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5 Quick Solutions When You're Overwhelmed by Your To-Do List

Here are easy, practical ways to relieve productivity stress.

Key points

  • Anyone can feel overwhelmed by their to-do list and find it difficult to think strategically.
  • This can result in procrastination and sometimes putting off an important task altogether.
  • These simple, actionable steps can help a person overcome their anxiety and be more productive.
Elisa Ventur/Unsplash
Source: Elisa Ventur/Unsplash

We all have times when we're overwhelmed by our to-do list. When we feel overloaded, it can be hard to think strategically.

Why does this happen? When we feel overwhelmed, we tend to have a fight, flight, or freeze response. None of these options makes it easy to think calmly about the smoothest way to approach items on our list.

What can you do? Here are some simple ideas.

1. Re-use work you've already done.

One item on my to-do list today is to write an updated bio for my speaking agency. They asked me for it last week, and I said I'd have it done "early this week." Rather than writing it from scratch, I realized I could use a bio I'd recently written for a magazine and slightly adapt it. That required much less decision-making and creative energy than deciding anew how to approach it.

Try this yourself: For something on your current to-do list, could you re-use or adapt a piece of work you've already done?

This sounds super simple, but we don't always think of easy solutions like this when we feel overwhelmed.

2. Make a decision you've been waffling over.

We often think we need more information or more time to think over decisions. For example, should you cancel that subscription you haven't been using much? These decisions create relatively neutral, but depleting thought-intrusions—the nagging thought that you need to do something. They can also create distressing thoughts if you experience regrets about not having addressed an issue already.

Try just making the decision, especially if it's undoable. For example, you can always restart a subscription.

What's key to being able to do this? Recognize when certain variables are relatively unimportant. For example, if you know you need or want to do something, then deciding when you want to go (such as this week or next week) might be relatively unimportant. Decide a variable that has been tripping you up but isn't critical. (I've used this strategy twice already today—it works well!)

Making decisions quickly will help you blitz through your to-do list.

3. Develop a re-usable strategy for how you will approach novel tasks.

A novel task is one you haven't done before or at least don't do regularly. These can create a lot of decision fatigue if you don't have a system for how you'll approach them.

How can you create a system for a task you've never done? You can create a generic system. For example, part of my generic system is to consider three different ways to approach the task before heading down one particular route. Thinking broadly like this helps me see the easiest option. A common cognitive error is to foreclose on good alternatives prematurely.

For higher-stakes tasks, I also conduct a "pre-mortem" in which I identify the main things that could go wrong (up to three) and plan one strategy for how to mitigate each of them.

More details of how to create this generic type of system for yourself are included in Stress-Free Productivity. My personal system has about seven different elements, including the two I've mentioned here, but I strip it down for less important tasks.

4. Identify when done is better than perfect.

Recently I was asked to contribute to a book being compiled for a friend's birthday, including a photo and a personal note. Of course, I wanted to knock this out of the park to convey how special the friend is to me. Putting that pressure on myself to excel led to not doing it. Recognizing this thought was useful. I had it in my head that I should handwrite the note and include a specific photo. Thirty minutes of searching had not turned up said photo.

I ended up two days late for the deadline and wondering if maybe I should just not do it. That wasn't consistent with my values of caring for my friend. Instead of skipping it entirely, I typed the note and included a related photo and did it in five minutes. When I forced myself to just do it, I came up with a good story to include and ultimately was happy with it.

Recognize that sometimes work you do quickly, in a pinch, will end up being quite good. Spending longer on a task doesn't always make it better, especially if you've already been overthinking it. The pressure of a deadline can help us work from the gut rather than overthinking. Forcing yourself to work quickly can result in creativity.

5. Connect with a work-related contact you've lost touch with.

When we feel supported, we feel less overwhelmed. Our "loose connections" can be great sources of support, sometimes in surprising ways. Don't overthink or get caught up in regret. Send a text or email to a supportive colleague or work contact you've been closer to in the past than now. If you've worked with someone in the past but not recently, but you enjoyed working together, say hi and check in on them. We all need support, and the best way to get support is often to offer it first.

If you feel overwhelmed by your to-do list, you're not helpless or hopeless. Try these specific, practical strategies to overcome your psychological blocks and lessen the burden.