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Overwhelming To-Do List? Here's How to Fix It In 2021

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Read Time: 11 min
This post is part of a series called Build Your Own Productivity System .
How to Be Happy and Get More Done in 2021

Now, people are not machines, and none of us can be perfectly productive. In fact, aiming for perfection is a recipe for burn-out. But there are ways you can improve your productivity. To start with, you need to get to grips with what's overwhelming you. Once you've done that, you'll be ready to integrate productivity systems into your life.

Overwhelming to-do listOverwhelming to-do listOverwhelming to-do list
Are you faced with an almost endless list of tasks? (Image source: Envato Elements)

Ready to tackle that pile of dirty laundry? Then let's get to it.

Step 1: Diagnose Your Productivity Problem

We all have too much to do from time to time. Some days we're more busy than others. But most of the time we cope just fine.

The problem comes when having too much to do gets overwhelming. Perhaps deadlines are mounting up, and you wish you'd used the last week to knuckle down and work rather than making sure you won the most recent office Nerf gun skirmish. Or maybe you spent a few months in cruise mode, then suddenly a ton of lucrative opportunities show up. Personal life can throw productivity curveballs tooa new child, moving home, a bereavement, a divorceall of which can leave you wondering how to cope.

Alternatively, it's also possible you want to be more productive so you can achieve a life-long goal that you've let slip by the wayside. Whether it's starting a business, writing a novel, learning a new language, or teaching yourself to code, you'll need to carve out a chunk of time from your week to make it happen. This is especially difficult if you've got a full-time job and kids. As such, even thinking about making these goals happen can be just as overwhelming as life's big problems.

Another source for productivity overwhelm can simply be needing to learn more about productivity, and what it takes to get you motivated. You could be in this situation if:

  • You don't know where to start. There's so much to do, you're not sure how to begin, so you find yourself doing nothing.
  • You find yourself procrastinating or self-sabotaging. Perhaps you're late everyday for work, or you spend most of your work hours browsing Facebook and Twitter. Or maybe you've got an important goal that you've held for years, but never done anything about.
  • You forget important appointments. These could be work meetings or personal appointments such as a school performance your child is taking part in. Or maybe you forget important dates such as your anniversary. Being forgetful can leave you feeling overwhelmed with guilt. As it's something that could easily be rectified, it's a sign you need to make serious changes to how you approach productivity.
  • You don't remember what you're supposed to do. As with forgetting appointments, this shouldn't be happening. But if it is, it can cause a great deal of stress and tension. Having an underlying feeling that you've forgotten something can also make you anxious and distract you from your work.
  • You're always busy and you're always behind. Being busy is not the same as being productive. It's possible to be highly productive, yet still have plenty of time for yourself and your family. Being constantly on the go is a sign that you could improve your approach to productivity.
  • You believe you have no time. Chances are, you could have time if you wanted it. We all have 24 hours in a day, and not having enough time is a choice.

Failing to learn how to be productive is costly. Businesses make the most money when they're efficient and well-managed. Whether or not you own a business, you'll boost your career potentialand your personal potentialif you learn to manage your life efficiently.

Anyone can do it, and the way forward is to build a productivity system that suits you. But before you can build such a system, you need to find a way out of the overwhelming mess you're in. Let's look at how to do that.

Step 2: Write It Down

It's time to make war with the overwhelming amount of stuff you've got to do. What does any general do before leading an army into battle? They find out as much as they can about the enemy. They get the measure of the foes, so they know what they'll be facing.

As humans, our brains are designed to latch on to the negative. This served the human species well in the past, but it is often unhelpful in the modern world. One consequence of this negativity bias is that we imagine our problems to be bigger than they really are. As problems or things we must do spin around in our heads, they start to look bigger and scarier.

It's time to drop your fear and get a measure of the beast that you're about to face. Let's look that beast in the eyes.

Grab a pen and paper, and write down everything that's running through your brain that you believe needs doing. Give yourself a good 20 minutes to get it all out of your system.

Hint: Once you've done this the first time, it's a good idea to start carrying a pen and notepad with you everywhere. Then, anytime an item for your to-do list comes to mind, you can jot it down immediately, so it doesn't clog up your mental airwaves.

By writing down the tasks you've got to tackle, you're putting yourself on track to start doing something about them. You're making a decision. You're also clearing your mind, which will give you the extra energy you need to start taking action on your to do list. As Dale Carnegie writes in How to Stop Worrying and Start Living:

Experience has proved to me, time after time, the enormous value of arriving at a decision. It is the failure to arrive at a fixed purpose, the inability to stop going around and round in maddening circles, that drives men to nervous breakdowns and living hells. I find that fifty per cent of my worries vanishes once I arrive at a clear, definite decision; and another forty per cent usually vanishes once I start to carry out that decision.

How does Carnegie come to a decision? Carnegie's first step is to write down what he's worried about.

So go ahead and pick up that pen and paper now. Then you'll be ready for step 3.

