific criteria of importance and doability is essentially a complex discrimination task. You are differentiating which to-do is more important and which is less important (however greatly or slightly); which to-do is more urgent, which less (i.e. time-sensitivity); which to-do is easier and which is harder; which you feel better prepared for and which less prepared for; which more inclined to perform at this moment and which less inclined to perform. You are unitizing (seeing a whole rather than the parts) by determining that one to-do strikes the balance between importance and doability better than the other one. You are also thinking calmly about your feelings, which is a powerful way of regulating emotion without suppressing it.

In short, you are engaged in executive functioning, and lighting up your prefrontal cortex. When your prefontal cortex activates, your amygdala (which starts the fight-flight-or-freeze response) calms down. Executive functioning reduces anxiety.

One step at a time

Even simpler and easier is having only one task to do at a time. The human mind can only concentrate on one thing at a time, so give yourself one thing only to concentrate on and do.

The to-do card game is a simple way to replace a daunting mountain with a single cute mole hill—that you can easily whack!



“The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct acting from inner necessity. The creative mind plays with the objects it loves.”

— Carl Jung (1875-1961)




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