Managing Our Anxieties in Practice: In-the-Moment Mental Checklist for Precrastinators

No matter how buttoned up your to-do list or how organized your To-Do Matrix, there will inevitably be things that come up on a day-to-day basis that you weren’t anticipating. If you’re a precrastinator, these types of interruptions may cause you a great deal of anxiety, and you may be inclined to tackle them right away. As a friend shared with us, “It’s like constantly being tapped on the shoulder.”

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As we’ve learned, part of the motivation for wanting to get tasks off your plate is to reduce your mental load. Certainly there will be times when these interruptions are unavoidable (emergencies and other things beyond your control) or important enough to deserve running them through a system (see our Day-to-Day Motivations strategy), but other things will be smaller interruptions that you know aren’t critical for you to look at right now, but are so tempting to handle quickly so you don’t have to think about them anymore.

As we’ve learned, part of the motivation for wanting to get tasks off your plate is to reduce your mental load.

The most obvious example is email — that flag or ping that pops up when you have a new email can be really hard to ignore. Best case, you disable these addictive email notifications and only check email at designated times, but regardless, there will certainly be small distractions that needlessly capture your attention. Maybe you look out the window and realize the bird feeder should be filled, or you meant to return a library book, or you need to place an order for something you’re running low on. These are quick, seemingly innocuous distractions, but they can derail your day and keep you from getting through your high-priority to-do’s.

In-the-Moment Mental Checklist for Precrastinators

When you find yourself feeling anxious to take care of small distractions or things that aren’t all that important or time sensitive, try running through the following checklist to slow yourself down. Imagine that you’re talking through a problem with a friend, which research shows can help you work through your own problems better:

  • What is causing you to experience anxiety?
  • Why do you want to have this out of the way?
  • What are the likely advantages to waiting?
  • What are the likely disadvantages to waiting?
  • What are actions you can take to allow yourself to hold off on handling this now?

Example 1: Your boss sends an email to your team asking for input on a new initiative. It’s a little out of your wheelhouse, and you’re tackling another initiative that has a deadline tomorrow. But it’s your boss, so…you should respond right away, right?

When something like this happens, you may feel pressure to respond right away, but experience shows that a quick response isn’t always the best response, especially when other people are involved and it would be beneficial to take time to think through the question and response.

Running through the checklist:

  • What is causing you to experience anxiety? In this case, it may be that you want your boss to think you’re dependable, or show your colleagues you’re working hard, or make sure you’re the first to get your ideas in before someone else takes the conversation in a different direction. Notably, none of these is about getting the best outcome for all involved.
  • Why do you want to have this out of the way? Along with reducing mental load, you may feel like if you can just get back to your boss, you can go on with the work that you were doing and put this conversation aside. But the reality is, the sooner you respond, the sooner additional emails, and additional work, will pile on.
  • What are the likely advantages to waiting? By waiting, you can allow the question to simmer while you tackle the more pressing thing you were already working on. Additionally, it may be the case that your colleagues will jump in and you won’t need to get involved, or you can participate in a different way once the conversation is further along.
  • What are the likely disadvantages to waiting? If you respond right away, you may be showing responsiveness without showing thoughtfulness, and you may also prevent your colleagues from taking the time to fully think through the question on their own and feel motivated to contribute. Further, you’re likely delaying the more pressing work that you were in the middle of, and you may be setting a bad example, or unrealistic expectations, for your colleagues.
  • What are actions you can take to allow yourself to hold off on handling this now? You can write this down on your to-do list to make sure you don’t forget it and make a plan for when you’ll tackle it, and you can focus your attention back on your priorities already underway. If you’re still feeling anxious, taking a quick break to stretch, jog, or have a glass of water can help gain perspective. If you feel like you know how you want to respond to the email and don’t want to forget, perhaps you can begin to jot down your ideas, so long as you hold off on sending them back for now, especially since you may have further ideas as you allow yourself more time.
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Example 2: You’ve set a goal of going to bed by 10pm tonight, but you keep thinking of things you could be doing. You think, “I’ll just fold this load of laundry and get a head-start on tomorrow’s meals so I won’t have to worry about them tomorrow.”

It’s common to get in a mindset of doing “just one more thing” before whatever the next thing is that you’re supposed to be doing. But there will always be one more thing that could be taken care of, so figuring out a way to counter this urge is important.

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  • What is causing you to experience anxiety? It feels like there are an endless list of things you should be doing. If you can take care of one or two more things before bed, you feel like you’ll be able to start tomorrow in a better place. But realistically, you know you could find tasks to do forever, and would never go to bed early with that mindset.
  • Why do I want to have this out of the way? By checking off more to-do’s today, you’ll be looking out for your future self and won’t have to deal with these things tomorrow, which theoretically can leave more time for more important – or more enjoyable – things. But going to bed early is also a way of looking out for your future (and present) self, and you made it a goal because you felt it was important.
  • What are the likely advantages to waiting? Going to bed early and getting a good night’s rest.
  • What are the likely disadvantages to waiting? Having more to do tomorrow.
  • What are actions you can take to allow yourself to hold off on handling this now? You can review your list of priorities for today and recommit to getting to bed early. You can also think through (and write down) when you’ll handle these items tomorrow, e.g. “I’ll listen to a podcast while folding laundry and prepping meals after breakfast tomorrow.”

For more on this topic, check out our Reader Q&A, “Should I Respond to One-off Tasks Quickly?” where we cover types of communication that may be worth handling right away. We’d love to hear any other questions or strategies you may have!

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