One of the great productivity paradoxes is that the more we have to do the less we actually get done.
Why does this happen? And more importantly what can you do mow through your to-dos when they threaten to overwhelm you?
Keep reading and find out.
Why is it so hard to get things done when you have too much to do?
As humans we feel motivated by making meaningful progress.
We crave completion and visible progress lets us know that what we are doing is getting us closer to the end goal, which motivates us to do more.
But when your to-do list is 10 meters long, checking off 1 or even 10 tasks feels futile. It’s like chipping away tiny slivers of a giant rock (and one that keeps growing too!).
Not very motivating at all. No motivation -> no action.
Procrastination due to negative emotions
By now you probably know that procrastination is an emotional problem. Anything that triggers negative emotions in us we tend to avoid. This is how we are built. Nature designed us to survive after all, not to get lots of things done.
And guess what is a negative emotion? Feeling overwhelmed!
If the list is long enough it can make even the most chill people feel stressed out and overwhelmed.
And once that happens your deepest instincts are trying to keep you away from your massive to-do list.
Stress induced pre-frontal weakness
The double whammy here is that in order to override your instincts you need to use your pre-frontal cortex. This the most modern part of the brain and also the most sensitive.
Unfortunately, stress directly inhibits the pre-frontal cortex.
So not only do you have a strong instinct to avoid that long to-do list that is stressing you out but the stress of it all also directly weakens the brain part you need to avoid that instinct.
The solution: how to tackle a massive to-do list
So clearly, we need a solution here that squashes all these three issues at once.
All since all three issues are directly related to the size of the list, we need to drastically reduce the list itself and come up with a short list we can work on.
Sounds simple and in some ways it is. But you might also be thinking: “I can’t just eliminate the things I have to do in order to get a smaller list!” And you don’t have to. Let me show you how.
Creating a short list to work from
The key idea is to create a much shorter list that you can work from. You want to focus only on this short list until it is done. Then you can create another short list to tackle more work.
So you don’t have to delete any items permanently from the list (although you can of course). You are just creating an additional shorter list.
So how do you get that short list? There are two ways to work on your giant list to get that short list:
- You move things that you can’t do or don’t need to do within the next weeks or months into another separate “back burner” list
- You pick the most important and/or urgent tasks to focus on (creating a curated focus list)
Ideally you utilize both of these strategies in your daily task management strategy.
1. Shortening a long list by moving things to a back burner area
It’s always best to first take out any items from your list that are not immediately relevant. Maybe they are just not that important, optional, depend on the completion of another item, are less important than other items on your list, don’t have to be done for a while or have to be done on a specific day in the future.
With a good task manager you should be able to do this step with ease and without any fear that any items get lost or forgotten.
The Amazing Marvin app has a great back burner feature that makes this all really easy.
2. Creating a focus list
If you don’t want to use the back burner strategy you can also directly jump to this one. But even with the back burner method you might still be faced with a list that is too long.
The idea here is to curate a short list by picking only the most important and currently relevant tasks from your long list and focusing on that.
A focus list comes in many variations.
The daily list
You could make a list for your day for example, which is a very popular focus list. The key here is to make the length of it realistic so you can actually finish it in a day. Overscheduling your day is a very common mistake.
The weekly list
If a day list feels too strict, you can also make a weekly list instead. Picking everything you want to get done this week. Again, keep an eye out for the estimation total. There are only so many work hours in a week.
These two key strategies work for your Master List (everything you have to do) and individual projects that are just too long.
If you are ever faced with a to-do list that feels too long and daunting, think of these two strategies. You can create a back burner list, focus list or both.
If you are struggling to shorten your long list with either of these basic methods, try to dig deeper into what is causing the difficulty. Sometimes everything feels important. Let me know in the comments if you struggle.
Because both of these types of strategies are so crucial to managing a large workload, I built all of this into features in Amazing Marvin.
Also published on Medium.