How To Tackle An Overwhelming To-Do List

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Much like the feeling you get when paperwork is mounting and needs to be completed, a long to-do list can evoke anxious feelings. It doesn’t seem fair really. You make a great decision, which is to clear your head a little by jotting everyday tasks onto paper, then it feels like it’s haunting you. It’s an endless cycle of adding yet another thing to the long list, getting scared of the rate it’s growing at so we stop paying attention to it, then letting a mental list of to-dos build up until they become overwhelming. The whole thing continuous in a vicious circle until we’re scared and ashamed of how little it feels like we’ve accomplished. Just because we wrote it down.

The fact is, life can be so busy and depression can be so draining, that when we do gather up a little energy to get something done we will need that list there. We know as well as anyone what a bad episode can do to our short-term memory, as well as the damage holding all these pressures can do to a poorly mind.

We’ve come to the conclusion that whilst important, a to-do list alone isn’t enough to beat the overwhelm that comes with it. What we need is a plan of action. So let’s tackle that overwhelming to-do list together.

Refocus the idea of a to-do list

Naturally, we think of a to-do list as something that we need to get to the end of. Where the ultimate satisfaction isn’t actually in completing the task, but accomplishing a blank to-do list.

That’s understandable – a blank list means there is nothing to do. But logically, a to-do list isn’t ever meant to be blank. If your list is consistently changing and growing, it means you’re still carving out your life in your little space in the world. You’re still here, still going. And that’s a really good thing.

Instead of being overwhelmed by seeing things written on your to-do list, try training your mind to realise this list won’t ever empty. That it’s not meant to be. It will just change. It means you’re living your life,which is validating when depression does its best to make you feel worthless, as well as a big help in beating the overwhelm.

An extra good thing to remember: when it’s all just a bit much, you can shut your list away in a drawer until you’re good and ready. The control over the tasks on the list is yours. When you tackle them is totally up to you.

Write it all down

Got loads of tasks swimming around your mind? Take a deep breath and write them all down, from the teeny tiny ones to the mammoth ones. Everything you feel like you should do, do it. Go wild. Just get it all down and unclog your brain a bit.

It’s ok to be scared at the end of this process. Remember, this is part of the plan.

Prioritise

Next, take a quick break from your list (cuppa anyone?). Breaks are always important, even just a five minute one can make all the difference to your headspace.

Once you’re settled back down, go through your list task by task and (preferably in a different colour pen) label each thing with a number:

  1. 1 = Must be done within 48 hours
  2. 2 = Not a 1, but must be done within a week
  3. 3 = Not a 1 or 2, but must be done within a fortnight
  4. 4 = Not a 1, 2 or 3, but must be done within the month.

If you come across tasks that aren’t a number 4 priority or below, assess whether you really need to do them.

Are they there because you felt like you should write it? Is it going to make little to no difference to you if this isn’t done in the next month? Has this not been done because it’s unimportant?

If the answer to any of these questions is yes, either scribble it out or leave un-prioritised to come back to another day.

Draw it up

Either on a new piece of paper or – if you’re feeling fancy – a Google/Word document, draw up a quick table with 5 columns. Write one of the following headings at the top of each one:

Phone
Email
Errand
Home
Decision

It should look something like this…

orgnised to do list example blurt foundation

Pick 3

Pick 3 – and only 3 for now – number 1 priorities. These are the 3 things you’ll be working on first.

Break it down

What’s the absolute first step you need to take to start each task? Really go back to basics – it could be as simple as ‘open email from Doris’ or ‘find dusters’. Write it down in whatever column the task belongs in, so it’s organised by action.

Concentrate on one task at a time. You’ll be surprised how often taking that first simple step leads to you completing the whole thing. If you lose steam, don’t worry. Take a break then revisit your list, work out the next action you’d need to take to make a start on this task again. Do it as many times as you need to until the job is done (and congratulate yourself when it is!).

Move forward

So far having a table with 5 columns is probably looking a little redundant, but it’s actually part of the plan…

We suggest repeating the above steps either until you just have number 3 priorities left to complete, or simply until your to-do list stops making your tummy do quite so many anxiety wiggles when you look at it. When you feel you have a little more control on things, jot down that first basic action into your table for everything.

If you concentrate on one column at a time (e.g. do your email tasks one after the other, then move onto phone and so on), you should be able to get through things a little faster without chopping and changing all the time. It can do wonders for your mentality as this method requires less adjusting. Plus it’ll save you a bundle of time.

Now, there are some days where this just is not going to happen. We have them all the time. Don’t force yourself through your list on those days. Just write down the basic thing you need to do to get started on a task that you just don’t have the energy to do that day. Just get it off your mind and know you don’t have to worry about forgetting it. Then put your list away. When you’re good and ready, you’ll find it a hundred times easier to tackle your overwhelming to-do list. You can do this.

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  • Rebecca Goldsack Smith

    This is an excellent post.

    One quick tip to add- I cannot recommend Wunderlist enough for managing a to do list. It’s an app which allows you to sync your list across your phone, i-pad and computer and allows you to categorise things and set reminders for things easily.

    I used to have my lists scribbled on bits of paper which i’d lose or forget which is very stressful.

    Also- the app keeps a list of all the tasks you’ve ever completed- so when I’m having a really un-productive day I can look at everything I’ve achieved to date and it makes me feel more positive,

    Hope this helps!

    • Daniel Luke Relf

      Thank you Rebecca Goldsack Smith, What a brilliant idea :-)x