Step 1: Accept that you will never finish it all
My to-do list covers a lot of ground.
Right now, I have at least 16 things on it, and a lot of them are not related. Some are about my kids, some about work. My dog needs to go to the groomer. I need to Marie Kondo my closet. When my list gets really long, I start to feel that hum in my chest, that mild feeling of panic. And then thinking about how much I have to do becomes a to-do in itself.
And, I’m a perfectionist. So I have this thought in my mind. If I’m good enough at planning, if I plan everything right, I can get everything done today.
There are some days that I can. Those are great days.
But most days, I am left with several things that didn’t get done.
It used to leave me a nervous wreck to think about having things left on my to-do list at the end of the day. The idea that I couldn’t or didn’t get through it all would linger in the back of my brain, slowing me down, demanding even more of my time.
But I set myself up for failure.
I’d set these vague goals — I need to “work on the camp schedule”. Or, “finish that project” today. I had no real idea what made up “the camp schedule”, or what the steps were to “finish that project.” Then I’d be so worried that I wouldn’t get to everything, that I would hardly get anything done.
I’d focus too much on the giant, vague list.
Things have changed.
Now, I have a system. One that combats both the volume of activities on my list, and the anxiety that the list creates.
Here it is:
Step One: Accept that you are not going to get to everything on your list today.
Yes, I know that your brain is telling you that this not ideal. Maybe its even saying that its downright wrong.
But if you don’t accept that you won’t get everything done today, you’ll end up doing nothing. Because you will spend your whole day managing your thoughts. Instead of executing on your tasks. Your brain will get used up with overwhelm.
This can be the trickiest part of working on a realistic to-do list. But it is the concept that we need to tackle, before any system we apply will actually be effective. We often set unrealistic productivity goals for ourselves. And then beat ourselves up for not achieving those goals.And yet, we can’t give up the dream of the unrealistic goal.
We would rather get nothing done and dream of being the kind of person who can complete an entire to-do list. Instead of the real life person who actually gets a few things done but not everything.
But once you accept that you won’t get it all done, you’ll give yourself more realistic goals. Which you will achieve. Achieving them will give you positive feedback. And it will be the first step in breaking the perfectionist cycle.
It can be very uncomfortable to give yourself permission notto do everything. But try it once. See how much you get done. Because in reality, its better to do hit your goal of doing five things than to expect to do fifteen and end up doing two.
Step Two: Write down every specific thing that needs to be done.
Once you have managed your mindset around your list, it’s time to get into the system.
Another reason I have found for to-do list overwhelm is that the whole thing is too vague. So, instead of writing down something like “work on camp stuff” I write down all the tasks involved. For example:
Pick 3 weeks during the summer that would work for Hogwarts camp (write down on a post-it)
Put in calendar the time for Hogwarts camp sign up
Set reminder 15 minutes in advance
Sign up for camp (an entire summer of Hogwarts camp sold out in under an hour, in January!)
put dates, pickup and dropoff times, and location in family calendar
When you do this for each activity, its a lot easier to see exactly what needs to be done. And how long a vague task like “work on camp stuff” will actually take. These steps become thetasklist.
Step Three: Prioritize the list.
Once you break it all down, it is easier to see how much is involved in each to-do. And that not everything on the list can fit into your day. So, you need to prioritize.
The key is to determine how much time you have in a day, then pick a realisticnumber of activities to fill it. Not all them. The most important ones for today.
Start by scheduling the non-negotiables. The conference call from 1–2pm, the after school pickup from 3:15–3:45pm. Calculate the time you have left (4 hours in the morning, 2 hours in the afternoon, for example). And then look at what’s left on your list. Which things have the nearest deadlines? Which are the most important to you? Determine how many of those things you can fit in the realisticamount of time you have in your day.
And accept that the other things on your list will have to wait for another day.
Step Four: Schedule Exactly When You will Do It All.
This is another piece that is critical for managing the overwhelmed mind. Because the last thing you want to do is finish one task then scramble around, trying to decide what the next task should be. You don’t want to revisit that long list again and reignite that spark of anxiety.
When you decide what you can realistically fit into your day, you then have to pick exactly when you’ll do it. So if Hogwarts camp signup is at 9am (non-negotiable), I need to pick 3 weeks that would work for this summer at 8:30am. Once all the tasks around Hogwarts signup are complete (at 9:45am), I will take a 15 minute break. Then at 10am I will start on my next task — finishing a financial model for a client — from 10am to 11am.
The benefit of doing this is the amount of time you save between tasks. You’ve already decided, in advance, what comes next and when you’ll do it. There is no scramble, no confusion, no returning to the list to decide, once again, on the priorities. You can use the time between to-do’s for a break. And I make sure to schedule these, too. We all need them. Instead of losing steam after 30 minutes and wandering unintentionally toward Instagram. I schedule specific breaks. 10 minutes to go outside. 15 minutes to read a book. Time to clear my head and prepare for the next area of focus.
Step Five: Execute.
Once you have accepted the imperfection of your day — that you won’t finish all your to-do’s — you’ll find that it can take as little as 20 minutes to schedule your day.
And once you’ve created a realistic schedule, you’ll know exactly what you can and can’t do, and when. And most important, your list will no longer overwhelm you.Spending this 20 minutes creating a realistic schedule will save you an entire day of a racing mind. Because you can focus on what you actually need to do. And feel successful finishing those five things. Instead of beating yourself up for the fifteen unfinished tasks that were never a realistic is the first place.