Overwhelmed by Your To-Do List? How to Decide What to Do Now

Overwhelmed Woman

“It is better to take many small steps in the right direction than to make a great leap forward only to stumble backward.” ~Proverb

I've been mentoring writers for years, and one problem many of them run into is that they have so many ideas and projects that they don't know where to start. They may want to write for big-name magazines, draft a novel, sell a nonfiction book, start a blog, and write an e-book.

Each of these projects has dozens of to-do items associated with it. Where to start? They're so confused that they do nothing at all.

I sometimes have the same problem myself: I've been a freelance health writer since 1997, but recently I've been studying to add certified personal trainer and wellness coach to my repertoire. So my task list is long and varied, from stocking my personal training studio to pitching article ideas to creating motivational handouts for my new clients.

When I think about all I have to do—and everything seems to have equal priority—I can't decide which task to get started on, so I do nothing.

When you're confronted with an arm-length to-do list, ask yourself these questions:

How Much Time Do I Have?

Figure out how much time you have to spend right now, and slot in the item you think you can get done in that time—even if you're working on the project “out of order.”

If you have 10 minutes, use that time to read a chapter in a personal development book, meditate, or read a few blog posts in your industry to keep up with the news. If you have an hour, you can get your exercise in, do prep work for tonight's dinner, write a blog post, or call that friend you've been meaning to catch up with.

How Much Energy Do I Have?

If you're having a low energy day, don't set yourself up for failure by committing to do interval training for an hour, write 2,000 words, and clean out the biggest, messiest closet in your house. Pick one of the tasks from your list that you can do with little get-up-and-go, like shopping for a birthday present online, researching new clients, or cleaning out the junk drawer in the kitchen.

Feeling pumped today? Knock the big items off your internal to-do list: work on a big part of that new project, clean that closet, go out for a run, or redecorate that room.

Energy ebbs and flows, and if you just go with it instead of trying to force yourself to do projects you don't have the energy for, you'll find that your to-do list naturally shrinks.

Can I Create a Small Win?

Say you want to lose weight, and you decide to start doing interval cardio workouts, lifting weights, practicing yoga, and eating better. So here you are on Monday morning and all of these possibilities are bouncing around in your head, screaming for your attention. You don't know where to start, and every possibility seems big and scary.

Here's what you can do: Pick any tiny task that you can easily accomplish to set yourself up for a small win that will boost your motivation and energy and make you want to do even more.

For example, commit to walking outside for five minutes. Chances are, once you finish your five minutes you'll feel so proud that you managed to get yourself out the door—and pumped from the exercise—that you'll want to go further. And if you don't, it doesn't matter, because you met your goal for the day.

Or you could buy a yoga video online (success!), toss all the processed food out of your house (success!), or do 10 push-ups (success!). Every small step counts and these little wins will snowball into some big wins.

What If I Just Pick One Random Task?

I told a friend about my problem with deciding what to do next, and she gave me this advice: Do anything. Just pick one thing—anything—and get started on it.

Now, if you have a deadline or some other urgent project, of course you would do that. But if you're in a position where everything seems equally important, it really doesn't matter what you pick. Just starting on any one task will get you one step closer to your goal. It will also build momentum so that you want to knock more and more tasks off your list.

For example, if you're like a lot of people out there, you have an idea for a book, but writing the proposal seems like too big a task. Should you write the sample chapters, the competitive analysis, your bio? It doesn't matter. Just pick anything from your long list and get moving.

Commit to spending half an hour researching competing titles on Amazon. If you still have energy when you're done, work on your author's bio. Tomorrow you can pick some other random portion of the project.

Of course, these same ideas apply to other projects, if you're not a writer. What matters is that you keep moving forward. Instead of worrying that you're not doing the one perfect task at any moment in time, rest assured that if you're doing anything at all towards your goals, you're ahead of the game.

Overwhelmed woman image via Shutterstock

About Linda Formichelli

Linda Formichelli is the author of the new book How to Do It All: The Revolutionary Plan to Create a Full, Meaningful Life — While Only Occasionally Wanting to Poke Your Eyes Out With a SharpieGo to the book website to learn more, buy your copy, and score an invite to the secret Facebook Group.

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  • Linda, I love this–but don’t forget, if you have an hour, you can ALSO get started on that book. Or write another page of that book. You can do a small piece of the big thing that really matters to you instead of letting the little things take away your every hour. Sometimes, if you wait until you have enough time and energy to start…you never start! 

