Cope with overwhelm

What to Do when You’re Feeling Overwhelmed: Make a List

Everyone gets overwhelmed sometimes. And it’s not much fun. It makes you feel helpless and unable to control your own brain. But what should you when you’re feeling overwhelmed?

Physically writing out lists in those moments is one of the best ways to re-center yourself and take back control of your brain.

The reason lists are so powerful is because your brain actually needs them to do its job properly (for more about this, see this post).

Why do you feel overwhelmed?

Before we can really address the question of how to go about making lists when you’re feeling overwhelmed, it’s helpful to consider why you feel overwhelmed in the first place.

Psychologists tell us that one of the main reasons we feel overwhelmed is because our brains are being overloaded by constant distractions and endless multitasking.

It takes our brains so much power to switch attention from one task to another that the multitasking we are all doing on a daily basis is draining our brainpower.

Between checking our Twitter feeds, Facebook feeds, Instagram accounts, keeping up with the latest diets and exercise routines, juggling our myriad of tasks at work and at home, all while managing our increasingly busy schedules, our brains are constantly switching between tasks and never really finishing any of them.

It’s no wonder most of us feel that we need a vacation ALL THE TIME.

You see, the human brain typically operates at 120 bits per second.

To put this in perspective, it takes about 60 bits per second to pay attention to someone speaking.

That means simply having a conversation with another person takes up at least half of your total brain bandwidth.

This is why multitasking is extremely draining for us—more draining than we typically think. It tires us out, making it very hard for us to sort through the flood of information we are constantly processing and juggling.

Moreover, research has shown that multitasking increases the brain’s production of cortisol, the hormone that creates stress.

The human brain is not wired to work the way we try to make it work today. And when we ignore this fact, we risk overloading our brains and overwhelming ourselves.

This is where lists come in

Our brains need help to function with the demands of modern life.

Making lists help you when you’re feeling overwhelmed in four main ways.

1. Making a list immediately gives you a single task to focus on: Sort the trivial information and write down the important stuff.

Essentially, that is what making a list is all about. It’s about figuring out which items should be included and which ones should be excluded.

That simple process is good for your brain because it forces you to actually do something, and this helps to fight the feeling of overwhelm, which tells you to do nothing.

2. Lists externalize and order things that were floating around in your brain, taking up precious bandwidth.

I like to think of lists like external hard drives. You don’t have to worry about storing the information on your computer’s hard drive because you can trust that it’s sitting safely on the external hard drive. This frees up the memory of your computer’s hard drive for other things.

If you’re storing all your tasks and worries in your brain, there isn’t enough room for your brain to do what it’s actually really good at: Analyzing and problem-solving to get you past the feeling of overwhelm.

Just like how your computer will become really slow at performing basic tasks if it doesn’t have enough space available, the exact same thing happens to your brain.

Making lists when you’re feeling overwhelmed is especially important because what you need at that moment is precisely your brain’s ability to analyze and problem-solve.

3. Having a list as a road-map for accomplishing tasks increases your chances of success.

If your brain gets overwhelmed from juggling too many things at once, the solution is to stop trying to multitask and to focus on a single task instead.

Lists, by their very nature, allow you to do this.

They break down one very big and complicated journey—getting all your tasks for the day completed—into small, manageable tasks.

In this way, lists can give a clear path out of the land of stress and overwhelm. And that can be a life-saver.

4. Creating a list is itself an accomplishment, which is the greatest help for your brain to overcome overwhelm.

Granted, writing out a simple list might not seem like much of an accomplishment, but it is enough to get your brain wanting more. And that’s the key.

Every time you accomplish a task, no matter how small, your brain releases dopamine into your system as a little reward. This is why you get a feeling of satisfaction. It’s a good feeling, and it makes your brain want more.

That shot of dopamine can serve as motivation for you to accomplish another task, and another, and another. Before you know it, your stress level will be reduced and you won’t be feeling as overwhelmed anymore.

