Let me guess. Your to-do list approach looks something like this: Make the to-do list, desperately rush around like a squirrel who's just been cattle prodded, feel a sense of relief and accomplishment when the list is about to die, and then...take on more tasks because you've managed to finish early.

Oh, you were so very, very close to freedom.

The problem is simply that we're not comfortable with being done anymore. We chase it, knowing however subconsciously that we need it. We even talk to each other about how much we're looking forward to it. But right at the end, we do an about-face. We succumb to the idea that we have to do more, more, more to have any chance of getting noticed. Instead of enjoying the freedom we've earned, we just cram more in and call it "being efficient".

2 reasons to rethink the rush

The biggest issue behind this behavior is that it can stress you out far more than you need to be. The pressure of the clock can become ridiculously intense. Even worse, you can get the sense that there's no way out from under it all, even though you're the one layering on your own expectations. I can't think of anything that will rob you of joy faster than that.

But it's a quality issue, too. Rushing to get done as fast as possible so you can take more on can mean you don't think through the job as critically, and that you make more mistakes. So then what happens? You end up having to rework things, or you have to go back and fix errors. In that case, your initial rushing only has created the illusion you're getting ahead, and you've added the risk of others getting irritated because you didn't do the job right the first time. And do you honestly enjoy that crappy feeling that comes if you have to backtrack?

4 strategies to slow yourself down

It's fine to make a to-do list that will challenge you and get you out of your comfort zone a little, and there are times when a bit of a time crunch can help you see the big picture and concentrate. But if you want to get a lot done without skyrocketing your anxiety or the anxiety of others, be realistic and follow four guidelines:

1. Be thorough. If you "finish" a task ahead of schedule, don't start anything new until you can say with honesty there's nothing left to double check or get more information about. You should be able to say that the work is your best.

2. Take a minute for yourself. Stretch, get some coffee, scribble something in your gratitude journal. You'll come back more relaxed so you can focus better on the next job.

3. Draw boundaries from the start. Currently, our culture prizes the concept of immediacy. In this environment, we hesitate to tell team members or bosses that their expectations just aren't realistic because we don't want them to see us as unable to rise to the challenge. But if you don't control your time, if you're not clear about when a task can fit, other people are always going to try to put more on your shoulders. Show them what you already have been asked to do. Then emphasize the need for quality and give them some choices about when you can put their new task on your calendar.

4. Ask yourself what your real goals are. We often rush through to-do lists not only because we want to impress others, but also because we have conflicting priorities. We might know Project A is due first but be more intrigued by Project B, for example. Don't let your emotions throw you off. Know why you're working and stay the course.

The suggestions above can help you slow down a little, even when the pressure to pile more on is high. If you can leave the office having achieved what you set out to do, if can you pack up feeling balanced and comfortable with the plan for the next day, you know you're on the right track.

Published on: Jul 31, 2018
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.