If Your To-Do List Stresses You Out

Photo by Tim Gouw

Photo by Tim Gouw

Are your lists currently scattered across your life in piles of sticky notes on your desk, digital notes on your computer and mobile phone, and mental notes in your brain?
Can you tell I have personal experience with this? :)
To-do lists are a common source of overwhelm.
Since it's a topic that regularly comes up with my clients, I thought I'd share what I’ve found works best for managing my own work to-do list.  
My system isn't perfect or complete, but it might give you ideas.

This is my approach, from first thing in the morning to the end of a workday.

Start the Morning with 30-Minutes of Quick Planning

First, I review my schedule for the day. My MacBook calendar syncs with Google Calendar. I keep all my appointments here.

Next I scan my email and respond to anything urgent that takes less than 10 minutes to sort out. (Usually these are scheduling emails.)
I block out time in my schedule to take care of the rest of my email later, and close my inbox.
Next, I pull out my Weekly Planner. This is essentially a daily to-do list in a two-week view. The key feature is that it only allows me three to-do tasks each day.

Why I Limit to Three Tasks

Having only three tasks forces me to prioritize what’s most important today.

It's also reasonable. I know that a to-do list with more than three items is likely not to get done and will just make me feel frustrated.

For my #1 task, I generally choose the next significant step toward my top business goal of the month. Tasks #2 and #3 are generally those that are important, necessary, and hopefully easier.

Today, for example, #1 was writing this newsletter. My #2 was calling my accountant to review a list of pressing questions.

I record my three selected tasks on the Weekly Planner.
Next, I check my schedule to make sure I can realistically do them all. If not, I either drop a task from my list or see if I can clear my calendar.

If I'm Feeling Overwhelmed By To-Do Tasks

If possible tasks are swarming around my head, I might take 10 minutes to do a total brain-dump. This is also called “creating mental white space.”

Basically, I write down every single to-do I can think of. The idea is not that I'm creating a massive new to-do list.

Instead, I'm "parking" all these tasks in a place outside of my head.

I don't worry if I ever get all this stuff done. I just get relief from clearing my mind. Plus, I can easily refer to it later.

I set my Weekly Planner in the corner of my desk, so it's at hand to remind me what's next.
I put myself in “airplane mode” and dive into a project, generally my #1 task of the day. I’ll devote at least an hour to it. Sometimes it's much more, if my schedule allows.

Managing Overload at Mid-Day

I re-enter the world. Calls. Meetings. Lunch. Lots of details and emails and trying to get stuff done quickly.
As tasks are completed, I check them off.
When frenzy or overwhelm hits, I go for a walk.

Breaking for a Walk

It can feel very counter-intuitive to go for a walk right at the moment of “Argh! I’m never going to get everything done!” but I’ve found it’s actually the best time to go.

Walking in the fresh air, my mind clears. I relax. I see my priorities more clearly. I know I'll be able to return to my desk more happy and focused.


When I return, I take another look at my Weekly Planner. I work on anything that must be done by the end of the day.
At 7PM (standard quitting time in Spain due to our siesta-sized lunch), I stop everything.
I take a deep breath and prepare for the temptation of continuing to work.
Grabbing my Planner, I review how many tasks I completed.
If there are still tasks left undone, I ask: Will there be business-tanking, world-shattering consequences if I leave this until tomorrow?
If the answer is No (as it is 99% of the time), I wrap up quickly. Close tabs, save files.    
I look at the Weekly Planner one last time and say: You did a good job with this today. That was a lot. Now it’s time to relax.
I close my laptop and shut the office door on my way out.

Designing What Works For You

What I offer here is only a snapshot in time. I know that my system will evolve, as I change and learn more about what works best for me.
As you’ve read about my system, has anything stood out to you? How could you tweak your own to-do habits?
Or, have you found some inventive solutions that you could also suggest to us? Share it by leaving a comment below.
In the meantime, I hope you have a very focused and productive week!