How Writing an 'Emotional To-Do List' Helped Me Push Past Procrastination
My to-do list was hiding all sorts of secrets.
It seemed pretty straightforward: Buy groceries for dinner, achieve inbox zero, figure out that work assignment.
But each one of these tasks came paired with an emotion: anxiety, boredom, fear, excitement.
Every time we look at our calendars, emotions are swimming just below the surface, whether we consciously realize them or not. This is why even when you approach your day with the best intentions, certain tasks can stop you in your tracks. You’re not considering how each item on your agenda makes you feel.
Research shows that our emotions are a cause of procrastination. Think about it: Procrastination rarely happens when you’re truly excited to tackle something—rather, its stimulants are often resentment, boredom, or anxiety.
Personally, that’s why I always procrastinate simple errands—they’re not hard, but they bore me. And because they don’t provide a shock of excitement, it’s only natural to want to put them off. But the problem is that it starts a feedback loop: Procrastination can lead to self-loathing, which leads to more procrastinating.
Thankfully, there’s a way out. If we can regulate our emotions, we will actually procrastinate less.
It starts with a simple to-do list hack that takes you 15 seconds: Creating an emotional to-do list. It's a tactic psychologist Chloe Carmichael, Ph.D., writes about in her book, Nervous Energy: Harness the Power of Your Anxiety.
"Paying attention to emotion facilitates motivation, meaning and fulfillment; ignoring it can lead procrastination or to a 'hamster on a wheel' feeling of completing a lot of steps yet missing a sense of journey," she writes.
Here’s how to create a to-do list that helps you recognize, up front, how each task makes you feel—and how this “emotional to-do list” personally helped me push past procrastination.
First, Write Your ‘Normal’ To-Do List
Simplest trick in the world, but one that it’s easy to overlook when you get busy. It’s hard to know what to focus on each day unless you can get a full scope of your activities.
When you’re writing your list, put all the fun stuff on there, too. If you’re having a Zoom with friends at 6 p.m., perhaps reminding yourself of all the fun will make that 3 p.m. meeting with your boss much more tolerable.
Write Down the Primary Emotion Tied to Each Task
Alright, here’s the deal—and where I found all the secrets lurking in my list. I went through my to-do list and wrote down how each one made me feel. A sneak peek into the inner workings of my mind:
●︎ Write first draft of story: Stressed (Because I’m a day behind)
●︎ Meet my friend for virtual lunch: Excited (Because we are overdue for a catch-up!)
●︎ Find recipe for Friday dinner: Overwhelmed (Because So! Many! Options!)
●︎ Write my newsletter for tomorrow: Fun (Because it gets my brain thinking)
●︎ Do my laundry: Annoyed (Um, because my laundry bag is falling apart)
Doing this exercise clarified so much about why I was avoiding certain activities. It also gave me a road map to move forward.
Find Ways to Moderate Each Emotion
Now that I knew the root emotion of each to-do, instead of blindly running headlong into a million things, I could take each item one-by-one.
The story became easier to write because I knew I had my lunch plans to look forward to—and made me realize that when I miss a deadline, it makes the task 10 times harder. So hopefully that provides a warning sign to do it less often.
Reminding myself that I enjoy writing my newsletter made it feel less like another to-do and more like something I could pour myself into—a treat after a long day.
Once I knew that I was overwhelmed by recipe-finding, I told myself to go to one site and find one recipe. I didn’t need to exhaust the entire Internet (and waste four hours of my life) finding the end-all, be-all entree.
And while doing laundry is the easiest thing on the list—yet one I always avoid—figuring out that the problem is because my laundry bag is in tatters, making the schlep to the laundromat that much worse, gave me another solution: I bought a new one!
I hope you can record your own emotions and tack them on to your to-do list. You might be surprised by what you find—and perhaps curb your procrastination once and for all.
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