Too many To-Do Lists: How Does this Happen & What to Do?

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At the end of last year, I reached a point when I just had created too many to do lists. Christmas was coming closer, and I felt overwhelmed because all of my hobbies, administrative tasks and business strategies had turned into a huge confusing pile of “to do”, “should do”, “wanna do… some time… maybe”. So, over the holidays, I decided to look into it and find ways to alleviate this mental burden in the future.

Why do we end up having too many to-do lists? Having too many to do lists results from a combination of several factors: the choice overload that our current society triggers, the lack of focus cultivated by constant distractions, a desire to get a lot of things done at once (or generally in life) and, in some cases, procrastination.

Why do We Have so many To-Do Lists?

Older Generations vs. Newer Generations

When chatting with my grandmother a few weeks ago, we came to discuss all this stress that apparently the newer generations seem to experience.

She was slightly dismissive of the problem. Why is that? My grandmother’s generation in Western Europe suffered true threats under World War II. And after the war ended, they lacked everything. They had to re-build everything, almost from scratch. Now, what can we be stressed about, when we’ve had peace and abundance for over 70 years?

But precisely, and funnily enough, there are all these choices we can make. All these electronic devices are like a door to everything you could possibly desire. You could learn anything by yourself and change your life at any point in time. A hobby, a new career, investment skills to become rich.

Alibaba’s cave is just a few fingertips away (on our phone!).

And it is not only the choice overload that burdens us, it is the responsibility that goes with it.

With power comes great responsibility

If we fail at life (if there is such a thing as failing at life, but most of us are wired to have this fear), we could only blame ourselves. Because we did not make the right choice. Or we did not manage to keep learning this one skill or did not read enough about the latest news.

We have not accepted yet that nobody can absorb it all.

Partly because we are constantly bombarded with stories and examples of people who made it. People who seem to know everything, to do everything. And yet again, it is our responsibility to shut down our highly addictive devices when needed. So that we can stop the flow of input for just a few hours a day.

But do we do it? This new electronic world is still too new and too manipulative and inventive for us to win over it so easily. 

And this is how we end up in cycles. At every peak of the cycle, we feel obliged to write down everything, every single idea we have or should do one day.

Be it an impressive hobby (learn Arabic, dance the Tango, perform an Ironman), a business idea (next Facebook anyone?), all these administrative to do’s that keep piling up (tax declaration, fixing stuff in your home) or even simple nice gestures that you keep postponing due to what seems to be a lack of time (writing back to your friend, sending a postcard or buying someone a gift).

Not enough Time, really?

Before I dive into some solutions to this problem, I would like to address the feeling some of you may have while reading this. “But I genuinely do not have enough time to do all I need to do!” – you might think.

I would argue that this happens to only a very small percentage of the population. And if you feel like it truly applies to you, then profound changes are to be made at your work, at home or in your hectic leisure life.

For instance, you cannot be away every weekend, or plan out every single minute of free time you have in order to see 100 friends in a week, when you are a full-time working single mom. That is unfortunate but you have to get some rest, too.

Another example: is your to do list becoming monstrous but you still have time to watch Netflix for two hours a day? Be honest to yourself, it will help you in the long run. What is to be done against this er-growing mountain of to do lists?

What is to be Done against this ever-growing Mountain of To-Do Lists?

Every To-Do List has ONE Place

A first important step that I have learned to take regularly, is to centralize all of my to do’s for one category in just one single spot.

What do I mean by that?

For my main business project, where I need to have the overview and to manage other people’s to do’s as well as mine, I hold an Excel list.

For my administrative to do’s, I have become a fan of the 5 x 3 inches cards system.

When I feel the urge to write down my “someday to do’s”, such as my wish to do a half-ironman, learn Arabic or create a foundation that helps reduce the wealth gap, I do so in an application for taking notes (in my case, Evernote).

I hold everything that I consider part of my daily routine (e.g. morning meditation and yoga routine, sports, daily Chinese practice) in a habit tracker app called HabitBull.

Every evening I lay out my to do’s for the next day on a small piece of paper.

And, finally, I include to do’s that have an important deadline in my calendar.

Be clear about the different categories of to do’s you usually write down. Separate them and hold just one list for each one of the categories. It will help you declutter as you may start to notice what is more important and what not.

5 x 3 Inches To-Do Lists

This system was a game-changer for me. I feel much lighter since I have started using it a couple of months ago.

The idea here is to write just one of your to do’s down on each 5 x 3 inches card. If it includes small sub-to do’s, it is fine to write them down on the same card too.

I, personally, put a big title in the middle, and then I may add some bullet points when needed to break down the bigger to do.

Why is this helpful?

Because your to do list becomes somewhat like a flexible puzzle.

Every day or every week, you can select among the pieces and decide which to do’s you will give a try.

Why I like this method

In the past, I would always write down all of my administrative tasks as a list on one piece of paper. And because most of the time I do not have the full control over an admin task (e.g. to be able to finish my tax declaration, I need external input), the list would become very messy.

