Want To Declutter Your Brain? Cross Something Off Your 'Needle List'

All those small but draining tasks you keep putting off are making you anxious. This life hack can help.
Your "needle list" is secretly stressing you out. Here's what to do about it.
Malte Mueller via Getty Images
Your "needle list" is secretly stressing you out. Here's what to do about it.

If you’re anything like me, you have a running list of smallish tasks piling up in your head at all times: make an appointment for your annual physical, return that shirt you ordered online, drop off that bag of clothes to donate. Many of them don’t actually take much time to complete, and yet I put them off for weeks or months at a time. All the while, they take up an inordinate amount of real estate in my brain and just nag at me.

Serena Wolf, a chef and the author of “The Dude Diet,” dubbed these little to-dos we’re prone to procrastinate on the “needle list,” which she has talked about on her Instagram.

″[They] live rent-free in the back of my mind and just NEEDLE me on a daily basis,” Wolf wrote in a post explaining the concept.

A number of her followers reached out and told her that they, too, had needle lists hanging over their heads, they just never had a name for them. When I came across the concept, it immediately struck a chord with me. For four months, I had been meaning to ask my dentist’s office for an itemized receipt to submit to my flexible spending account for approval. When I finally did it, the whole process probably took me about 15 minutes.

Wolf told HuffPost that she’s had a needle list for her an entire adult life, but she didn’t start referring to it as such until a year or so ago.

“I will put off sending a text or making a phone call for weeks for no particular reason,” she said. “I know the text or call will only take maybe 30 seconds, and yet I just won’t do it. Instead I’ll put it off, and it will bounce around my brain for weeks, gently pricking me. It’s frustrating but a seemingly very common pattern of behavior.”

Tasks on a needle list are typically personal (i.e., not work-related), nonurgent and mildly inconvenient, and they can usually be completed in under than 30 minutes. Other examples might include mailing thank you notes, responding to a personal email, cleaning the fridge out, putting away all thatstuff on the “clothes chair” in your bedroom or getting something small repaired, such as a broken watch or necklace.

If you’re the type of person who tackles little tasks as soon as they pop up, kudos to you. But for the rest of us, designating time each week to tackle items on your needle list could be a good solution. One of Wolf’s goals for 2022 is to spend 30 to 60 minutes on Fridays doing exactly this. So far, she said it has been an “absolute game changer.”

“Not only do I feel more relaxed on weekends, but it also makes me more productive during the week because I find it easier to focus with less mental clutter,” she wrote on Instagram. “The batching mentality also helps relieve any stress/anxiety when a new needle list item pops up because I can drop it into Friday’s brain basket knowing I will deal with it during the devoted time then.”

“I can’t stress enough how satisfying it feels to cross things off the needle list, literally or mentally.”

- Serena Wolf, chef and author of “The Dude Diet"

For those living with depression, the concept of the needle list might sound similar to what author M. Molly Backes called the “impossible task” — a common but underdiscussed symptom of the condition. The impossible task is a small, everyday thing — such as doing the dishes, making a phone call, sorting through the mail — that feels insurmountable to a person with depression.

While these two concepts might overlap, a person who is struggling with depression would also be experiencing other symptoms, such as prolonged and pervasive sadness, feelings of worthlessness or self-loathing, irritability, sleep troubles or changes in appetite — not just procrastinating on cleaning out their junk drawer.

Wolf, who has an anxiety disorder, said her “anxious brain” allows her to easily keep track of her needle list in her head, though she’ll sometimes write it down for clarity and the sweet satisfaction of crossing things off.

“The nature of the needle list is that the tasks needle you regularly — so writing them down is really just cathartic and organizational, not a necessity in terms of remembering what they are,” said Wolf, who also co-hosts a podcast about living with anxiety called “Spiraling.” (Personally, I love jotting tasks down on paper because it helps me feel less scatterbrained. Maybe you’d rather keep a note in your phone. Do what works for you!)

Wolf said she likes to keep her needle list to five items or fewer at any given time. It’s more manageable that way, and she likes knowing that she can knock off most —and sometimes all — of them during the allotted time on Fridays. Others might prefer to dedicate a few minutes each day to these tasks, rather than a longer chunk of time once a week.

“I can’t stress enough how satisfying it feels to cross things off the needle list, literally or mentally,” she said. “It really does provide a shocking amount of satisfaction and helps you breathe a bit more deeply.”

Talking about the needle list with her online community and her friends has shown Wolf just how many people struggle with the same thing.

“For better or worse, it’s always comforting to know that I’m not alone in procrastinating tasks that are seemingly ‘SO easy’ and that they are able to affect me in the way that they do,” Wolf said.

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