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Is anyone else overwhelmed by their to-do list?

September 21, 2023

Are you a list maker? If you’d asked me ten years ago, I’d have said yes, definitely. I had lists of lists at times but increasingly, they don’t work for me.

Why lists don’t work for me

My husband motors through a list. I just get overwhelmed and fed-up. So I make a fresh list, moving items still undone to the new one, with positive intentions that this list will somehow be different. This list will be the one that gets done. Completely.

Hah! Who am I kidding?

My perfectionist saboteur looks at yet another lengthy list and thinks “I can’t get it all done so there’s no point starting”. My avoider saboteur then kicks in and suggests I go find something easier or more enjoyable to do. (Funny how oven cleaning suddenly becomes enjoyable in that moment 🤔. I suspect it’s because the results are so tangible).

My alternative approach

However, put those same tasks onto little bits of paper and I’m on fire! I can move them around, pick out just the ones I’m doing right now and put the rest away, and group them into ever-changing priority piles like urgency vs importance, quick wins, joyous jobs, and things that need doing whilst I’m on the laptop or in town.  The flexibility works, the variety keeps me motivated, and the action of ripping up completed tasks is just so satisfying, much more so than crossing something off a list.

To-do tasks written on individual pieces of paper and clipped together.
Finding the way that works for you

How do you stay organised? Are you a list maker, a diary scheduler, a bullet-journaler? Maybe you don’t catalogue jobs at all but just decide in the moment what needs your attention next. There are lots of systems and approaches out there, and I don’t advocate one over another. What I do advocate is experimenting and finding the things that work for you, your personality, your objectives, even your energy rhythms (check out Dr Mindy Pelz talking to CEO Steven Bartlett about how women benefit from matching work to their hormonal cycle – excerpt at 1hr 6 mins in).

We’re all trying to stay on top of life!

Overwhelm is a common situation my clients face. Parents trying to juggle work and home and feeling they’re failing at both. Managers trying to do everything, hesitant to delegate because they don’t want their team to be swamped as well.

Sometimes the answer is a list. We have a big ‘write it all down and see what we’re dealing with’ session. That’s often enough to unstick someone because they’re no longer trying to carry everything in their heads.

Even that bit doesn’t have to be a list though. I use mind-maps a lot, because life is more like a web of tasks with interplay and dependencies, and it’s easier to see that on a mind-map than a list.

Other tools my clients have instigated include digital task managers (I love Trello, it’s colourful and avoids repeated re-writing of lists), the ‘jar of fate’ (write tasks on separate slips of paper, pop them in a jar and do whichever one you pull out), and ‘the week on a sheet’ – everything you’re focused on for that one week only. 

I like that last one because you’re not carrying the weight of all those ‘do sometime’ items. For those inevitable future tasks you need to remember, scheduling reminders in your calendar or setting phone alarms gets them off your list freeing up head-space for what you’re doing today. 

Finally, a tip I learned from my project manager friend Sam who only has the three most important actions in that moment on her to-do list. When I’m disciplined enough to do this, I’m far more productive!

About me

I’m Celia Clark. I’m a career development coach based in the dreaming spires of Oxford. I help you think clearly about your job, in all its ups and downs, so you can be happy and successful in your work.

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