Overcoming Anxiety and Getting Stuff Done With Lists

I know this may sound strange coming from someone who is such a heavy OmniFocus user, but lists and checklists have never really been a big motivational tool for me. I know many people, especially my mom, who write down what they need to get done on a piece of paper and simply will not rest until every item is checked-off or crossed-through. They get a legitimate high every time they complete a task.

For me?

Not so much.

However, I have discovered that making lists can be a huge tool in my struggle with anxiety.

Often, whenever I sit down in front of Xcode ready to begin a new unit of work, my twenty years of programming experience will let me see hours ahead and nearly every line of code I’ll need to write. I can literally visualize down to the indentation of the code what the finished product will look like.

And that’s where things go wrong for me.

I’ll start working on whatever the first task is, but my mind will be racing ahead traveling through every code path looking for problems and rattling up my anxiety as I mentally try and remember all the gotchas, pitfalls, caveats that lie ahead. I’ll get so caught up fretting over what comes next that I’ll lose focus on what I’m currently working on.

It didn’t use to always be like this. In fact, I can look back 5-7 years ago and have no memory of this ever happening. But, as my general anxiety problems in life have gotten worse, this coding habit has developed.

Back to lists.

One solution to the problem I’ve discovered is this. Whenever I’m about to start a large unit of work, I take five minutes and let my mind do its thing and wander through the work. It’s a similar feeling to how I used to use clustering to brainstorm thesis ideas when writing English papers. I get all of my concerns and worries and milestones about the work ahead out onto paper. With everything out of my mind and written down, I can quickly organize the mess into a coherent outline and start working.

This method completely frees my mind of all the open loops (to use a GTD term) so I can focus and reach flow faster.