How to Make a To-Do List Work for Handling Mental Illness

by Sheila O’Shea

One of the things Skyland Trail gave me when I was there was structure. After losing my job due to a mixed episode that sent me to a mental hospital, my life threatened to slide in a very aimless direction. The regular schedule of classes and activities helped stabilize things, and one thing that was often discussed was the necessity of structuring your time in order to handle your mental illness. Having a sense of structure provides a sense of purpose, which helps alleviate depression and provide motivation.

One method of structuring one’s time is the to-do list. I’ve known how to make a to-do list for a long time; Skyland inspired me to use them more regularly. I’ve learned how to use lists to the best effect, which has kept me on track to make my goals achievable. Here are a few things I’ve learned in the process of refining my techniques for making to-do lists.

Keep The Steps Small Enough To Handle

In some ways, to-do lists are much like the Just One More Tap method—breaking down big goals into small, simple tasks. “Write a novel,” is a goal. “Write at least 1,000 words a day on the novel,” is a task. Make sure the step isn’t so huge that you have no time to work on everything else on the list. “Write 3,000 words on the novel,” can be done in one day—I’ve done it. But days like that tend to be days when the laundry and the dishes in the sink get procrastinated—I’ve done this, too.

Always check to make sure you can actually do the things on the list in the time provided, whether that’s a day, a week, or a month. Why? Because crossing off every single item on a to-do list is a wonderful mood boost, and when you’re grappling with mental illness, every uplifting moment helps.

Keep It Flexible

That said, there will be times when you can’t get everything crossed off before the end of the day. Sometimes things will be more complicated than you expect and will take longer than you’d planned. Sometimes your energy levels aren’t great, and you can only finish a few items on the list. When this happens, don’t beat yourself up. Quite often, and especially when you’re just taking up the practice, you’ll miscalculate how long things will actually take. Sometimes something comes up that throws everything out of whack, and you need to set aside your initial plans. Take the information you gain and apply it to the next list you make. Take the things you didn’t do, and put them on the new list, too. There’s always tomorrow.

An image of a piece of paper with eight items listed, taped to a wall. The paper reads:
1 - Gather leads
2 - C3G event
3 - Zoom call with JM
4 - Ribbon Cutting
5 - Read and take notes on Swappers
6 - Attend Swappers
7 - Brainstorm blog for Skyland
8 - Pitch open after
An example of one of Sheila’s to-do lists.

Find Ways To Be Accountable

I write my to-do list for the next day before I go to bed. That stays in a paper notebook for my own perusal. In the morning, I go to an online forum (one about novel writing, in fact) and post my to-do list in a particular thread established for that purpose. At the end of the day, I do a second post of the list, this time with the things I finished crossed off for people to see. Everyone is very supportive, and we often cheer each other on each step toward our goals. I’m also in an email-based group that posts to-do lists weekly, which allows me to focus on longer-term goals instead of just single-day tasks.

It’s good to know how to make a to-do list without overwhelming yourself. When you have a mental illness, it’s very easy to lose your day to dithering if you’re not careful. To-do lists can be one way to keep you on track towards your goals and towards keeping necessary tasks done on a regular basis. Give them a try and find out how they can work for you

A portrait photo of Sheila O'Shea

Sheila O’Shea is a writer, recovering poet, and one of the first graduates of the Creative Writing program at Emory University. She acted in Theatre Gael’s production of Waiting for Godot, sang on the album The Mod Mod Sounds of Middlesex, and DJed for Emory’s college radio station. She’s currently working on The Ten Thousand Flowers Project, in which she draws flowers and gives them away to people, with the intention of drawing and giving away ten thousand of them. She’s halfway through and still going. You can find out how to get one at She also works as a freelance copywriter, with an emphasis on narrative marketing. You can find out about her writing services at