    And I know you, of all people, would tell people to START.

  • Linda Formichelli

    Thanks, K.J.! Good point. By the way, we just moved to NC…I’m sorry I wasn’t able to see you more than oncer!

  • Joy

    As a creative person, I relate to so much of this post – it’s scary! I often call my brain an idea mill, where ideas run through it on a neural conveyor belt. I get so overwhelmed, I often just sit down and write my ideas out over and over again, trying to organize them in a way that’ll make it easier to get through them. I don’t often have much luck with that writing exercise. I tend to see it all down on paper, get anxiety about it, and decide to read a book instead.

    More recently I’ve been trying a different exercise. After I write down all the ideas in my head (to give them room to breathe and stop crowding up my brainspace), I write a short list of (say 3-5) things I’ve accomplished in the last couple of months. Life always seems too crazy to get anything done, yet (somehow) I had actually done a few things here and there over the summer. Writing them down proves them; I show to myself the evidence of life…just…happening!

    It helps to alleviate some of the anxiety of having too many creative projects. Even if I’m freaking out and feel like I’m not getting anything done, some things actually DO get done. 

    Thanks for this post and your tips for choosing just one thing. And I particularly like that you emphasized how random it can be and how much joy (and productivity) can stem from that!

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  • Linda Formichelli

    That’s a great tactic! I’ve actually heard that this is something you should do every evening…write down what you accomplished that day. It helps you realize that no matter how crazy the day was, you managed to get things done. It’s been very motivating the few times I’ve done it.

  • I love the observation that when you can’t decide which task to do, then it really doesn’t matter which one you pick, so just pick one and go.

    My challenge is to make those little five-and-ten-minute gaps productive. Often, I want to use that time to quiet my mind, instead of filling it with a task. Although sometimes a small win would be great, I find that when I try to make every little moment a productive one, my anxiety levelt goes up, up, up. Anyone else experience this?

    Coincidentally, I just finished a video on this topic–it’s a way to manage the to-do list when it gets overwhelming. I won’t link-spam this comment, but anyone who’s interested can see it at truefruit dot com.

  • Linda Formichelli

    I think that if you manage to make those little gaps productive, you’ll open up larger chunks of time for relaxing (or doing whatever). In the book 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think, the author gives some great advice for using those “lost minutes” that come up during the day to create bigger expanses of time to do what we really want.

  • Anu

    Your post just read my mind today morning, Linda 🙂  Deciding how much time I can allot to get at least one thing done on my to-do-list was the first thing that struck me when I woke up. 

    An excellent reminder of how tiny wins lead to small tasks being completed, making way for striking off a big item on the list.

  • Linda Formichelli

    Thanks, Anu, I’m glad you enjoyed the post! Yes, setting up that one little win can have positive repercussions throughout your whole day.

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  • Hi Linda,
    It is great to get a “win” up early. This feeds the momentum. I am coaching a couple at present who had an amazing(ly long) ‘to do’ list. They had little idea where to start mainly because of it’s length. They invariably chose the easier tasks first.If you must have a ‘to do list’ keep it simple & prioritised toward what’s really important otherwise deflation sets in.
    be good to yourself

  • Linda Formichelli

    Good advice!

  • Anonymous

    I am in the middle of completing my project and reading this post is the best thing that could happen to me…. I could relate my situation with every sentence of this article.
    Never ever gave importance to the energy level and available time.
    It truly is a great eye opener to work on a To Do list rather than being overwhelmed with what to do and what not to do…

    Thanks a ton for this post!


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  • AWESOME POST, and it couldn’t have come at a better time for me!  I am starting the transition from web designer to writer, and this is just after completing the largest web design job of my career, so my backlog of maintenance work for other clients is the largest it’s ever been.  I am literally at the point now where prioritizing has completely gone out the window, because there’s no way to prioritize what I have left to do–all is of equal importance for various reasons. I have created one large checklist of everything that I have to do, checking each thing off based on the time/energy I have at the given moment, and your article has been such a boost for me to plug through the rest of it. Much appreciated! 🙂

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  • Dr, Bob Clarke

    I LOVE THIS POST!  This same thing happens to me more times than I care to admit and you’re advice on just doing something is right on target. One more thing I will add about energy — I find that my energy peaks at the same time each day (for me it’s afternoons and early evenings), so that’s when I go after my high intensity projects. But mornings?  Forget it!  Not gonna happen, so I plan some low intensity projects for that time.