Overcoming overwhelm – what to do when your to-do list is out of control

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Your to-do list can be a handy way to stay on top of all the tasks you need to manage, or the small steps that you’re taking towards your goals. But left unchecked, you may find that the list keeps growing. Things are constantly added, while nothing ever seems to get ticked off. It’s easy to find yourself feeling overwhelmed.

Overwhelm – to bury or drown beneath a huge mass of something

Oxford English Dictionary

By this definition, it does seem a little melodramatic to attribute overwhelm to your to-do list. But when your list is full of career-defining projects, the welfare of young children, and stopping your house from falling apart around you, overwhelmed is exactly the right word.

Many women have become so adept at organising the world around them that they absorb responsibilities like a sponge. Working full-time, raising kids, overseeing the house, helping out in the community – we do it all.

So what can you do when your to-do list is five pages long, and it all seems urgent?

Follow the three simple steps below to help take back control of your tasks.

To-do list step 1 – Brain dump

Get it out of your head and write it down. As well as being the first step in organising the tasks, just the act of writing it down helps to reduce stress. Firstly, once it is written down you know that it is captured and you don’t need to worry about remembering it any more. Secondly, writing it down helps you to see it more objectively.

Make sure you get everything onto one list. If you already have other lists, incorporate them into your new list so that you have one source of information to work to.

To-do list step 2 – Organise

Now you have a comprehensive list of everything that needs doing, you need to be able to organise it and fit it into your schedule. Easier said than done, I know. Below are my tips for prioritising.

Align to your goals

Firstly, think about what your most important goal is at the moment. And then your next most important goals. Look at which tasks align to those goals, and make sure that you give these priority.

Assign a timeframe

Next, I think about when I would like to get each task done. I usually use the timeframes: ASAP / this week / this month / later. But you can use whichever timeframes suit.

When doing this exercise, you should find your stress easing as you discover things that can be done ‘later’. If you find that everything needs to be done right now, keep reading for scheduling advice (and what to do when it doesn’t all fit).

As you go through this process, if you come across anything that doesn’t seem important any more, leave it out. I’m not as ruthless as I should be when it comes to letting go of tasks, so mine tend to sit at the bottom of the ‘later’ list for a while before I finally succumb and delete them.

To-do list step 3 – Schedule

Now you have your to-do list split into four manageable sections, it will be much easier to schedule.

Start with the actions that take you towards your most important goals. Next, add in the items from the ASAP list. Then add the items for this week. Finally, aim to get about a quarter of the items for the month scheduled in (unless you’re expecting to have extra time available later in the month).

Not enough hours in the week

It is often said that there just aren’t enough hours in the day, and if you’re feeling overwhelmed this may well be true for you. If this is the case, you will need to decide what you can put off, do quicker, delegate or not do. See more on the 6 Ds in the article Make it Happen.

Whilst it can be hard to make the decision to drop something, if you don’t have enough time then something will fall off. Wouldn’t you prefer to be the one in control of what gets dropped?

Sometimes you won’t be able to do everything, but at least you’ll be confident that you’re doing what is the highest priority for you.

Leave space

When you’re trying to fit in more things than you have time for, it can be tempting to cram them in to every minute of the day. DON’T!! What will you do if something takes longer than you thought? Or if you get invited out with friends? Leave space in your calendar so that you can rearrange tasks if you need to.

If you’re not sure how much time to leave, track your time for a few weeks and see how much time you’re spending on unplanned events. That will give you an indication of how much time to keep free.

Don’t forget self-care

Make time for self-care

I don’t mean pack yourself off to a luxury spa and forget about your to-do list (although if that’s an option, why not?). But do remember the basics like eating right, sleeping well, exercising and social connection. These can easily slip when you’re feeling stressed, but that is when you need them most.

Final thoughts

When you’re feeling overwhelmed, the last thing you want to do is add to your load with planning. Don’t spend too much time on the detail of what needs to be done. Get everything out of your head and then focus on your priorities.

Ideally, you should follow this process weekly. That way, you have the groundwork done and your plan all mapped out before things get hectic. Then it’s just a case of seeing what to de-prioritise.

Do you review your goals and tasks weekly? Leave a comment below or on our Facebook page to share your top tips.

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