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How to Overcome Death by To-Do List

Good morning! Like every day, you sit down with coffee in hand, grab your favorite notepad, begin jotting down a to-do list for the day, and before you know it you’re out of paper. Now, rather than looking at your to-do list as something you use to kick-start your productivity, you feel like it’s only out to get you.


You’re staring down at that never-ending list and you can’t figure out how and where to get started. Here are six tips to help you prioritize your to-do list, even when your workload seems completely unmanageable:


1. Only the Bare Necessities.

This point seems painfully obvious. However, if you’re like me, your to-do list becomes a dumping ground. It’s where you note all those random tidbits that pop into your head—whether it’s a new book to read or an idea for a long-term project you want to get started on soon.


Before you know it, the list that was supposed to keep you focused for one day is now some document detailing reminders for the next few months. So now it’s just making you feel more stressed and swamped, rather than helping you see a quick snapshot of the things you should be chipping away at today.


You can still go ahead and jot down all those little things that need to find their way out of your brain and onto paper. After you’ve done that, start a separate to-do list for just the next 24-hours. It’ll help you feel less overwhelmed and much more clear-headed.


2. Urgent vs. Important.

It may not always feel like it, there’s a big difference between urgent and important; Especially when you’re trying to dig your way out of a pile of tasks. This is when you focus solely on the urgent ones—even if that means leaving important things dangling on your list for the next day.


This will help you separate the things that absolutely need to get done from the things you really want to get done. When you’re already pressed for time and resources, things that don’t have a pressing deadline should be removed. (Add them to the overflow list, not your today to-do list.) Armed with an already pared down to-do list, you can start recognizing what you need to accomplish.


3. Batch Similar Tasks.

Project hopping and multitasking—we’re all guilty. You answer an email, make a little progress on a project, reply to another email, and then go back to the project. Constantly switching gears can often be a distraction, making it difficult for you to maintain focus and cross entire tasks off your to-do list.


Recent studies have proven that grouping similar tasks together into batches can significantly increase productivity. So, go ahead and address all of those lingering emails, and then move on to your bigger project. You’ll notice a jump in both productivity and focus.


4. Have you Heard of the Pomodoro Technique?

If you easily fall into the trap of distraction, this can really help you stay in the zone. This technique splits your workday into chunks. You work for 25 minutes, and then take a five-minute break. And that full cycle is called the Pomodoro Technique.


Taking breaks can seem counter-intuitive when your schedule is already packed. However, this time management system works by instilling a sense of urgency. You’re motivated to get as much work done as possible in those 25 minutes. It’s a great trick to be more intentional and focused with your time!


5. Estimate Your Time.

We all start our workdays with the best intentions. Being ambitious with your to-do list might sound like a good idea in theory, but it usually means you end the day feeling frustrated.


Next to each task, note how much time you think that task will take. Then, do some simple math and add everything up, including at least an hour of buffer time for unexpected interruptions. If those estimates add up to a ridiculous number then you need to seriously prioritize your items—or work an extra-long day to accomplish it all.


This exercise helps you be realistic about what you aim to complete. Plus, it allows you to get a proactive handle on whether you’re going to miss a deadline. This means you can get ahead of the problem and loop the necessary people in on the probable delay, rather than begging for forgiveness when you’ve missed the mark.


6. Just Get Started.

The above tips can be helpful when trying to tackle an overwhelming workload. But, sometimes the best thing is to just take a deep breath and get started.


Of course, you want to attack your to-do list in a way that’s as methodical and strategic as possible—you don’t want to waste time unnecessarily by hopping around from project to project. You also want to avoid falling into the opposite trap: If you spend so much time figuring out how to get started on your to-do list, you end up wasting time—time you could’ve used to cross off a few tasks.


So, ultimately, use your best judgment when it comes to managing responsibilities and assignments. After all, nobody knows your work style as well as you do.


Last Updated: August 14, 2017
About the author

    Alexandra Hoeflicker

    Alex is a Tucson-raised, Austin-based brunch aficionado. She enjoys a solid cup of coffee and browsing used record stores.