I LOVE a good list!  If there’s something to keep track of, chances are I’m making note of it, adding details, and planning out how to get it done.  And don’t forget the excitement of checking off an item once it’s been completed.  Yes, I’ll admit it, I’ve been known to write something on the list that I’ve already finished, just for the satisfaction of crossing it off.

Sometimes trying to get things done can be overwhelming.  It can feel as if you’re drowning underneath a list of never-ending tasks.  I liken it to laundry – just when you think you’ve washed everything in the house, you turn around and find more dirty clothes that seem to appear out of nowhere, waiting for your attention.

When talking with clients about their efforts to get organized, I often hear about lists that are intimidating, lists that are never completed, lists that get lost in the shuffle of other lists.  These lists seem to take on lives of their own, and some run away and hide.  How does this happen?  Here are a few pitfalls with lists and organizing efforts with ideas for working around these challenges.

So many items on the list.  A “to do” list can readily explode into a list of everything that has floated across your mind, a “cognitive dump” where your brain vomits every possible activity onto a piece of paper in the hopes that documenting it will mean that it will get completed in the not-too-distant future.  While it’s useful to have an on-going list, looking at it can leave you cross eyed.

This can be a good time to employ a master list and a daily list.  Keep one list for the cognitive dump to keep track of items.  Each day, pull a select few items from the master list to tackle that day.  This can help keep from feeling overwhelmed and can promote improved focus as there are fewer, select tasks for your attention.

Too many lists.  The challenge with maintaining the “master” and “daily” lists is to keep only these two lists.  Resist the urge to quickly jot something down on a handy scrap of paper.  When everything gets written down in different locations, it can be hard to keep track.  I’ve seen lists written on the backs of envelopes, in the corner of old notebook papers, on scraps of newspaper, and on the backs of hands.  The problem is that papers get lost.  Multiple pieces of paper translates to more clutter in the space and more opportunities for an important piece of paper to get misplaced in the shuffle.  It is unclear what had been completed and what is still waiting for attention.

Have one designated place for your lists.  Decide what format works best for you – digital or hard copy.  Personally, I’m a fan of pen and paper so I have a small notebook to hand write everything.  Each day starts fresh with a blank page while the master list is maintained on the back pages.

There are a number of apps available for maintaining lists.  I don’t have any favorites or recommendations.  Rather, I encourage giving them trial runs to see what works for you.  I’ve tried different ones and find myself returning to pen and paper every time.  There’s research to support that handwriting can help encourage creativity, and maybe along with that improved problem-solving.  Additionally, the pen and paper don’t have the distractions of an app.  No, you’re not the only one to start with the intention of being productive, hop over to email or social media to “check on one little thing, it’ll only take a moment” and wind up getting lost down a rabbit hole of memes and cat videos.

Fitting in too many tasks in too short a period of time.  You’ve got your master list.  You’re selecting the tasks to tackle today.  Now your daily list is as long as your master list!  How did that happen?  A key element of managing a “To Do” list is time management.  It can be difficult to estimate the amount of time needed to complete a given task.  Returning a phone call could be two minutes if you’re leaving a message or two hours if you catch your Great-Aunt Bertha in a talkative mood.  When a schedule is so tightly packed that any deviation from the plan creates a chain reaction of running over and running behind, it’s time to add some breathing room to that schedule.  (There’s an episode of Star Trek – Lower Decks that shows how attempts to be “so efficient” can backfire, drive everyone to the point of breaking down, and leave the ship vulnerable to alien invasion.  Unlikely to happen in our reality, but an amusing perspective on the perils of over-scheduling nonetheless.)

To keep from being overwhelmed by too many items on my list, I break my day into discrete periods of time and then allocate a task to complete within each of these windows.  To begin with, consider three phases of the day (morning, afternoon, and evening) and select one task for each time.  You may think that this is too easy and you’ll never get through your list if you only complete three things a day.  Wait, remember that this is a starting-off point.  And until now you may not have been completing any of the things on your list because you were feeling overwhelmed.  Begin with one task to attend to in the morning.  Then, if you complete it and there’s time to spare, go back to the master list and see if there’s something else you can add in to your morning activities.  Starting with one and adding more is much less intimidating than staring down a list of ten and feeling the pressure to get them all done.

Depending on the structure to your day (that is already in place or that you create for yourself), see where there are natural breaking points for your flow.  My day is usually divided into the following:

  • Morning Family/Home
  • Work (morning)
  • Lunch
  • Work (afternoon)
  • Evening Family/Home
  • Winding down before bed

My planning for the day and its intended activities will follow this outline.  With each block having a defined beginning and end, I know how much time I have available and can pace myself accordingly.

Unsure what to do first.  When there are multiple activities staring you in the face, it can be difficult to know where to begin.  Your mind gets plagued by “what ifs” of all the potential outcomes (correction, all the negative or horribly wrong outcomes) that could occur if the wrong choice is made.

Whether you’re picking items from the master list to add to your daily list or you have your “To Do” list in front of you, a good first step is to check in with your priorities and see what stands out.  The Eisenhower Matrix is a useful tool for helping designate priorities.  It consists of four boxes into which you would assign the tasks: important and urgent; important but not urgent; unimportant and urgent; and unimportant and not urgent.  With this division of tasks, the important and urgent ones would be addressed first, the unimportant and not urgent would be at the bottom of the list, and the important but not urgent and the unimportant but urgent would be left to your own discretion.

Sometimes trying to take on the largest, most important task first can freeze you.  It feels more weighty and consequently intimidating.  Instead, consider the benefit of taking any kind of action.  What are the “low hanging fruit” on your list that are able to get completed easily, quickly, or with minimal effort.  Once you get moving, it might be easier to direct that momentum toward the larger task.

Trying to do all the tasks on your own.  If something is on your list, doesn’t that make it your responsibility by default?  And what if others aren’t as thorough or as attentive to details?  Sometimes a bit of perfectionism can creep in when approaching tasks.

Remember, no person is an island.  It takes a village.  And now I’m thinking about a vacation getaway on a tropical beach…. The point being that not everything on your list needs to be completed by you.  Check and see what can be delegated to someone else.  A college friend encouraged me to see what can be categorized as “OPJ” – Other Person’s Job.  Sometimes allowing others to help can lighten your load, give you the time and energy to attend to activities that are more important or urgent.

Get yourself a notebook and find some time when you can sit down, uninterrupted, and begin writing down the various things that have been floating in your mind.  Then plan to review your list in the morning and the evening.  Use these times as opportunities to assess the master list, identify priorities for the day and reflecting on how your efforts turned out.

And don’t forget to add some fun activities to that list!