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 founder and creative director at Hero's Journey Content, LLC.

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