A ‘To Do’ list for the occasionally overwhelmed
Sooner or later we all feel it: Overwhelmed. Life and work combine in unanticipated ways to crush us under the weight of everything we need to do. Our ‘To Do’ lists become undifferentiated laundry lists of Needful Things, and just looking at them provokes anxiety and despair. Where do you even start?
I’ve found a way through these temporary crises of “too much” and it’s simple enough to share. You don’t need any new tools, just pen and paper and maybe a ruler.
Getting set up
First, look at your ‘To Do’ list — do you have space to add four narrow columns either right or left of your task list? If not you’ll need to rewrite your list. Sorry, but on the bright side that’s probably as challenging as this exercise gets!
Now draw in 4 narrow columns:
- The first is “Ability”
- The second is “Motivation”
- The third is “Impact”
Leave the 4th blank for now.
Okay, you’re ready to start! Begin by filling in the Ability column. For each task answer this question: “How capable am I of completing this task right now?” Give it a ↑ if you’re fully capable here and now. You have the skills and resources you need, and you’re not dependent on something else or someone else to do it. Give it a ↓ if you’re blocked for some reason. If you’re in an in-between state give it a — . (An example of that might be if it’s a task that happens only on Mondays and it’s currently Friday.) Fill in the Ability column for each of your tasks with a ↑, ↓, or — .
Now do the same for the Motivation column. Here you’re answering the question: “How much do I want to do this task?” In this case ↑ means you’ feel motivated to tackle it, ↓ means you really don’t want to do it, and — means you’re neutral to the task.
Ready for “Impact?” This is a big one. Go through each of your tasks and give each a ↑, ↓, or — in answer to this: “How much will doing this benefit me or my team?” In this case ↑ means it’s a task with a lot of tangible benefit, ↓ means you don’t see much benefit from doing it, and — means it’s middling OR that you’re not sure.
Now it’s time to score.
Go through your list looking for any tasks that have three ↑ symbols. Put a star (★) in that last empty column.
Anything with a star is a top priority. If you’re looking for where to start today, these tasks are a great place. You’re motivated to do them, you have everything you need to do them, and they’re high impact. Start there.
What if that’s still too many?
When I ran through this excercise with one of my own ‘To Do’ lists this week, this immediately narrowed my starting point from 15 potential tasks to two. I’m a big believer in working towards no more than 3 key tasks at any moment. If you find yourself with more than that there’s another step you can take to winnow your tasks down to something achievable.
Go through each of your starred tasks:
- If the task is low effort and easy to knock off, add two stars.
- If the task is moderate effort, add one star.
- If it’s high effort, leave it alone.
Now you have a prioritized list of top tasks. Three-star tasks are a great place to start. You can probably knock them off your list quickly, which will give you some momentum to carry into higher effort tasks. Move on to your two-star tasks next, then your one-star items.
Personally I only work through this sequence when my ‘To Do’ list unexpectedly transforms into a ‘To Doom’ list — something really long and overwhelming. The rest of the time my “Top 3” emerges naturally from the week’s task list.
And one last thought — this prioritization exercise is something that works at a larger scale too. I’ve used the same assessment criteria to evaluate which projects I or my team should tackle first. I’ve used them in research intakes to help stakeholders work through their research needs.
If you give it a try I’d love to hear how it works for you, or if you’ve found a variation of your own that does the trick.