Why You Should Make An ‘If I Absolutely Had To’ List Today

Worried about money? Struggling with relationship problems? Whatever the problem, this list helps me calm down and take control of any situation. #selfdevelopment #selfcare #selfhelp #moneytips #FIRE #budgetingFor the ninth night in a row, it’s 3 am and I’m glaring at my ceiling. Narrowing my eyes at the light fixture I don’t  like and counting my worries like they’re sheep.

Like most of us, my anxieties have multiplied like wet gremlins over the last month. And the equation of ‘feeling constantly worried’ + ‘sleeping poorly’ does not equal, well, anything good.

So I’m returning to an exercise I used during my twenties when life was an exhausting mix of not-right-for-me boyfriends, school debt, a low-paying career, and changing apartments/cities. 

May I present an exercise that makes me feel a million times better in times of uncertainty?

I call this the ‘If I Absolutely Had To’ List.

And – like many things I teach – it falls under the heading “Seems Too Simple To Work But Very Much Does.”

How to make an ‘If I Absolutely Had To’ list

Step 1: At the top of a piece of paper*, write the problem you want to solve or the issue you’re struggling with

Something like:

I’m worried I don’t have enough in savings to get through this pandemic.

I’m worried my relationship will fall apart because we’re together so much and we’re fighting constantly.

We have to put our house on the market and who’s going to want to buy a house during a pandemic?!

You get the idea. One issue – just one! – at the top of the page.

Step 2: Brainstorm 50 different ways you could deal with this problem – including solutions you really don’t want to pursue, but could if you absolutely had to

When you’re listing ways to deal with a chosen problem, you’ll find that the first 5 – 10 ideas you come up with are probably pleasant and sensible.

If you’re unemployed + worried about money, the first few items on your list might look like: 

  • Reach out to previous clients and see if they have any work
  • Update my LinkedIn profile
  • Email people in my professional network and see if they have any leads
  • Look for contract or freelance work
  • Keep calling the unemployment office, even if I have to be on hold for two hours

See? Normal!

But the magic happens when you force your brain to start thinking of all the things you could theoretically do to solve this problem. Including things you realllllly don’t want to do (but could if you absolutely had to.)

And, obviously, the “I really don’t want to but I could” portion of these lists will vary widely from person to person. One person’s “I really don’t want to do this” is another person’s day-to-day reality. Because privilege.

If you’re worried about money, your ‘If I Absolutely Had To’ list might look like: 

  • Start taking freelance contracts doing that thing I know how to do but don’t enjoy
  • Sell my plasma
  • Sell my eggs/sperm
  • Cancel cable and start watching library dvds
  • Get a job at a grocery store even though I’m really nervous about COVID-19
  • Sell the family china set or silverware
  • Get a roommate
  • Move back in with my parents
  • Split wifi with my neighbor even though I might not be able to stream movies
  • Cancel my wifi altogether
  • Get out of my car lease and become a 1-car family / figure out bike commuting / buy a cheaper car with cash
  • Sell my iphone 11 and buy a $200 Android

These are things you probably extremely don’t want to do! Who wants their Netflix to stall out because the neighbor just started a Zoom call? Nobody, that’s who.
Forcing your brain to acknowledge that there are many, MANY ways you could deal with a problem is one of the most calming, empowering things you can do. Share on X

Knowing that there are solutions to your problem will help you sleep at night. 

It will give you the strength to make tough decisions because you’ll know that, no matter what, you can get through this. It might even prevent you from spiraling into self-doubt and anxiety!

What’s stressing you out these days? If you’re being super honest with yourself, are there ways you could solve that problem if you absolutely had to?

* Annoying and slow as it may be, I’d recommend writing this list on actual paper, with your actual hand. When we write things by hand, we’re digging new neural pathways and the deeper the neural pathway, the easier it is to have a thought again.
When you write out 50 potential solutions to your problem by hand, it’s going to be a lot easier for your brain to remember that all is not lost! There are so many ways you can deal with this issue!

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  1. Ellen

    Oh god I know the 3am wide awake feeling too well at the moment. This is such a great, practical tip. I’m going to do it right now! Thanks for sharing 🙂

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      So glad you found it helpful, Ellen!

  2. Gem Wilder

    I thought I couldn’t live without my netflix subscription, until I absolutely had to, and then it turned out to be a super easy adjustment. I’ve even had months in the past year where I haven’t had internet access at home because I simply couldn’t fit it into the budget, and it turned out to be annoying, but also totally survivable. It made me realise how much time I was spending mindlessly scrolling on my phone. And I’m fine with that, but also, it’s okay to have periods without. A benefit of no internet was that I spent my evenings cooking myself delicious meals, reading a lot, and my house was the cleanest and tidiest it had ever been.

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