Several situations have conspired lately to give me a longer-than-usual to-do list.  My husband, too, is extra-busy planning lessons for online teaching (his students are all still learning from home).  Deadlines loom and they must be met, and it feels a bit overwhelming.

I'm sure you can relate.  Lots of people have this problem.

I'm fairly organized, so I usually have EVERYTHING I need to accomplish on my to-do list, and right now it's getting longer and longer.  But at least I have a list (however long) of tasks in front of me.  Plenty of people don't have everything on a list.  Their tasks might be scattered across different organizational systems, in email inboxes, in browser tabs, on Post-It notes and random pieces of paper, and in their heads.

Either way, it can feel overwhelming.  We need to deal with the stress, the fear (of forgetting, of failing), and the lack of ability to focus.

4 Ways to Handle a Long To-Do List

1.  Become clear about priorities.

If you don't know what matters, if everything seems urgent and important, you'll be scattered and stressed.

If you know what's essential, you can focus.  The rest can wait.  It's as if you're a doctor performing triage, and the person having the heart attack gets cared for before the dozens of people with ankle sprains, sore throats, and weird rashes.  Eventually you'll get to those others, but the person who can't survive without your attention gets it first.

So get clear on what matters to you.  Think about why, and make a list.  It's worth spending some time on this.  You might even decide that some of your tasks and commitments should be given up completely.

If you can do this, you'll be so much more effective (and calm) that if you try to do everything.

2.  Change your attitude toward your tasks.

This is an idea from Leo Babauta of Zen Habits.  He points out that when you feel overwhelmed and stressed by your list of tasks, this is a sign that you think of them as burdens.  You're letting your fear that you're going to let people down, or fail, or look incompetent or stupid get the better of you.

I've often felt this way when faced with a task.  I do fear being unable to perform, or producing something that is less than what people expect of me.  It's a little like stage fright, which as a long-time professional singer, I know something about.  As a performer, there are ways to deal with stage fright that I've found pretty effective.  Maybe some of those methods can empower us to take on other tasks.  For example:

  • Think of the task as a challenge: a way to grow, discover, and create.
  • Recall your successes and failures of the past.  They have prepared you for this task, because you've learned from all of them.  Appreciate and rely on your past experience.
  • Just do it!  Rather than spending time in fear and doubt, simply begin.  You may find that breaking free of inertia gives you access to energy and forward momentum.  Simply settling to the task may be half the battle.
  • When you encounter a difficult section of your work, slow down.  Stop and consider different ways to approach the problem.  Don't let yourself give up and move on to something else, because you'll just keep delaying and procrastinating and never reach a solution.  Even five minutes' focus on a detail can make a big difference, perhaps even leading to a breakthrough.

These are examples from my life, but you may have other methods that empower you.  Find them and put them to practice.

3.  "Shortlist" your tasks.

You may have a long list of jobs to do: some for work, some for family, some for finances, some that are personal.  But this long list can't all be accomplished today.

So, as with an award, create a shortlist.  This is the stuff you plan to do today, reduced from that long list of candidates for your time and attention.  I try to keep my shortlist to four or five things, but more or less may work best for you.  Sometimes I group several very short tasks together (like phone calls) as one "chunk."

If you have meetings or appointments, those need to be on the list, so you'll want to add fewer tasks.

Think about what must be done today.  What would be a powerful use of your time and energy today?  Focus on those things, and let the rest come later.

4.  Single-task.

You know your priorities, you've improved your mindset and approach to dealing with tasks, and you've created your shortlist.  The final piece of the puzzle is to focus on one thing at a time.  If you can practice this regularly, you'll feel less overwhelmed.

I've had jobs where I had bookkeeping tasks to accomplish, clients to greet and serve, and a boss who might hand me a new task at any time.  I've met the needs of two young children while managing household tasks and honoring volunteer commitments.  I felt rushed, would lose focus and have to backtrack, trying to remember where I left off.  I didn't always give my full attention to one thing at a time, so everything took longer.

We're told we can accomplish more if we just learn to multi-task more efficiently.  But if our attention is diffused, we actually accomplish less while feeling more frazzled.  What we call multi-tasking is really our brains frantically switching back and forth between jobs.  Multi-tasking is actually a practice of constant interruption and distraction.

When you single-task, you pick something important to work on and clear everything else away.  You decide to be immersed in your task.  It's the only thing in front of you for 15 or 30 or 60 minutes.  You may feel the urge to do something else, but you're simply going to acknowledge the urge and then bring your focus back to the task.

It's ironic, but we get more done when we focus on fewer things.

Can you try this today?


Photo by Donald Giannatti on Unsplash


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