If my to-do list could talk, it would say, “You didn’t finish me yet!” I know I’m not the only one ignoring my to-do list because I can’t stand the idea of one more task.

Many of us are drained these days, but time off isn’t always feasible. Even if we’d rather curl up in bed with hot chocolate, Netflix, and fuzzy socks, work deadlines don’t magically disappear just because coronavirus is a thing. When we finally get home, dishes, food prep, and laundry piles stick around like guests who have outstayed their welcome.

In the midst of burnout, another emotion shows up: dread.

While this struggle is common, many people don’t recognize that dread and avoidance are anxiety symptoms. This article shares actionable tips to ease that stress and get stuff done, even when you’re overwhelmed.

1) Differentiate between projects and tasks, and sort them separately.

Don’t put massive projects on your to-do list; keep a separate projects list. When I was in graduate school, my to-do list said, “write an excellent dissertation.” If that kind of mega-project doesn’t produce dread, I don’t know what does. Instead, divide your work into projects and tasks, an idea I learned from productivity expert David Allen. In his book Getting Things Done, he writes: “I define a project as any desired result that requires more than one action step. This means that some rather small things that you might not normally call projects are going to be on your ‘Projects’ list.

When it comes to taking steps forward with anxiety and productivity, “rather small things” are good! They feel manageable, which can help you feel inspired to do them.

2) When you are dreading a task, see if you can make it smaller.

For example, if you need to write an email or work document and notice that you are avoiding it, try writing this sentence on your to-do list: “Open your laptop and write one sentence.”

It sounds silly, but this tiny task can help you overcome inertia about getting started, which is often the hardest part.

3) Intersperse tiny tasks with rewards.

When you’re burned out, even looking at a to-do list can trigger dread. Instead, write one task and a reward that would be enough to make you actually want to do it.

Rewards can include watching a favorite show, knitting, having a hot chocolate, or taking a walk. It might seem unusual for adults to reward themselves (isn’t that something for kids?) but it’s supported by Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), which recommends rewards for difficult but values-based behavior.

DBT recommends scaling the reward based on the difficulty of the task. Because the pandemic has created incredible stress, it’s reasonable to evaluate when you need to increase the frequency or scale of your reward. For example, if you are struggling with burnout, anxiety, depression, or other disabilities, taking a shower might be a difficult task for you, and it’s appropriate to recover afterwards. Other people’s opinion about what “counts” as difficult doesn’t matter here.

For further reading, you might appreciate the “self-soothing” suggestions in the distress tolerance module of DBT.

4) Try concurrent rewards.

Dreading your tasks? Make your favorite coffee or tea before you start. And don’t forget to add another reward from tip number three above. For many of us who were raised in a strict environment or who are used to denying ourselves pleasure, this might seem indulgent. I encourage you to try it without judgement to see if it works for you.

5) Make illustrated to-do lists with funny pictures and stickers.

One of the hardest things I ever had to do was finish my degree while living with chronic pain as the world was shutting down due to the pandemic. I had run out of disability accommodations and finishing my degree felt like “now or never.”

So, I introduced an element of play. I really love stationary, nice pens, and stickers, and find them motivating. Anything with an artistic element is more interesting to me than a standard to-do list. My favorite stickers at the time were Gudetama, an illustrated “lazy egg” character invented by Sanrio-designer Emi Nagashima.

Gudetama tends to appear in silly situations that I identified with and that made me smile. Sometimes he is depicted under a piece of bacon, being dragged by chopsticks when he wants to rest, or lying face down in exhaustion (and apparently nude). He became my little mascot, cheering me on with his funny little face. I placed him at the top of my to-do list, with captions like “Gudetama needs to find an additional online reference.” When I felt burned out, was struggling with imposter syndrome, or even feeling ashamed of the way my disabilities were affecting me, I used Gudetama captions to validate my emotions:

“Gudetama is feeling discouraged.”

“Gudetama doesn’t believe he is capable.”

And finally – “Gudetama finished his degree.”

When you achieve your goal, no matter how large or small, don’t forget to celebrate! If you would like some additional help with anxiety, pandemic stress, or other life pressures, a licensed mental health provider is a great resource. Therapy isn’t just for people who are in a crisis. In fact, earlier treatment is associated with better and faster outcomes. Most importantly, this has been a tough year, and you deserve all the help you need to move forward.

What rewards will you try this week?

About the Author

Dr. Sarah Curzi is a college consultant and founder at Cafe PhD, where she helps stressed out families navigate college admissions. She has over ten years of experience working with students at Duke University, Baruch College, ABCD University High School, MIT’s SEED Pre-Engineering Program, YMCA Young Achievers, and SSAT/SAT tutoring companies. Dr. Curzi holds a PhD from Duke University.