So, here are 30 lists to make when you’re feeling overwhelmed

These 30 lists are not the only lists you can make. They are simply meant to serve as examples of the kinds of lists to make that will help you re-take control of yourself when you’re feeling overwhelmed.

There are endless different types and variations of lists that you could make, depending on your unique situation.

1. Daily to-do list

The most basic, but extremely useful, list to make when you’re feeling overwhelmed is a daily to-do list. When you have a number of scattered tasks to do in a day (who doesn’t?) and you don’t know where to start, making a simple to-do list can be a life changer.

2. Money list

It’s no secret that one of the major things that consumes our brain’s attention is money. Am I saving enough? Do I spend too much? Where did all my money go? These are questions that take up way too much of our time and brain power.

While most people will never keep a detailed budget, making short lists of bills and expenses every month can be a really helpful way to find peace of mind and track your spending habits.

This is really a list everyone could make on a regular basis to keep overwhelming feelings at bay.

3. Event list

If you’re anything like me, your calendar is probably stuffed. Between meetings, social commitments, family commitments, regular errands and inconsistent work schedules, I can easily begin to feel overwhelmed by everything I need to do in a day, week, or month.

Simply writing all of my commitments out (and even prioritizing, if necessary) has done wonders for my peace of mind.

And I know it can do wonders for you as well.

4. Interpersonal list

I am an introvert. I am perfectly happy sitting in my home office 8 hours a day.

But I do have people in my life that are important. And when I don’t send them a text or meet them for coffee once in a while, they can feel neglected.

I must admit, this was not something I thought much about up until a few years ago. But, once I realized how I made some of my friends and family feel, I began to feel a little stressed about it.

So now I keep a list of people I need to make a point of connecting with each week or month.

And the stress is almost completely gone. If you feel overwhelmed by the work of maintaining social connections, this is a list you really should make at least once.

5. Worry list

Are you currently worried about a bunch of things simultaneously—a family member’s health, an upcoming deadline at work, an activity with the kids?

The reality is that we are probably all constantly worried about a number of things at any given moment.

But, when you let things like this roll around in your brain, your concentration bounces back and forth between these things, even though there’s nothing you can do about them.

Writing these things down in a list can really help free up mental space you didn’t even know you had. You won’t have to keep it on the top of your mind because you know it’s written down and you can go back and look at it when you need to.

6. Reading list

I like to read a lot. But, like most other people I know who enjoy reading, I will never be able to read all the books I want to read.

By keeping a running list of books to read, I am able to prioritize my reading, making it more enjoyable and reducing the feeling of missing out on some life-changing book.

I also like to jot down some key notes on the list about each book I read to help myself remember what it was about and any important take-aways. I have found that this helps take the load off the brain.

7. Grocery list

I am terrible with groceries. I am the weirdo wandering around the supermarket wondering what I need. (And, if I happen to be hungry when I’m there, look out!) Keeping an ongoing grocery list has reduced the drain on my brain quite a bit.

In fact, I have cut the time it takes me to get groceries almost in half simply by making sure I walk in the store with a detailed list in hand.

8. Emotions list

Or, as I sometimes call it, a reaction list.

There are many times when I find myself mulling over a decision. Sometimes it’s a big decision like applying for a new job. But a lot of the time it’s a smaller decision, such as which iPhone upgrade I should go with.

Rather than let the pros and cons of each decision rattle around my brain for weeks, I find it very helpful to simply write down all my emotional reactions to the decision.

If I imagine myself buying the iPhone X, what do I feel? If I choose to apply for the new job, what sort of emotions come up?

This list can be very helpful because it helps to de-tangle the emotional responses from the practical and logical aspects of the decision.

It can also be quite revealing about what I am actually feeling and can help guide me to make a decision by figuring out what it is I want to feel.

9. Pros and cons list

Usually after making an emotions list, I will make a pros and cons list.

