Working Smarter

3 Strategies to Stop To-Do List Overwhelm

checklist2One most challenging aspects of learning something new is feeling overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of what you don’t know. Your To-Do list is probably a mile long already.

And, if you’re like most people, you haven’t even made a dent in it. In fact, you’ve probably already added a few additional items. Every day you fall further and further behind.

In Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, authors Burmeister and Tierney state that a person typically has 150 different tasks on their To-Do list.

Think about your own. You have prospecting calls to make, proposals to write, emails to send, service issues to solve. Now, add all the new things you have to learn on top of it: new products, new markets, new pricing plans, new technology. The list goes on.

Then, throw in the birthday card you need to pick up, the groceries you need to get, and the tax forms that have to be sent in.

Here’s what’s even more discouraging. Research shows that the longer your list, the less likely you are to get things done. Overwhelm hits. Your brain start spinning again. You get anxious that you won’t get it all done. And you don't. Or, should I say, you can’t. It’s literally impossible.

Here are 3 strategies to keep yourself from having an unproductive day – or even life!

1. Pick your top three priorities right away.

Do this before you even check your email. Neuroscience research shows that prioritizing is one of the brain’s most taxing activities because it has to compare numerous items to each other and then decide. Even checking emails before you do this will negatively impact your ability to prioritize.

Once you’ve picked your main priorities, sequence them and then get to work. Don’t jump from task to task. Do one item at a time.

2. Cross off half the things on your To-Do list.

This may sound like heresy, but there’s sound research behind it. Everything that’s on your list is fighting for your mental attention. Your brain is working behind the scenes on every little task – even though you aren’t aware of it. That means it’s bogged down again, which slows your overall productivity.

Worse yet, the things on your To-Do list that you really need to work on are the most likely to not get done. Why? Because you have an overwhelming urge to make a dent in that massive list – to reduce it in size. That means you’ll tackle the easy stuff first, so you feel like you’re making progress.

Think about it. Don’t you take a perverse sort of pleasure in deleting incoming email messages? I do. I love to delete as many as I can as fast as possible.

When you really take a look at your To-Do list, you’ll discover some things on it are so low in priority that they’ll never get done. Chop, chop, chop.

List 10 things you’re going to eliminate from your To-Do list now.

There! Don’t you feel better already? Quit kidding yourself that they’re going to get done. Free up your brainpower for more important things.

3. Create a done list.

If you’re like me, facing a never-ending To-Do list is so discouraging. And often, at the end of the day, I feel like I’ve accomplished nothing. It’s not true, but that is how I feel. For some odd reason, I think I should be a superhuman and accomplish it all.

Feeling like your making progress is what motivates people to keep on going. But I rarely stop to see just how far I’ve come and how much I actually did get done. In fact, many of the things I do, aren’t even on my list. They arise out of nowhere, begging for my attention and I do them.

Recently I started using a new app called IDoneThis.  Every day at 5 pm I get an email that says, “Hi there. What did you get done today?”

I respond with my “done” list. Sometimes I even log on midday to enter in what I’ve done so far. And, I often enter portions of bigger projects rather than waiting till I’m finally finished with the whole shebang.

Believe it or not, I feel better. I did get stuff done today. I know that’s not an elegant way to say it, but that’s how I feel. Like I made progress. Instead of constantly chastising myself, I can celebrate my accomplishment.

And, then tomorrow, I’ll be ready to keep on going. More gets done.

After a successful career in the sales world, writing five books, and speaking internationally, Jill is now tackling an even bigger challenge. She's focused on bringing the "millions in the middle" together to solve some of the biggest issues facing our country and the world. Jill truly believes so much more is possible if we can work together.