What Most People Don’t Realize About To-Do Listing

This week, a client from my new Life & Leadership Coaching Cohort shared the following:

Last week at work was hectic and overwhelming.

I was in a meeting with my supervisor, she gave me a few more simple tasks to do each week, and I broke down into a mini-rant that basically boiled down to “I can’t handle this!

Those small tasks feel like more piled onto the giant mound of work that I can’t keep up with!

Today’s love letter is my response to my client.

My first thought is this:

I’m sorry this situation is so overwhelming.

It’s not your fault that you keep being asked to do more and more than is probably possible in your forty hours at work.

And yet, if we wish to overcome overwhelm, we must take responsibility for discerning what we will say yes to and what we will say no to.

(I know no other way.)

When we find ourselves saying, “I cannot handle so much work!” we’re often right.

We’re trying to accomplish far more than is possible, given the time we have.

And so, we must learn to know our no.

Here’s the simple equation of time management:

What you do must equal how much time you have.

That equation is theoretically easy to understand. You can’t stuff more apples into a barrel than fit in the barrel. If you try, you’ll have apples all over the ground.

What is far more challenging is choosing what to do in the time we have.

We need (at least) two types of information to make well-informed choices about what to do with our time:

  1. What our existing tasks are.
  2. How much time our tasks take.

Of course, it is impossible to predict with certainty how long tasks will take.

But it is possible to become good enough at estimating to make well-informed decisions about what to say yes and no to.

I’ve found two practices to be profoundly (and surprisingly!) helpful for gathering this information:

  1. To-Do Listing: Cultivating a practice of writing all our pending tasks down in a to-do list—broken up into bite-sized chunks (a couple of minutes or hours long).
  2. Time Tracking: Estimating how long each task will take, then tracking what you do with your time and how long tasks actually take.

Whereas it is important to engage with to-do listing consistently (writing pending tasks down throughout the day and stepping back to review the list at weekly and monthly intervals), you might only need to engage with time tracking once for a couple of weeks.

After only a couple of weeks, most of my clients have far more awareness about how long their tasks take and are ready to be less diligent with the practice.

There are many time-tracking apps out there that I’m sure work sufficiently well. I use an app called Harvest.

But what if you make a list and you feel even more overwhelmed?

(After writing her list, my client wrote:

I took time on Friday to break down my projects into to-do lists. It took a long time and lots of effort and felt overwhelming.)

A lot of people have this experience after doing an initial brain dump.

I want to celebrate you for taking the time to sit with your projects and look at all the steps. I know how much time and effort this took.

It’s also not surprising to me that you felt overwhelmed.

Granted, to-do lists and time tracking are not panacea.

So many factors often contribute to our overwhelm when we’re overwhelmed at work. And these practices, unfortunately, don’t address all of the factors.

Occasionally, these practices even make us feel more overwhelmed. At first.

That’s because, rather than controlling or managing time, the primary purpose of to-do listing and time tracking is:

Cultivating awareness.

Awareness of time. Awareness of our actions, our needs, our priorities.

And just like when we bring awareness to a part of ourselves that is hurting, sometimes, when we bring awareness to all the tasks on our plate, we feel more pain before we start to feel better.

Devoting time to setting up and engaging with these awareness tools can feel overwhelming when you’re already overwhelmed, and your plate is already way more than full.

I wish it weren’t so.

But without the information we gather from these practices, it’s tough to make well-informed decisions. Without the information these practices help us gather, It’s hard to know when to say yes or no to our supervisors and ourselves, especially not from a grounded, aware place.

The good news is that the more we become aware of what’s on our plate and how long things take, the better decisions we make.

The more awareness we have, the more we can see the big picture, tend to the details, ask for the help we need, say no to what’s just not possible, and feel a sense of inner peace (at least, a lot of the time).

With this information, it becomes easier to get grounded and say to your supervisor, comrades, partner(s), friends, and especially, yourself: 

“Here’s what I’ve got on my plate and how much time it takes. If I take this on, I’ll need to let something else go. I can’t do more in the time I have.”

Besides, cultivating this awareness makes us better supervisors. Many managers assign too much or occasionally too little because they lack awareness of what’s on their staff’s (or their own) plates and how long tasks take. We need this awareness to delegate well.

In February, I’ll be teaching a course called Scheduling Boundaries.

If you want to learn more about how to get clear on your no’s and dedicate more time to your yes’s, I highly recommend joining us! Stay tuned for more information.

And if you have any questions about these teachings before then, I welcome you to share them with me.

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