This type of list probably needs no explanation. But the benefit of having made the emotional list already is that I can make a pros and cons list without having the emotional aspects all tangled up. It makes it easier to analyze the decision from a purely logical perspective.

10. Wish list

Surprisingly, this is a very useful kind of list to make when you’re feeling overwhelmed (and to make it often). You can make a wish list about virtually anything. But where it is really valuable is in helping you determine what you really want.

I think of the wish list kind of like Jack Sparrow’s compass on Pirates of the Caribbean. The compass never lies; it always points toward the thing that Jack wants most, even if he doesn’t know it or like it.

A wish list can be similar. If you don’t put too much thought into it and just write down the things you want or want to achieve with no regard for cost (time, money or effort), it can be pretty revealing.

This can often lead to the realization that some of the things causing you stress in your life really aren’t that important because they aren’t helping you accomplish what you really want or need in life anyway.

11. Summary list

When people go on a trip or experience a significant life event, such as a wedding, we commonly create a photo album or scrapbook that we can revisit whenever we want at a later date.

In a similar way, there are days or weeks when significant things happen to us that are worth remembering but we either forget them or try to store them in our brains forever.

Taking a few minutes at the end of the day or week to jot down the five or ten most significant things that we experienced can seriously help to take a load off the mind.

If you do this in a journal or notepad, you can keep your notes from each week and track your experiences over time. This can be really useful, especially in moments when you need a little reminder about what your direction in life should be.

12. Log-in list

We all have so many different log-in credentials for so many different things. And, if you’re anything like me, you are probably resetting the password or username on something at least once a week. It’s a headache to say the least.

Keeping a list of all of your log-in information can be extremely handy—and help reduce stress.

However, it is worth noting that it can be dangerous to store passwords in a list. If someone gets a hold of it, you can be in big trouble. That’s why this type of list works best if you use a code only you will know. For example, you could write in your list, “Why is the sky blue?”, to help you remember your password, Y !s tH3 $ki bLu#.

13. Fun things list

This is a motivational list.

Sometimes you might have a daily to-do list that isn’t much fun. That’s when procrastination can set in.

If it gets really bad, you can begin to feel overwhelmed by the to-do list itself.

But if you spend a few minutes jotting down a few things that you’re looking forward to only when the to-do list is finished, that can serve as a motivator to help you accomplish everything on your to-do list and save you from letting your list be the cause of overwhelming feelings.

14. Reasons why list

This type of list can take many forms. My favorite is the reason why I love [blank].

You can literally put anything in that blank. You could make a list of reasons why you love your husband or girlfriend; or why you love your job, or your house, or skiing, or bananas.

This kind of list can help to center your thoughts around an important person or activity, which helps your brain to focus on something simple.

Rather than juggling a million concerns at once, you tell your brain to pause for a few moments and consider one thing that is significant to you. And, because the thing is significant to you, your brain will be more than willing to do it.

Additionally, it can help to remind you of why you love that person or thing, if they are one of the sources of your overwhelm.

15. Grateful list

This list is pretty common, and for good reason. It’s simple and very effective.

A lot of times feelings of overwhelm can be closely related to feelings of disappointment, insufficiency, and overall life failure. But by listing the things in your life that you are grateful for, your attitude can’t help but change.

This is a list that is not only useful to make when you’re feeling overwhelmed, but it can be useful to help make you feel better about yourself and your life, too. And that’s never a bad thing.

16. Personal skills list

Let’s face it, a lot of times overwhelming feelings are the result of less than stellar self-esteem.

But after you’ve listed 10 or 20 things that you are good at, you will feel much more confident.

And, when you turn to tackle a problem you’re struggling with, that list then becomes a valuable resource for you to figure out what the best way is for you to overcome the challenge.

17. Seasonal bucket list

Everyone knows what a bucket list is. But I have found that taking the principle but applying it to each season of the year is an effective way to help keep balance in my life.

