What to do when there’s too much to do: 7 to-do list strategies
A heaving to-do list is exhausting. I devoted six months to experimenting with different time management and to-do list strategies. Here’s what I learnt.
It goes without saying that if you’re running a small business – especially as a soloist – you’ve probably got too much to do.
I’m no stranger to the feeling. Now in my 10th year of business, and there’s been times when my to-do list was longer than my car!
Having too many ‘things-to-do’ hovering at the edges of your consciousness competing for your attention is exhausting. It can leave you feeling defeated before you start.
So, as part of my commitment to myself to treat my creativity as my greatest business asset by making space for it to thrive, I devoted six months to experimenting with different time management systems and to-do list strategies.
"When it comes to time management, putting yourself in a positive mindset is a huge advantage."
My overarching goal is to maximise the impact of my work, without increasing the time it takes to achieve it. Along the way, I landed on a way to cut my to-do list down to size, even when it appeared to have been taking steroids while I was asleep!
Here’s the seven step process that works for me. I hope it helps you take back control of your to-do list when you’re faced with a mess of competing priorities too.
Step 1: Get everything out of your head
Step away from your computer, and get everything that needs to be done onto a piece of paper or a whiteboard in one big brain dump.
When you do, you might just find that many of the things on the list aren’t things you need to do at all, they’re just things you need to remember.
Come up with a place to record them so you can find them later (I like Evernote for this).
If you’re like me, you’ll immediately find the brain space they’ve been inhabiting is freed up for other things.
Step 2: Action the bite-sized items
Take a first pass through your list and identify all those things that only need a few minutes’ attention in order to be dealt with. Then, tackle them immediately and get them OFF. YOUR. LIST.
Even if there are so many of these tasks that you need to spend an hour or two on them before you get on to the bigger ticket items, you’ll go from feeling like a productivity dud to a productivity machine remarkably quickly. When it comes to time management, putting yourself in a positive mindset is a huge advantage.
Step 3: Create a priority matrix for bigger tasks
The use of a priority matrix for focusing your time has been espoused by time management maestros ranging from President Eisenhower to Stephen Covey, author of Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.
When my to-do list has reached epic and unmanageable proportions, I start by numbering all the tasks not addressed in step two above, in the order they appear on my list. I’m not prioritising them yet, just identifying them so they’re easier to fit on my matrix.
Next, I create a simple matrix – ideally on my whiteboard so that I have the ability to make changes easily. I then go through each item on my list, quickly determining where on the matrix it should sit – with no over-thinking allowed.
The genius of this method is that by forcing you to consider each task on your list from two perspectives, you get a more well-rounded sense of how you should prioritise it.
Most commonly, the two scales you’ll be considering are urgency and importance. You’ll end up with something that looks a bit like this:
Step 4: Obliterate things you don’t need to do
A matrix like the one above instantly shows you whether certain things on your to-do list really shouldn’t be there at all.
When my list is so extensive that there’s no way on earth I’m going to manage all of it in the time I have available, this also helps me recognise which tasks are best for me to drop to minimise overall negative consequences.
Those decisions aren’t always pleasant – “Who will I disappoint today!” – but it’s a much nicer feeling to consciously choose what to let go, rather than having something critically important fall through the cracks, simply because I didn’t pay attention to it sooner.
Here’s where the joy of working with a white board comes in. Since the tasks are all still on my to-do list and are not going to be forgotten, I simply erase all those I’ve decided aren’t going to get done.
As they vanish from the white board, the list of priorities competing for my focus shrinks considerably, and clarity starts to emerge.
Step 5: Prioritise the remaining tasks
From this new streamlined selection of tasks, decide where to prioritise, using whatever criteria is important to you at that point in time.
Key considerations when I’m going through this process tend to be things like:
- The financial value of the tasks to my business and impact on my cash flow
- How close a task is to being completed
- Whether any of the tasks can be postponed without adverse effects on my business or my clients
- Whether any tasks can or should be delegated or outsourced
Step 6: Pick your battle and fight it until it’s over
Having determined the best item to focus your attention on, it’s time to knuckle down and get on with it. Then just keep on keeping on until:
A: The job is either finished, or taken as far as you can for now (e.g. it needs client input)
B: The priority of the task has been overtaken by something even more important or urgent.
It might sound ridiculously simple, but being disciplined about fighting each individual battle until it’s over is the one behaviour shift that’s enabled me to blast through my backlog of projects and move ahead by leaps and bounds.
I’m no longer flitting from one task to the next as whim takes me (Facebook anyone?), and instead have realised that more often than not, boredom and distraction are signs that I need to take a break from my desk, and not an indication that it’s time to switch projects.
Similarly, procrastination often creeps in when I don’t know what to do next. I am best served by getting clear about what the successful completion of a task will look like, then breaking it down into the smaller steps that will get me there.
Step 7: Learn as you go to make life easier for your future self
Go through this process enough times and you’re likely to start seeing that similar types of bottlenecks in your business are rearing their ugly heads over and over again.
Perhaps there are certain projects you simply shouldn’t take on because they impede your productivity. Maybe you need to automate or outsource some tasks so they’re off your plate for good.
Even if you can’t tackle these issues today, commit to a time frame for doing it. Move solving the to-to list issue on to that to-do list of yours so you can sort it out once and for all.
This framework isn’t the entirety of my renewed focus on productivity, but when I need to take emergency action, it’s enabled me to cut through overwhelm and make decisions that are both strategically smart and tactically effective.
How do you cope with having too much to do and too little time? Share your tips for dealing with overwhelm and competing priorities in the comments.