How to Stop Playing Catch-up and Get Ahead on your To-Do List

Do you ever feel like you spend all your time playing catch up? Your bullet journal is filled with tasks, but they’re all recurring tasks, so by the time you’ve gotten around to washing your sheets you’ve run out of socks, and when on earth are you going to find the time to actually clear out your closet?

Sometimes all the task lists and productivity hacks in the world can’t save us from feeling like we’re just treading water, never sinking under the surface of our obligations but never really getting closer to our destination.

Do you feel like you spend all your time on tasks that recur on your to-do list as quickly as you can complete them? Click through to learn how to get ahead and be more productive.

If you look at your planner or task list, then you can probably fit your tasks into three broad categories.

First, there are the non-negotiable day-to-day tasks. You have to wash your dishes. You have to wash your clothes. You have to dust and vacuum. Etc. You can’t really get around these things, but chances are they aren’t at the top of your list of hobbies. You do them because you have to, not because you want to.

Then there are your other recurring tasks that don’t have an immediate benefit or detriment, but that you do because they’re important to you. Working out, pursuing a passion project, cooking healthy food, that kind of thing. You may sometimes feel like you have to do these things because in the moment you’re really not feeling it, and it can be a constant emotional drain.

I sometimes feel this way about cooking. While I’ve made huge strides and as a general rule would say I love to cook these days, at the end of a long day at work when I’m tired and hangry sometimes I’m not really in the mood to cook, and the fact that I have to do it every damn day can get wearisome.

So I get home on Tuesday, and I don’t feel like cooking but I drag myself into the kitchen and rustle up some eggs and roasted brussels sprouts, and then on Wednesday I still don’t feel like cooking and have to persuade myself to go make dinner again.

Ultimately, however, these recurring tasks appear in my (and your) schedule because they matter to me, so removing them entirely from my life isn’t exactly an option.

The third category of tasks are the ones that aren’t recurring, or recur very rarely. These ones are important, because you often feel the most accomplished after completing them and they are the ones that really help push you forward towards the life you want. The second category is really important in this regard, too, but the results from, say, a regular workout routine are slow and gradual, while the results from painting and redecorating your living room are immediate and satisfying.

In short, we need all three kinds of tasks in our lives, but because categories one and two are recurring, it’s easy to feel swamped by them and to never be able to find time in our schedules for category three. This in turn means that, although we may be making slow progress in some very important areas of our lives, at best we’re still swimming against the current.

If you’re anything like me, you get stressed about the length of your task list, and it never seems to get any shorter because the only tasks you ever seem to find time for are the ones that appear again at the top of the list next week.

That’s what I want to address today. Finding time for category three tasks is crucial for reducing that stress, because that’s what allows you feel like you’re actually moving forwards instead of staying in the same place, and today I’m going to share with you a few techniques I use to help me with that.


This is one of the most important steps. If your task list feels unwieldy because of all those recurring tasks, then the best way to reduce that is to cut or simplify some of those tasks.

I noticed this recently with laundry, actually. Laundry always felt like something I could never get on top of. That description in the first paragraph, of getting to the sheets only to realise there’s no socks left? Yeah, that was me. I tried creating a laundry schedule, but I was sorting my clothes into so many categories that it was functionally impossible.

Then I cleared out my closet and found myself with only enough tops to last a single week. Previously I was washing tops every 2-3 weeks, as the Scotsman and I both had enough to see us through that long, but the prospect of washing tops every week and sorting all my laundry by colour and by weight (ie, light-coloured tops being separated from dark ones, and dark-coloured tops being separated from jeans) was pretty intimidating.

I took the plunge and – gasp! – put a thin white shirt in the same wash as my heavy black jeans. And it looks great. You’d never guess it had been swirling around the machine with those black jeans.

Now I do about four washes a fortnight. I do a general wash of clothes, towels, tea towels, and workout gear every weekend and sheets every other weekend, but I still feel compelled to segregate underwear and put it on a hot wash every 10-14 days (whenever we run out, basically).

Because I’m washing most things at the weekend, I get to hang everything outside to dry (assuming it’s sunny, of course!), which means it dries must faster and less stiff, though it does smell a bit briny, which I don’t mind at all.

Cardigans and knitwear do need to be washed separately, but because we always wear a cotton top underneath them they’re never in direct contact with skin, so those are washed infrequently.

The best bit? I don’t feel like I’m playing catch-up anymore, because I have an actual laundry habit, which brings me to my next point.

Create habits

Habits are really important here, because habits don’t really ‘count’ on your to-do list. After all, you generally wouldn’t write things like ‘eat breakfast’ or ‘brush teeth’ on your task list, would you? These are things we do automatically. We don’t need to remember to do them or find time for them because we do them at the same time every day.

Likewise, I don’t need to include laundry in my task list anymore, because every Saturday morning when I get up, I grab the laundry basket and load up the washing machine while I’m making my breakfast.

Of course, until you’ve developed a routine, the habit you’re trying to build will have to appear on your task list, and it will be one of those recurring tasks that seem interminable. Once you start doing it on autopilot, however, it’s no longer cluttering up your to-do list and your mind, meaning that even though it takes the same amount of time it takes up less mental space, freeing you for more category three tasks.


This is ideal for those basic tasks that are part of successfully adulting. For example, we have a cleaner who comes in every fortnight to clean our flat. Although we still need to do some maintenance cleaning in between, having someone come in to do a thorough regular clean helps immensely, because it means we don’t need to worry about things like dusting and vacuuming.

If you live with others, you could also consider if household chores are divided equitably, and speak to your partner/flatmates if you’re feeling overwhelmed. Unless you live alone, or your partner works and you don’t, there should be no reason for you to be responsible for all of the household chores, and by agreeing amongst yourselves who is responsible for what you can move towards developing habits for your own areas of responsibility and forgetting about the rest.

With the above strategies, you should have more time for tackling your to-do list than you spend on recurring tasks each week. When coming up with a weekly task list, then, you want to make sure you take some tasks off your backlog, rather than only scheduling in the time-sensitive ones. By doing this you’ll slowly make your way through your task list and find that forward momentum you’ve been lacking.

Over to you

Do you ever feel like you’re treading water instead of moving forward? What strategies do you use to help?

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