I normally only put one or two things on my list for each season. Items that have been on my list in the past include: travel to Europe; travel to Asia; swim in the Atlantic Ocean; swim in the Pacific Ocean; read the Hobbit and the complete Lord of the Rings series; go snowshoeing.

These are all one-time things that I want to do, and making a list of them each season helps to keep an adventurous element in my life that I find to be very important for my mental health.

This list, then, is a kind of preemptive list to make before you’re feeling overwhelmed.

18. Things to learn list

A friend recently told me about this type of list, and I’m so glad she did.

We are bombarded with promises of self-improvement all day. We’re told that it’s never been easier to get a college degree, learn a new language, become a better leader, learn how to cook, loose weight, etc., etc.

But if you were to try and learn each of these things at the same time, you would almost certainly fail at all of them.

This can be a significant source of overwhelm for many people.

So, why not make a list about it? Simply list out everything you want to learn. Then, once you have every item down, you can prioritize. Then, you can make a plan, and begin to cross things off one by one.

And, of course, as you discover new things you want to learn, you can just add them to your list.

19. Gift list

One of the things that stresses me out more than anything is buying gifts for people.

Thankfully, my wife does most of the gift shopping in our house, but I’m usually still involved just enough to be stressed out about it.

Between all the birthday parties my kids get invited to and the various events that require gifts among colleagues and friends, it seems like we are out looking for a gift for someone every few days (not to even mention the chaos of Christmas).

Needless to say, this can be very overwhelming. I used to be the guy heading to the mall to figure out what to get. Not anymore. Now we typically spend a few minutes each month making a brief list of everyone we need to get a gift for and some ideas of what we want to get.

Amazingly, the stress over gift-shopping has virtually disappeared.

20. Admiration list

This is an interesting one, and, to be honest, it’s a bit new to me.

The basic gist of it is that making a list of people you admire helps you to narrow down some of the traits and qualities of theirs that you would like to emulate in your own life.

With so many different schools of thought out there about how to improve as a person, and with all that you likely have to do in any given day, it can be quite overwhelming to think about spending time on yourself. Where should you even start?

Making this simple list is a good starting place because it helps you to narrow down the key qualities and character traits you would like to see in your own life.

21. Health list

One of the most common things people try and accomplish each year is becoming healthier.

But it’s also one of the hardest things to actually implement. We all have our routines and healthy eating and exercise requires us to change those routines. That can be next to impossible for some people.

Making a list, however, is different from a diet or workout plan. It’s simpler. You just think about your current routine and find small ways to improve your health.

One of the things I put on this list the last time I made it was taking the stairs to my office each morning instead of the elevator. My office is on the third floor, so it wasn’t that big of an adjustment at all. And now I’m happy to say that I haven’t stepped inside the elevator in my building since.

Another thing I did was commit to buying whole grain breads instead of white bread. It doesn’t take any extra effort to do this, but I did have to get used to grabbing a different loaf of bread each time I went to the supermarket.

22. Make a difference list

One of the reasons we feel overwhelmed is because we are inward focused.

It can be easy to get so used to seeing the world through our own eyes that we forget other people are out there experiencing the world differently.

When we sit down and think of simple ways to make a positive difference in other people’s lives, it can help to give us perspective. Suddenly, the things we were obsessing about no longer seem so important.

23. Brainstorming list

Feelings of overwhelm can be exacerbated when we face a challenge that we can’t solve. But, if we could solve that challenge we would feel much better.

Well, what better way to solve the problem than to make a list of all the possible solutions we can imagine? Then, you can work systematically through each option until one works. It’s so simple, I’m amazed that so many people I talk to have never tried it.

24. Home list

When you have a home, there are all kinds of things that scream for your attention. There are yearly or regular maintenance things, and there are things you might want to do to improve the value of your home or your overall living quality.

Why take up brain bandwidth remembering when you need to do what or figuring out if you can afford a new roof this year or next? Write it down, cost it, and prioritize. Done.

