Take the following steps if you are suffering from a to-do list that refuses to cooperate and threatens to strip away your sanity.
I have 103 items on my to-do list this week. 32 of them are new. 71, I carried over from last week.
I’ve been in this cycle for a while now, carrying over to-do list items from one week to the next, and I can guarantee that this insanely long list will be even longer next week because I won’t have gotten to everything over this period.
My to-do list is unreasonable. I know, and you know, there is no way I can do 103 things (no matter how thinly I slice them) in the 25 hours a week I have available to work.
So what am I going to do?
Well, first I’m going to write about it. (Check!) But then I will take the following steps.
If you, like me, are suffering from a to-do list that refuses to cooperate and threatens to strip away your sanity, I suggest you give them a try, too.
1. Add up your to-do list by time
For each item on your list, make a note of how much time it will take you to complete that item. Add it all up. Is your to-do list asking you to work 70 hours? Can you realistically fit everything on your list into your week? If not, it shouldn’t be on there.
If you struggle with an overflowing to-do list, I recommend that each time you make a list in the next few weeks, you add up the hours. Make sure something is on the list only if you can fit it into the time you have available. (Read this if you want to learn how to I found five additional hours in my work week.)
2. Have a catch-all “neverending to-do list”
This is where you throw everything that needs to be done this week, this month, this year, into a single list. This ensures that you’re not keeping things in your head, and have a place where it all sits. You know it needs to be done at some point and you’ll schedule it when the time is right, but you’re not carrying around the stress of remembering what you need to get done all the time.
I even include personal items on there, and I also acknowledge that this list will always be crammed full of stuff. That’s okay, because it is called the Neverending to-do list, after all. Each Sunday, before the start of your work week, pick the items from that list that need to be done over the next week and then stick to them.
3. Schedule things
Do you always accept the deadlines editors give you, no matter what? You shouldn’t. Deadlines, like everything else, are negotiable, and need to fit into your schedule.
If you’re over-committed for the month of April and the editor gives you a deadline of April 15, tell her you’re fully booked this month and would a May deadline work instead? After all, the editor wants a well-written piece you thought about, not something sloppily thrown together, something that you couldn’t find time to fit into your day.
These days, I schedule one deadline a day, two if I’m feeling especially productive. What I don’t do is cram everything into a single week and then pull three all-nighters in a row. Been there, done that, never again. All that does is make you unproductive going forward into the next week and so, why not balance it out? Of course, that’s easier said than done and I realize how hard it is to push work further away, especially if you need the money, but asking for a longer deadline is any day better than missing an existing one. Or losing your mind in the process.
So remember that and schedule your time effectively.
4. Create actionable tasks
Every item on your to-do list should be something you can actually do. “Blog post” is not an actionable item. “Write first draft of blog post,” is. And while we’re on the subject, learn to divide each project into tasks and smaller goals.
For instance, sticking with the blog post example, I never consider writing and publishing a blog post one actionable item because it isn’t. First, I have to write it. Then, I have to revise it, find images, make it SEO-friendly, add links, and schedule it. I may want to add social media snippets. Finally, once the post is live, I want to share links to my social media. So for each article you see on this website, I actually have three actionable items: write article, post blog article, and promote article.
If I only put “blog post” on my to-do list, it feels like a mountain that I have to conquer, something that will take me three hours to do, and I’m much more likely to put it off. Writing a blog post? I could do that in 30-60 minutes.
This helps me organize each article on my to-do list and helps me make steady progress without making it an unachievable whole. It creates targets that are small enough to do easily without getting intimidated by how long they’ll take.
5. Don’t put items on the list that intimidate you
You’ll never get to them. You’ll resist them. You’ll look at them every day and ignore them. Either break down a task into such minute slices so that it stops being a beast that you have to tackle, or word them differently. “Start new novel” is not a good list item, but “Brainstorm new novel ideas” is.
6. Schedule everything that takes time
Let’s say you’re trying to build a Twitter following (or engage with your existing one) and posting ten times a day for regularity. Well, first, automate it, people! And second, schedule it into your to-do list. It seems counter-intuitive to chalk Twitter into your work time, but if you’re using it for work and it’s important enough for you to spend your working hours on, then it needs to go on the list. I’d say the same for other forms of networking and marketing. Anything that happens in your work hours needs to go on the list.
7. Be aware of the work week you’re creating
For a long time, I used my to-do list as a catch-all, throwing everything I “needed to get done” on there, but I’m more thoughtful about it now. What do I feel in the mood for this week? If my deadlines permit it, would I rather work on a new course or send out some pitches? Make a mental note of which projects you continue to schedule week after week that you keep pushing back. This will also give you an idea of where your interests and passions lie.
8. Mark items that are top priority
Not too many, but say, the deadline for the article that’s due this Friday. That sort of thing. You don’t have to do them first thing Monday morning, but flag them up so you know not to miss them. (Read this post for the seven habits of highly productive writers.)
9. Mix it up
Include tasks that will take you half an hour or twenty minutes, but also ones that will take five or two. On my list are tasks such as “write essay,” but also smaller and easier ones, such as “E-mail V to say thanks.” If I’m struggling one day and need to do something quick that I can cross off my list (and I looove crossing things off my list), a simple task like that can give me a mental boost.
10. Use random.org
There will be days when you sit and stare at your list, thinking you should do something but not being able to decide which task to pick (they all sound horrible). I use random.org for situations like this. I have a numbered list, so I basically plug in the number of items on my list into random.org and let it spit out a random number. That’s the thing I need to do first. (If it’s already crossed off, random.org gets to pick again.)
Natasha Khullar Relph
Founder and Editor, The Wordling
Natasha Khullar Relph is an award-winning journalist and author with bylines in The New York Times, TIME CNN, BBC, ABC News, Ms. Marie Claire, Vogue, and more. She is the founder of The Wordling, a weekly business newsletter for journalists, authors, and content creators. Natasha has mentored over 1,000 writers, helping them break into dream publications and build six-figure careers. She is the author of Shut Up and Write: The No-Nonsense, No B.S. Guide to Getting Words on the Page and several other books.
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