Step 3: Assess Your New To-Do List

The next step is to go through your list paring it down to essentials and getting it organized. Aim to do two things with the items on your list:

  1. Go nuclear! Eliminate any tasks that don't need to be there.
  2. Prioritize the remaining tasks.

To make this process as simple as possible, you can use the Eisenhower Matrix. This matrix comes from a quote attributed to U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower:

What is important is seldom urgent, and what is urgent is seldom important.

Turning this quote into a chart, you get the following decision making tool:

Eisenhower is said to have used this tool for this own decision making.

Draw out the chart on a piece of paper, or download the Eisenhower Matrix from Businesstuts+ and print a copy . Next, put each item on the to-do list into one of the four sections of the chart:

  • Urgent and Important
  • Urgent but Not Important
  • Important but Not Urgent
  • Neither Urgent nor Important

What's the different between urgent and important tasks?

Urgent tasks have a specific deadline that's close at hand. This deadline is usually imposed by someone else, or by circumstances. Examples of urgent tasks include doing the grocery shopping (before the pantry is empty), or replying to your boss's email.

Important tasks don't have a specific deadline, but they still matter to you. They're often related to your personal goals. Examples of important tasks include exercise, writing in your journal, learning a new language, and helping your children with their homework.

Urgent and important tasks matter to you and have a specific deadline. Examples include writing a paper for a college course you're taking, or applying for a new job.

Tasks that are neither urgent nor important shouldn't really be on your to-do list, at least not while you're tackling overwhelm. If you want to keep note of them, create a new list called aspirations.

If you're finding it difficult to decide where to place specific tasks on the matrix, you can give them a rating. Rate each task between -5 and +5 for importance (with +5 being the most important), and between -5 and +5 for urgency. Once you have this rating, you'll know where to place the task in your chart.

Every new day will bring new tasks to add to your to-do list. Urgent tasks in particular tend to pop up at the last minute. With each new task that comes in, assign it a rating on your chart. As you practice this, you'll start to do it almost instinctively.

Once you start to be honest about what needs doing, and what you can drop, you'll start to feel better. What seemed like an insurmountable cliff to climb is now just a few small steps forward. You now know exactly what steps to take, and the order in which to take them. Talking of taking steps, let's take a look at how you should approach clearing your list.

Step 4: Clear Your Backlog

Before we begin this section, let's get one thing clear: a to-do list is rarely empty. Once you've cleared your plate, new tasks will quickly come along to fill it.

Nature abhors a vacuum, and so does the human soul. We like to have something to do. The good thing about your task list is that it shows you what to do next. You'll be focused instead of jumping haphazardly from one task to another.

Here's how you should approach each type of task on your list.

Urgent and important tasks. For obvious reasons, these are the ones to clear first. Take out your calendar (or buy a calendar if you don't have one), and schedule time in your day to get these done. You do have time to do them. If you can't find time, they're probably not important or urgent, and you need to re-rank them on the Eisenhower Matrix.

Urgent (but not important) tasks. Ask yourself: What makes these tasks urgent? Do you really need to do them? If they must be done, could you delegate them to someone else? If you must do them, and delegation is impossible, then add them to your calendarbut only after you've completed the urgent and important tasks.

Tip: A big source of so-called "urgent" tasks is email. Try reducing the amount of times you check email each day. This will free up extra time to focus on important tasks.

Important (but not urgent) tasks. Set aside time each day to focus on important tasks. Be careful not to overstretch yourself. If one of your important tasks is to exercise, but you haven't done any exercise for months, then scheduling an hour a day for exercise will overwhelm you. Instead, schedule ten minutes of exercise, or adjust your day to incorporate exercise. For example, could you cycle to work instead of taking the car?

Non-urgent, non-important tasks. What are these still doing on your list? Strike them off!

You might be thinking "This is all very well, but my problem is finding the motivation to get things done."

If you're thinking this and you haven't yet carried out steps 2 and 3, go back and do them. Motivation is often a consequence of taking action. As you take action to size up your to-do list, you'll be motivated to continue taking action.

That said, motivation and focus are important components of productivity. In future articles in this series, we'll look at tools to help you focus on the task at hand, and techniques to keep you motivated.

When your backlog of tasks is cleared, you're ready for the next step.

Step 5: Create a Productivity System

The Eisenhower Matrix is an example of a productivity system. It's not the only system by any means, but it's easy to learn, which makes it a good place to start. Many more productivity systems have been developed, including Getting Things Done (GTD), the Pomodoro Technique, and Don't Break the Chain. We'll be covering these systems in a series of articles on productivity at Businesstuts+.

By trying out these systems, you'll develop a productivity toolkit. In reading this article and learning to use the Eisenhower Matrix, you've already seeded your toolkit with your first system. Now, you're ready to experiment with other productivity systems.

Once you've tried various systems, you'll begin to learn what works for your mindset and lifestyle. You can then take aspects from the various systems to hack together your own system. We'll show you how to develop this custom productivity system to match your needs.

So stay with us, and you'll become a productivity ninja.


Graphic Credit: Panic Designed by Cédric Villain from the Noun Project.

Editorial Note: This content was originally published in March of 2014. We're sharing it again because our editors have determined that this information is still accurate and relevant.

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