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How to Not Be Overwhelmed by Your To-Do List

A to-do list is a helpful tool to keep all of our many tasks and responsibilities organized. However, it's easy to get overwhelmed by a growing to-do list. Here are 5 simple steps to prevent that from happening.

Although it was said back in the 1980s, this quote from one of my favorite people best sums up the state of our lives today:

“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” —Ferris Bueller

One way we can accomplish this is through a to-do list.

How To-Do Lists Help You Sleep

I read a study focused on people who have trouble sleeping. The research suggested your brain’s natural tendency towards keeping you alive sometimes can keep you from falling asleep.

With so many things on our plates, there are more tasks than there is space in our minds. In the brain’s attempt to ensure we don’t forget, it keeps us thinking about these things. Some people describe this as their mind racing or not being able to turn it off.

The study suggested that if we’ll write these items down, often our brain will have permission to turn off and allow us to sleep. Certainly, we all know now that our ability to sleep and get rest allows us to be able to accomplish the things on our list more effectively.

So, the lists that we make can help us balance the things in our lives that need to get done while also being able to stop and look around once in a while, as Mr. Bueller recommends.

Unfortunately, it’s easy to lose this balance and allow our to-do list to make us crazy. But that’s the exact opposite of what an effective to-do list is meant to do. In that vein here are some suggestions to help you stop being overwhelmed by your to-do list.

1. Add Self-Care to the List

We often lose sight of self-care because we’re moving too quickly. We don’t stop to smell the roses because of the things on our to-do list. As I said before, there are more to do than there is time to do it in.

Making sure that your to-do list represents stopping points can help you remember to stop. Add self-care to your list so that you remember to do it and keep from becoming overwhelmed.

2. Do One thing

With so many things on our to-do list, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the sheer number of tasks. It’s important to focus on one thing at a time.

You may be able to get a few things done at the same time. Like having a load of clothes running in the washing machine, while your computer gets backed up, while you’re folding clothes and talking on the phone to your mom. Obviously there’s four things happening on your to do list at once, but these are somewhat passive activities.

When I say “do one thing,” I’m talking about the things that need your full attention. When you have an activity that needs your attention, it will be much more efficient for you to focus on that one thing to completion. At least get that thing to a stopping point before trying to take on something else.

Taking on multiple activities that split your attention can make your to-do list feel overwhelming.

3. Just Start—Even If It’s Subpar

Sometimes it’s overwhelming just to get started. There are so many things on the list that we don’t even know where to begin.

Something that I learned a long time ago when dealing with writing deadlines or things that used my creativity is to just start somewhere. I would look at the blank page and know the deadline was creeping up and freak out. The longer time passed, the more overwhelmed I’d be.

Follow the first law of motion which states: “Bodies at rest stay at rest and bodies in motion stay in motion unless acted upon by an outside force.”

Like the Nike ad, sometimes it’s best to “just do it”. Even if that first attempt is bad, at least you have begun the process. By putting something on the page, I was often able to think a little bit more clearly and get some momentum towards finishing the task.

4. Organize Your List into Subtasks

Another daunting aspect of the to-do list is working on something, but not being able to check it off your list because it’s not fully completed. Obviously, some tasks are bigger and more time-consuming than others.

One trick I learned that helps my brain feel movement is to break a task into subcategories. For instance, I might have “file insurance claims” on my list. Then, I’d break that task into smaller steps, like:

  • Pull up records for clients for the past month.
  • Fill out CMS 1500 claim forms for each client.
  • Work up log of completed claims.
  • Mail claims to insurance company.

It takes all of these smaller activities to file a claim, but as you can see each of these takes time. I may be able to pull each claim one up and fill out the claim forms, but not have time to log them or go to the mailbox.

By separating these, it allows me to check off a few and give my brain a sense of accomplishment.

For this to work, these have to be legitimate subtasks. This isn’t a matter of breaking down a task into individual motions in order to have something to check off. Your brain intuitively knows when something is an actual accomplishment.

Although you’d be able to check off items on your list, your brain would not get the satisfaction. Not only that, your to-do list would probably be eight pages long. Think about larger tasks and then think about the natural subcategories of each task.

5. Divide Short- and Long-Term Accomplishments

Some things on your to-do list will be possible to accomplish in one sitting. Others may have stages or take time to complete. You might have something on your list that can’t be done until another thing on your list is completed.

There’s nothing more annoying than things on your list that just linger.

Certainly, you can break these up into parts and be able to check those off as you go. However, sometimes an item may take two hours to complete, and therefore need a larger block of time. At the same time, it may not be time-sensitive or urgent.

For me, this might be calling an insurance company to ask them about a payment made months ago. Eventually, I need to get this done, however, if you’ve ever called the insurance company you know it will take a minimum of an hour to do anything.

There may be other things on my list that are more time-sensitive and easier to check off. By grouping these into short-term and long-term tasks, I don’t feel like I’m failing when long term items stay on the list.

A To-Do List is Only a Tool

These are just a few tips to help you navigate your to-do list and keep it from taking over your sanity. That said, it’s important to keep in mind the wise words of our good friend, Farris.

Ultimately, your to-do list is just a tool. It’s something that you use to help your life run smoother. It should never be something that runs you and makes your life more chaotic.

How do you use your to-do list?

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