When Your To-Do List Gets Out of Hand

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I love lists. I have a few different digital list-making apps on my phone (Wunderlist and Google Keep, for example) but nothing beats a notebook or twelve in which to write down lists of all sorts. I start most days with some sort of to-do list. If I play my cards and make my list right, I can start each day with a new one. Some days, though, yesterdays to-do list becomes today’s to-do list and maybe next week’s or next month’s to-do list, as well.

What has gone wrong when your to-do list gets out of hand? Check out this list for some likely causes.

1. The “ick” factor.

There is an item on your to-do list that you just don’t want to do. Maybe it’s unpleasant or onerous (cleaning the bathroom), or maybe it simply is easy to put off because you just don’t see the value for yourself in getting it done.
While most grown ups can’t really get rid of every single onerous task on their to-do lists, we do have some creative leeway in what we assign ourselves.
If you hate cleaning, can you afford to hire someone to do it for you? Or can you enlist a friend to share the time and duties, so that you can have a little fun and get some tasks done at the same time.
If you are avoiding a work-related task, is it because it’s something you don’t need to be doing in order to do you job? If you have duties that crop up regularly but seem inessential, take a strategic look at how these unpleasant tasks fit into your job and the expectations of your manager or workplace (or department head or chair) and see if there is someone else better suited to the work or whether it’s really essential at all. If you can make a good argument for certain tasks being obsolete, you’ll encourage a culture of people taking responsibility for contributing their best work to the most valuable projects.

2. Time management failure

One of my clients uses sticky notes in her agenda for short- to medium-range tasks. As she moves the task on its sticky note from day to day, she realizes how long she’s been (not) working at it and a pang of guilt sets in. Follow up that pang of guilt by setting aside a time block for dedicated work on that lagging project.

3. Boundary failure

Did Past-you write a check that Today-you has to cash? I hate it when Past-me says in July “oh sure, I’d love to do XYZ in October,” leaving Future-me holding the bag for something that Past-me didn’t want to take care of right then and there. The rule of thumb in protecting yourself from overpromising and overcommitting (which frequently results in under-delivering) is to not say no to a future opportunity or commitment that you wouldn’t want to take on TOMORROW. Why assume that Future-you is going to be any less busy or more excited about the opportunity than you are right now?

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