Certain items would be crossed out. Others would have been modified once or twice. Yet other to do’s would have sub-tasks written somewhere near to them.

Re-writing the list constantly also did not feel like a satisfying solution.

But thanks to the 5 x 3 inches card system, I can now decide every day if I can go on with one precise to do or not. Without carrying a humongous admin to do list with me all the time.

It is also much easier to let go of (better said, tear apart) your daily to do list when you know that its core components are still written down on your cards.

The Excel List for Bigger Projects

For mid-complex projects, which include different parties and people for which I want to have a general overview of the tasks to be done, I love holding Excel tables.

There are probably other better systems in place, such as Trello. But for me, so far, the Excel table just did the trick.

Why? Because it allows me to modify quickly and handily, as well as to search for terms or names when needed. Most of the time, I also have a separate tab for my notes, so that all the project is at least somewhat documented.

Note-Taking App (e.g. Evernote)

When it gets dreamier in my head, Evernote is the way to go for me.

Via the notebook structure, I can classify my crazy notes and wild dreams.

When needed, I can search for terms or just create a new trail of thoughts from scratch. I sometimes also draft some strategies or plans.

When they get more “serious” or validated, I have a separate Evernote notebook to write them down. Knowing that I use this application for all this brainstorm helps me stay away from it when I need to get stuff done that is more important or more urgent.

Yet it is a pleasure to let it all burst out in there when I feel like it.

Use a Habit-Tracker App

I used to write down all of my routine steps on my daily to do list. But this was a hassle. Especially when I started to try to introduce new habits.

Another disadvantage was that I was constantly afraid of forgetting part of my routine elements if I did not keep at least one daily to do list around.

So, I decided to enter my habits and wannabe habits into a habit tracker app. I now just mention “routine” on my daily to do list to structure it and this is it.

Keeping this routine list separate and handy also helps me be more consistent, but to add some flexibility.

If one day, my daily routine is not feasible, I do not feel like I have to do it this exact way, since I did not write it all out on my daily list. It feels awkward to say that, but your brain works in subconscious mysterious ways.

If you write down your daily routine for fear of forgetting it, even if you know you cannot make it that day, and your brain feels stuck watching all these not-done to do’s right at the top of the list.

My current morning routine on HabitBull – missing out on a few workouts!

Your Daily To-Do List

In my opinion, from your different categories of to do lists, which you have now separated and classified, you should take out the most important (and sometimes the most urgent) elements to create your to do list for the next day.

I found it best to do this the day before. And make sure to add a reasonable timeframe for each element (you will get better at that with time).

To me, it is important that the daily to do list does not contain unique information. For instance, in the course of the day, you may remember that you have to make your tax declaration soon. Do not write it down on that list, unless you really plan on doing it later that day.

Best is to write it down where it belongs, which for me would be the 5 x 3 inches cards in that case. For very important or urgent tasks, you can add a reminder in the calendar. But be selective, as the idea is not to fill in your calendar with unnecessary reminders. 

Include To-Do’s that Have a relevant Deadline in your Calendar

Your calendar should mostly just have actual appointments.

But what I find useful for some to do’s in order to be able to “let go” is to include a calendar reminder somewhat ahead of the deadline, in order to be sure I do not miss it.

Be honest with yourself and only add tasks that truly have an external deadline. Your personal stuff can wait and will pop up again when the time has come for it.

Say NO and Have Faith

Last but not least, I find it very important to learn to let go of certain ideas or to do’s.

Not everything is important or urgent. When you decide to write down a to do, ask yourself whether it is really necessary for you to write it down.

To do’s such as “run an Ironman in a couple of years” belong to the dreamy category, unless you actually build your plan towards it, in which case you probably do not need to write down this long-term to do anyways.

Try to be mindful. You should realize that the root of having too many to do lists lies in your brain. It is okay to say “no” for now to a lot of projects or desires, in order to hold your life to a manageable set of tasks and feel more relaxed and focused in general.

Learn to have faith in the process. Your brain will often bring the same idea back up in cycles. You do not need to write it down again and again. If it came up 2 or 3 times already, it will pop up by itself when the time has come for it.

If you have been writing down “go run tomorrow morning” for the past three weeks on your daily to do, maybe you should find another way to get this one done. Writing it down does not always provide you with a magical kick to get going.

Most importantly, you should accept that there is only so much you can do in a day. Writing down more stuff on your to do list will not help you get it all done. It will only make you more confused, or even worse, increase your stress levels.

I hope the above advice helps you. Please, also remember to shut down your electronic devices a few hours a day, to manage the input you are receiving and therefore, your to do list’s size.

Related questions:

How do I stop making a list and get a life? Accept that patience is key. Pick one item on your list, and do it. Set a timeframe for it. Then move on to the next one. Meditation will help you change your core beliefs. You do not have to do everything at once!

What do you do when your list is too long? Take off every item that is not really a to do. Set a specific time of the day or the week – preferably in the morning – and tackle the most important or most urgent items. Breathe. Rome was not built in a day. Have faith: it will all work out, one step at a time.


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