Overwhelmed by the to do list? Get back on track and stay on track
I have to confess that I am a bit of a recovering to do list addict. I’m not sure which bit of me is, but I do know that I used to have a to do list with hundreds of items on it. I almost had a sense of pride in the length of my to do list. Crazy in retrospect, but we all have to learn don’t we?
eDragonu’s recent 7 tips to help you procrastinate in a more productive way reminded me of the inefficiency and ineffectiveness of an overly long to do list. But what do you do with a to do list that gets too long?
Imagine the to do list, like the diagram, as a container with inlets and outlets. Most discussion around productivity is usually focussed around the outlets. How can you get more done? Work harder, work faster, work smarter. Getting the thing done is the best way to get something off of the to do list, as long as that thing was the right thing to do. However, procrastination often stops us getting things done, but that is a topic all to itself. As the to do list grows longer and longer, it becomes harder to prioritise what is one there, and there is that creeping sense of being overwhelmed, which feeds any tendency to procrastinate.
There are two phases to recovering from an exploding to do list:
- Shrink it.
- Stop it exploding again.
Doing things isn’t the only way to get items off of the to do list, even though it is the best. Things can be deferred and moved into the diary for some point in the future. However, deferring something doesn’t actually remove it from the set of commitments. It is still there, although there is a temporary relief created by the illusion that it can be done later. Spreading things over time is a good way to reduce the feeling of being overwhelmed, but it can backfire if too many things are pushed out.
There are other ways to remove items from the to do list. One is to abandon an item. When something appears on the the to do list, it has crossed your ‘commitment line’. We have made a commitment to ourselves or to someone else to do something. If we truly become overloaded, then some of those things have to be pushed back over the commitment line. That involves going back to the person the commitment was made to, apologizing and renegotiating the commitment. What stops us abandoning things? It can create a sense of disappointment and a feeling of failure. However, there are times when abandoning something is the right thing to do. Priorities and goals may have changed, or the task may no longer be attainable, it could be part of planned abandonment.
A cunning way to keep things off of the to do list is to do them straight away. There are pros and cons to this technique, but it is very efficient. By acting straight away, you don’t have to worry about managing the task and procrastination doesn’t have a chance to set in. You just need to be sure that the task really was something that needed doing and the moment wasn’t needed for something else that was time critical.
My most recent realization has been to pay close attention to how do things get onto the to do list in the first place. Be careful what crosses that commitment line. Before taking on a commitment, understand how long your to do list already is. Can you commit to more, or is that going to result in a broken commitment? A commitment is a commitment, be it to yourself or to someone else, and it should only be taken on if you have the resources and the will to complete it. A short to do list gives you flexibility, but it takes discipline to get down to that short to do list.
To do list problems? Then do more and sooner, renegotiate when you have to and don’t over commit yourself!
What works for you?
Thanks for linking, and I’m glad you liked my little game… Now, what works for me? I have around 100-120 next actions in my list constantly. I renegotiate them weekly – this is what weekly review is for, isn’t it? – and I started not to feel overcomed by the number. A quick glance to the already done items shows that I do around 20-30 of those next actions each week. So, basically, there are around 20-30 new next actions each week. Some of them are going to the someday/maybe folder during the weekly review, some of them are just left as inactive and I don’t have to deal with them until I really commmit to do. The big advantage is that I managed to keep the list at 100-120 and that I am comfortable with it 🙂
You are right about the weekly review. I would love to hear what works well for that. Refactoring to do lists seems a common task in itself, although I am trying to focus on getting the right inputs in the first place. That is something I would like to understand more.
Very interesting… as always! Cheers from -Switzerland-.
Thank you! Enjoy a shorter to do list!