The Sure-Fire Way to Reduce Stress at Work (And Leave the Office on Time)

The to-do list? So last year...

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How often do you get to the end of the day before you realise you haven't done the one thing you set out to achieve? Your stress skyrockets, you either have to work late or gamble with a good night's sleep – a triumvirate of symptoms which, as multiple studies including this one from the journal Experimental Neurobiology show,damage your immune system, raise your risk of cardiovascular problems and affect your health long-term. The stress-busting solution, according to new research, is a to-don't list.

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The idea, explains Small Move, Big Change author Caroline Arnold, is that a to-don't list sets you up for productivity on autopilot, so you don't have to constantly exercise energy-draining willpower as you attempt to focus. The trouble with traditional to-do lists, says Arnold, is that "they can actually leave you feeling more overwhelmed, disillusioned and stressed than you did before." This often results in missing deadlines and working late – the latest Trade Union Congress report over 3.4million of us work more than 48 hours per week. And to compound our woes, we're still only getting paid for 35 of them.

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Evidently, we're already doing enough work, and stress-management expert Frances O'Grady, the TUC General Secretary, believes that churning out longer hours in the office is a one-way ticket to "burnout". She explains: "Britain's long hours culture is hitting productivity and putting workers' health at risk. Working more than 48 hours a week massively increases the risk of strokes, heart disease and diabetes."

Your to-don't list can help reduce those risks, as, says Arnold, "it automatically sets you up to focus on the job in hand". Result: you get more done, stress less, and leave work on time.

So, what is a to-don't list, exactly? It's your personal tally of tasks that you know distract you from doing what you want to get done – like refreshing Twitter, browsing ASOS, or checking your inbox any more than every half hour. Research published in the American Psychological Association journal shows that multitasking – a symptom of not having a to-don't list – overtaxes our brains, making us 40% less productive and more stressed. The trick is to post your to-don't list alongside your to-dos to help you stay calm and energised.

To create a to-don't list that works for you, consider the time-sapping tasks that drain your day, then ask yourself two key questions:

  1. Does it help you do your job well?
  2. Does it make you happy?

Anything that doesn't tick both of these two boxes is a 'don't'. In other words, it doesn't need to get done: not today and certainly not by you.

Give the to-don't list a go. "You're likely to find it empowering and liberating," says Arnold. "Your stress levels decline as you become more energised and organised, you shake off that sense of helplessness. The to-don't list becomes second nature – you deal with whatever the day throws at you as calmly, efficiently and automatically as you brush your teeth." No stress, no drama, AND you leave work on time? That's a definite 'do'.

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