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Shed that nagging mental weight, Part 1: How to conquer your to-do list and find peace

Updated: Nov 9, 2019

Puzzle pieces. They drive you crazy as you try to find where that oddball one fits. Sometimes a piece’s color or squiggly lines betray its resting spot. Other times you try matching its shape to the puzzle’s empty spaces. The moment you are certain it belongs in the upper right-hand corner, you realize it actually fits on the bottom center. Victory at last! With the piece in place your mind can rest from its quest. Until seconds later when you pick up the next odd squiggle.

That puzzle piece whose form and appearance had etched itself on your brain and niggled

at your conscience for an hour, disappears from your thoughts as you move onto other orphans awaiting their spots. While you labored, you were convinced you’d never forget that particular piece. It required so much of your attention and persistence, until suddenly, it didn’t. It blended in with the overall picture, and awhile later you can’t recall exactly where it went. In place of the nagging, there is peace.

The daily tasks you need to accomplish are much like those puzzle pieces. They demand attention. They interrupt your day. They continually fight for space in your brain, jostling with your thoughts and stealing your focus. How can I concentrate on teaching when I’ve got five other pressing things to do? you wonder.

You’ve entered what is known as an open loop. It’s a mental process that occurs whenever tasks are left undone. Your brain’s amygdala (the fight-or-flight part) wants things done NOW. It tries to get its way by cycling through your uncompleted to-do list and bringing each undone task to the forefront of your mind. And your amygdala doesn’t care whether you’re trying to teach the finer points of grammar or unwind for the day. It won’t stop bugging you until you close the loops by completing the tasks.

We’ve all been there. The longer the tasks sit unfinished, the more they weigh on your mind. The ensuing heaviness saps mental energy, which can lead to you feeling distracted, discouraged, overwhelmed, and stuck. If left too long, it can also ebb away at your physical energy. And as a homeschooler, you need all the focus and energy you can get.

So what’s the solution? Take charge! Here’s how:

1. Write it down. Put those must-do’s on paper, record them on your phone, or type them on your tablet. Pick a safe place you will regularly refer to.

2. Prioritize the tasks. Place the most important jobs at the top of your list to work on first. Our tendency is to complete the easiest items first, giving us a sense of accomplishment. But that doesn’t leave enough time for the weightier tasks. If you only get through one task in a day, make it the one you most need to do. That will close your biggest open loop and take a bundle of weight off your mind.

3. Transfer the tasks into your weekly planner, allotting a specific time and day for each. This way you won’t be tempted to squeeze in paying the bills when you’re supposed to be teaching math. Don’t have a planner? Use a calendar.

4. Follow the schedule you’ve set for yourself. The more often you follow through with what you told yourself you would do, the more your amygdala will trust your system and give you peace. If you only write things down but don’t follow through, your brain will keep nagging you.

Determine to make progress on your to-do list—and then take action. Be realistic about how many tasks you can accomplish each day in addition to your homeschooling. As you face your must-do’s and complete them, their mental weight dissipates like a puzzle piece melding into its rightful place, never to bother you again. It can also buoy your sense of confidence and make tomorrow that much lighter.


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