25. Ideas list

I cannot tell you how many times I have a great idea—about anything and everything in life—that I can’t remember days, hours, or even minutes later.

It takes energy for your brain to remember the details of every idea you have, so why not write them down? Then, at the end of the day or week, you can take a few minutes to go through the ideas you’ve written, discard the bad ones and apply the good ones.

It might seem small, but it really does help.

26. DIY list

We all have so many things we’ve been meaning to get around to but haven’t.

It might not seem like it, but each of those things is taking up a little bit of our brain’s energy—even more if we’re feeling bad about having not accomplished them.

Putting them in a list will help de-clutter your brain, and it might even motivate you to get a few of them done.

27. Outsource list

The fact that we all have more things to do each day than we can possibly ever get done is one of the major sources of feeling overwhelmed.

But, in reality, you don’t need to do all those things yourself. There are any number of things that could be delegated to someone else—someone who might be more efficient than you anyway.

One of the best ways to combat feelings of overwhelm is to reduce the number of things you need to do.

So, make a list of everything you can outsource to someone else, whether by delegation, hiring someone, or asking for a favor. And then outsource them and watch the overwhelming feelings melt away.

28. Talking points list

The prospect of having conversation, whether in an interview, meeting, or social event, can be anxiety-inducing for many people. The fear of saying something wrong or not knowing what to say can leave many people feeling overwhelmed.

But writing down some key talking points will give you focus and confidence. Instead of feeling anxious and overwhelmed, you will feel calm and prepared.

And, one of the great things about this list is it is re-usable at the next social event (as long as that event is not filled with all the same people).

29. Parenting list

Every parent that I know feels overwhelmed constantly. And one of the main reasons is that we all feel like we aren’t doing the parenting thing well enough.

We don’t want to permanently damage our kids, and we want them to have the best opportunities in life. But we constantly fall short of the ideal parent bar that we’ve set for ourselves.

Sports psychologists will often tell professional athletes that, when things are going well, they’re never really as good as they seem. And when things are not going well, they’re never as bad as they seem.

I’ve found this advice applicable to parenting as well.

When I feel overwhelmed as a parent (usually because I think I’m failing), I have found it quite useful to sit down and make a quick list of all the positive things that happened with my kids that day or week.

It’s amazing. Our brains have a way of focusing on the one or two negative aspects of our parenting and ignoring the dozens of positive moments.

By forcing yourself to sit down and recall those positive moments, you will get up feeling much, much better about yourself and less overwhelmed.

Trust me, it works.

30. Time list

Most of us think of lists that revolve around tasks or things. But one of our most valuable commodities is actually our time.

Feeling overwhelmed often has to do with the fact that we have limited time to do so much.

To make a time list, simply begin by writing out your available blocks of time. You can use hour blocks, two hour blocks, or ten hour blocks. Whatever works for you.

Then prioritize those blocks by the most to least productive times of day for you (for example, the most productive block for me is 5 am till about 10 am, and the least productive block is 2 pm till about 6 pm).

Then take a to-do list or a set of tasks and assign each one to a block.

The point is that each block of time is dedicated to a single task and, when time is up, you must switch tasks.

This type of list is especially helpful when you have a lot of tasks to do at once and you feel overwhelmed and unsure how to manage it all.

By listing blocks of time and assigning specific tasks to those blocks, you make progress on a number of things at the same time without allowing any one thing to suck all of your brain power leaving nothing for your other tasks.

And as you make progress on each of your tasks, you will find that you begin to feel in control, rather than overwhelmed.


There you have it. 30 lists that can help you cope and regain control when you’re feeling overwhelmed.

And, if you record them in a journal, you can track your lists over time and return to them again next time you feel overwhelmed. Trust me, this will only increase their value for you.

Now it’s your turn. Leave a comment or send me a message letting me know what lists you’ve made and how they’ve worked.


Start by learning the 10 productivity secrets the most successful people use to stay as productive as possible