When You Feel Overwhelmed by Your To-do List, Try This

The last week or two, I’ve found myself completely overwhelmed by my to-do list. On the back of a trans-atlantic trip followed by a brutal round of jet lag, each day has seen me staring down my massive to-do list only to walk away in defeat. 

Usually, my approach is flexible. Because my work is so varied, I have several different categories laid out on a blank sheet of paper where I note what needs to be done for each. Then I choose a few things to do every day that week. Sometimes I’ll batch work, trying to knock out a whole category in one day. Often, I’ll just tackle the most do-able tasks, or the ones that need to be done sooner. Most weeks, this tends to work just fine. This week, it did not. 

Not only was there too much on the page to begin with (a fatal mistake for feeling accomplished), but my real difficulty was that there were too many competing things on the list. Usually one category takes precedence one day, another the next – there’s an ebb and flow that allow for flexibility. This week, there was no natural starting point. Too many things on the to-do list needed doing, all at the same time. I was overwhelmed and paralyzed with the simple decision of where to begin.

So I do what I usually do when I’m frustrated: I made a list

But this time, I wrote down everything that needed doing, and put it in some order

Not exactly rocket science, right? Prioritizing one of the most basic aspects of creating a successful to-do list. But sometimes, deciding what to prioritize on the list is more difficult than actually just doing the tasks on the list. This week, choosing an order of priority had me stuck in decision paralysis. 

(Especially for the perfectionist maximizer in me, who hesitates over deciding an order for fear that I might get it in the wrong order or even, not the very best order possible. If you don’t struggle with these things, this whole piece probably sounds a bit crazy. Just know that it’s highly likely someone you love or work with does wrestle with these challenges.)

But then I asked my stressed-out recovering perfectionist maximizer self the key question: what’s the worst thing that’s likely to happen? And the answer was: nothing. Nothing is getting done under my current system, and the worst that could happen under the new system was that I would also get nothing done. The best thing that could happen would be that I checked off a task – even a less important one.  

So I chose some order for my to-do list: not the best possible order, not necessarily the order of highest priority, but just, an order. I transferred 6 tasks to a sticky note, and wrote a number next to each one. Then, I wasn’t allowed to move to the next task until I had completed the first one. 

Guess what? I got them all done. Not in one day, as I had hoped, but by the end of the week they were completed, along with another set of tasks I done the same for. 

Prioritizing my to-do list was too overwhelming; there were too many things that were important. But just picking some, and putting them in order in general, (even if not the best order!) made me feel significantly less overwhelmed. 

Putting my to-do list in order helped me overcome decision paralysis and be more capable of action because it created boundaries for me. The number next to each task signified: you will do this, and no more. You will not look at the paper full of other tasks, you will not even look at the next task, until this one is done. The overwhelm had been a result of the tides of my usual flexible system becoming a sudden tsunami; the ordered to-do list was a wall built to withstand the surge.   

While I’m not planning to abandon my old, flexible system that works well for me under normal circumstances, I was glad to embrace a different one for when I’m completely overwhelmed by the competing important tasks on my to-do list.