the never ending to do list

The Never Ending to do list:

I common theme I hear, when coaching clients and running workshops, is around a never ending to do list.

The to do list is a funny thing.  For some it’s a must and they can’t get by without it.  Others cringe at the thought of it.  Some know it would help with their organisation and efficiency but just can’t get into the swing of it.  For many though, the to-do-list can be a massive source of overwhelm.  No matter how hard you try, it never ends.  No sooner do you tick something off and three things get added.

To help you with managing yours, and feeling less overwhelm, here a few tips and strategies that I have seen work with clients that might help you take back control of yours.

Before you read through the list, please remember, when it comes to time management and organisation I don’t believe there is a one size fits all.  Some like technology, others (like myself) are a bit old school and like paper.  Some people find the need to put everything on there, others only their key priorities.

Having a to do list works

One thing I will say is, they work.  Not having a to-do-list is like going into the supermarket without a shopping list.  You come out with only half the things you intended to buy and a whole lot of things that you didn’t need.

If you don’t have a to do-list it’s too easy to forget what you need to do. Next thing you know, you find yourself awake in the middle of the night.  You feel stressed because you forgot something and unable to get back to sleep worried that you’ll forget it again tomorrow.

So, what can you do to make your never ending to-do-list seem less overwhelming?

Work out what works for you

The first thing to is to find a list style that suits you.  That way you are more likely to stick with it.  If you still carry a notepad around with you everywhere, perhaps paper list will work best.  If you do everything on your phone, an app may be the best approach.

It’s OK to try different styles.  I’ve tried, apps, electronic notebooks, tasks in outlook, excel, paper.  You name it, I’ve tried it.  I swear by a to-do-list, however, I’ve found if I try it electronically, it just doesn’t work for me, as much as I want it to. It’s just not my style.   The old school notebook and pen that I take with me every where works for me.

So, if you try something and it doesn’t work, don’t give up.  It just may not be the right type of to-do-list for you.


Prioritising your to-do-list is ‘list management 101’.  When you have a million things on your to-do-list, it can seem overwhelming and feel like ‘everything needs to be done now’.  And, while it feels like that, not everything does need to be done now.

One of the most effective to prioritise, is to prioritise using the important/urgent matrix.

important urgent matrix

Read more about the important/urgent matrix here

Look at all of the tasks on your list and prioritise them based on the four quadrants.  Assess each task:

Is it important and urgent?  Prioritise it as it needs to be done now.

Is it important and not urgent?  Schedule time to work on it before it becomes urgent.

Is it not important but urgent?  Assess whether you actually need to do it or whether it can be delayed or delegated to someone else.  Learn the skill of saying ‘no’ so you aren’t taking on other people’s priorities instead of working on yours.

Is it not important and also not urgent? Remove it from your list, delay it, delegate it.  Effectively, just stop doing it!.

Using this process when prioritising tasks may help you use your time more wisely and will ensure that important tasks are not missed.

Schedule planning time

When you are already busy, the thought of putting aside time to do yet another thing, such as planning, can be overwhelming.  Planning is a quadrant two task. It is important, but not urgent, which means it doesn’t always get done.

Planning need not take a long time.  Spending a small amount of time at the end of the week, to plan your coming week, is time well spent.

List all the things you need to do in the coming week.  Schedule based on deadlines.  Be sure to schedule time for the important/not urgent tasks.  If you make time to work on these before they become urgent, things will seem less frantic.

At the end of each day, review your weekly plan and prioritise what’s important for the next day.

Work on you highest priority items first thing so you don’t get caught up or distracted by other less important tasks.

Plan weekly and review daily.  It allows you to be flexible and move things around as needed.  Planning a week ahead assists with removing the overwhelm of ‘everything needs to be done today’.

Be ruthless

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking you have to do everything, including tasks that are not important to you.

If something falls into a ‘not important’ quadrant you need to decide if you are the person to do it.  Is it a task that could be delegate? Does it actually need to be done? What’s the worse thing that will happen if you just delete it from your to-do list?  Finally, if it’s not important but something you want or need to do, delay it to a time that suits.

Always ensure tasks have deadlines assigned, whether they are self-imposed tasks or tasks that have been assigned to you by someone else.

Be ruthless with your prioritising.  Don’t open email in the morning until you have completed your highest priority item.  Don’t respond to every email as it comes in.  Instead, switch off your notifications and only look at emails at assigned times throughout the day.  Focus on the task at hand  Don’t multi-tasking by reading and responding to emails when you are working on something else.

Learn to say no.  This tiny word can be one of the hardest to say, but, every time you say yes to something, you are putting more strain on your time.  If you find it hard to say no, some of the tips covered here might help:  Want to get more done, learn how to say no. 

Final points to remember

Although a never-ending to-do-list can seem overwhelming, there are ways to manage it.

Take the time to prioritise your tasks so you are working on the important items.  Be ruthless with any unimportant tasks that fall into quadrant three or four.  Delegate (or outsource) them, delay them or dump them all together.

Speak up if you feel overwhelmed or feel like you are drowning.  You don’t have to do it all and it doesn’t all have to be done right now.  Ask for time frames and deadlines and ask for help.  Also, remind yourself that it’s OK to say no.

Re-frame how you view your to-do-list.  Look at it as a sign of someone who gets a lot done, rather than a never-ending list of tasks you find a chore.

Finally, remember time is one of your most precious resources. Once it’s gone you never get it back. So, prioritise, plan, be ruthless and let you to-do-list be a tool that helps you use your precious effectively.

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