Managing Overwhelm… The Beauty and Utility of Lists

I am gathering resources to make it through the final week of school. Not actual learning resources, but personal resources, energy, stamina, resiliency… remembering to breathe…

I didn’t do much this weekend… I am keeping some parts of myself, my resources, in reserve…

Sometimes at this point, when I think of all the things I have left to complete, it can seem like an impossible task… so I have a few strategies I thought I might share…

Not the First Time:

I remind myself that I feel like this every year at the end of term. I used to feel like this in university, heck – even in high school, and I feel it now at the end of my 26th year of teaching. I think of similar situations – and remind myself that I got through them and I tell myself that as overwhelming as it may be, this is a short-term feeling and that it will not last forever.



I work to think about the next thing I have to accomplish… One next thing – rather than thinking about all of it. I do that one thing and then move on to the next. This helps me maintain focus, which is especially important for me because I am not a particularly effective multitasker.

Lists, Lists, Beautiful Lists:

I make use of lists – extensive use of lists, which helps me with both setting priorities and with tackling the feeling of being overwhelmed. I get it all down – so it does not keep swirling in my head in the present – and I don’t have to try to keep it there so as to not lose track.  Once it is on the list – I can organize and put it aside (out of my thinking) until the right time. This calms me…

Lists help me set priorities:

To make this work I need a plan – and for me that plan is a series of lists and sub-lists in my day planner… and a liberal sprinkling of post-it notes.

I can see the scope of what needs to be accomplished and then I can work to organize my time and fit tasks to the amount of time and the logical ordering of the tasks in a temporal way – and also in terms of importance.

There is an ordering in terms of some tasks needing to take place prior to others – some of this is just plain logic – and some requirements are related to other outside timelines and pressures.

I use a calendar to do this…

I also have a simple system of boxes that I draw beside each and every task = ❒

I check off the box when the task is completed =

These are then further coded…

I put an X in the box if the task becomes irrelevant or is cancelled = X

I circle the box if it is an emerging priority left over from a previous day – or for that day and if it is a MUST DO =

No Shoulding on yourself:

I think of my lists with another conceptual layer as well. After years of practice – this is somewhat internalized: I have a must doshould do – and could do ranking to my tasks.

I used to write my lists this way: The must do list was that day’s tasks – the should do list – was in essence planned for the following day – and the could do list followed those on the next day. The idea with this system is that the should dos – become the must dos the following day and the could dos become the should dos…and so on…

post-it-notes.jpgI remind myself that it is unhealthy to be shoulding on myself – as I work to be realistic, and positively frame my limitations.

Looking Back:

I flip thought previous weeks in my planner – and if there is a task which has been carried over and then finally accomplished – I make a little smiley face in the box. This tells me it wasn’t done that week – but it was eventually accomplished. I also sometimes find a task that has not been completed, and that in the midst of busy, somehow fell off the side of my desk. If it is still relevant, I add that task to this week’s plan.

It takes a little time to do this – but I gain way more time and calm and focus – and relief from feeling overwhelmed in doing so. As I work to tackle the next thing – instead of thinking of all I need to do… the payback for me is enormous.


Related Post:
Aaaack! Too much to do!! Deep breath… and again… and other strategies…


30 Days of Autism is a project designed to fight stigma, promote civil rights, and increase understanding and acceptance for those who process and experience the world differently.

© Leah Kelley, Thirty Days of Autism, (2013)

About Leah Kelley, Ed.D.

Leah Kelley, M.Ed, Ed.D., Writer, Consultant, Activist, Speaker, and Educator, working with Teacher Candidates at UBC. Authors blog: 30 Days of Autism. Projects support social understanding, Neurodiversity paradigm, Disability Justice, and connecting Disability Studies in Education(DSE)to Educational Practice. Twitter: @leah_kelley Facebook: 30 Days of Autism: Leah Kelley
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7 Responses to Managing Overwhelm… The Beauty and Utility of Lists

  1. Ari says:


    Do you find that a long list causes paralysis? We are trying to use lists to help my husband and son, but at a certain point, the list becomes so long that it is overwhelmings. So when confronted by an unachievable list they feel more stress rather than less.


    • Leah Kelley says:

      Yes, Ari! Completely YES to that! I can feel immobilized and ready to give up.

      I sometimes make a smaller list at that point of the most time critical things – and I may even add things to that list that I have already done… to get me started:

      Make a new list ✔

      or I sometimes break larger tasks into smaller parts – that I can get done – so I feel like I am making progress, and then large projects don’t seem so insurmountable…

      And sometimes… I don’t get everything done…

      And that is okay… ♥


  2. Hi, Leah! I love your post. I am somewhat challenged with staying organized, since I have so much going on in my life. I currently use (free) to manage all my lists. Love your perspective!


    • Leah Kelley says:

      Thank you so much, Steve!

      I will check out the link. I have recently seen this one as well, which is recommended by an adult ADD group:

      In all honesty, I am a little worried about doing one more thing on-line – and thus am inclined at this point to stick to my paper lists and books and notes. You never know though… maybe when I get a new phone I will change my tune. (Right now I have an old flip phone that I swear is run by wee hamsters running really fast in a tiny wheel…)


  3. nisha360 says:

    I know what you mean sometimes I think of all the things i have to do and I get overwhelmed. Thanks for the tips I will use them all.


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