I love to-do lists. They’re practically my lifeblood. I’d be totally lost without having a handy list of tasks to refer back to every day.
But sometimes they’re a secret source of anxiety. When the list is too long, or full of too many large tasks, I get overwhelmed. When this happens I get stressed and I’m likely to just give up on my task list and go do something else entirely.
Which means my list keeps growing, and I get even more stressed. It’s not a good situation to be in, but I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one.
There are two main reasons we tend to get overwhelmed by to-do lists, and I’ll discuss how sticking to three tasks a day helps in both of these circumstances.
Personally, I tend to use a weekly task list and mix-and-match between the two strategies on any given day, depending on how I’m feeling, but if you prefer to or need to have your day’s task list set up in advance, you could try alternating between the two methods to help avoid overwhelm
This strategy is flexible, and you don’t have to stick to three tasks if you find another number works better for you. I use three because I work full-time and have a long commute, so I only have 3-4 hours in the evening. If your circumstances are different then you might have more time and therefore choose more tasks. You might even find that the number changes based on whether you’re dealing with situation #1 or situation #2. That’s all okay.
There is, however, one big rule. No matter how many tasks, or what nature of task, you choose to put on your to-do list on a given day, you must complete it. No exceptions.
The reason for this is because this strategy only works by ensuring you do something every day, even if it’s relatively inconsequential. It’s about chipping away at your to-do list in tiny steps, even when you least feel like it, and so once you’ve committed to doing three tasks on a given day, you have to stick to it.
Other than that, though, feel free to modify to make this your own, and the first step to that is figuring out whether you’re more likely to fall into category #1, category #2, or, like myself, a blend of both.
Situation #1: Your to-do list is enormous
You just can’t seem to get to the bottom of your to-do list. I’ll be discussing more strategies for dealing with this in the longer term on Friday, but for now I’ll specifically discuss the problem of getting home from work after a busy day and finding yourself staring at a task list the length of your arm. You don’t know where to start, you have no idea how you’ll get it all done before bed, and you’re tempted to just throw in the towel, grab some Ben & Jerry’s, and binge some Netflix.
Pick three tasks. They could be the most urgent, the most important, the most exciting, it doesn’t matter. Obviously don’t pick three that will take you two hours each, but otherwise just pick three.
If you finish those three and you’ve got your productivity momentum going, then you can keep going through your list, task by task, if you like, but you should in no way feel obliged. It’s easy to trap yourself with this kind of thing. You start with three tasks, but then one day you manage six, so then you decide that six is really what you should be aiming for. Don’t do this. If you do get more than three done, pat yourself on the back and consider it a bonus.
Why it works
You’ve gone from a long list that you can’t possibly get through in a single evening to a manageable one. This actually means you’re likely to get more done because you don’t face the decision paralysis, waste time trying to schedule all these tasks, or fail to even get over the starting hump.
Even if you don’t get that burst of momentum from starting that allows you to keep on going through your task list after you’ve hit three tasks, doing this means that you’ll have three fewer tasks on your list the next day, so you’re still making progress, and certainly more progress than you’d make if you get overwhelmed at the sight of your list and don’t even start.
Situation #2: Your to-do list isn’t huge, but it’s bigger than your motivation
You have one or two medium-sized tasks planned for this evening, and the thought of even starting fills you with dread, because you’re sure they’ll take forever. You’ve been waiting since your lunch break to get back to the book you’ve been reading, but by the looks of things you’ll be lucky to have any time for it this evening. Maybe you were busy all yesterday evening and the night before, and you really just need some time to relax.
Ignore the things you had planned for the evening, and pick three quick and easy tasks that need to be done and do them instead. Alternatively, you can try and break down one of the tasks you had planned into three smaller tasks, and do those instead. For instance, if your to-do list included something along the lines of ‘meal prep’ or ‘batch cook’, you might divide that into cooking rice, making hummus and washing and tearing up kale, and do those three tasks.
Why it works
Some days you just don’t have the energy or motivation to spend all evening switched ON. Whether you’re rundown from being busy the previous couple of evenings or you’ve had a long and tiring day at work, sometimes you just need a break.
You could take the evening off entirely (and I am 100% behind you if that’s what you feel is best), but sometimes doing that only exacerbates the problem for the next day, or else you try to take the evening off and spend the whole time stressing about what you need to do. By picking three small tasks, you can have them done in as little as 15 minutes, and go into your relaxing evening knowing that you’ve crossed a few things off your to-do list and saved yourself from ending up in Situation #1 later in the week.
If you’re finding yourself facing to-do list paralysis, then committing to completing three tasks every day means that you’ll get a minimum of 21 done each week. That might not sound like a lot, but if this is an ongoing issue for you at the moment then you’re probably doing fewer than 21 tasks per week right now.
Over to you
Do you struggle with to-do list anxiety? How do you deal with it?
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