There will always be too much to do.
How do you feel when you read that? Fear? Anxiety? Despair? When confronted with the truth that it’s unlikely you’ll ever ‘complete’ everything you believe needs to get done – there’s a tendency to reproach yourself or question your abilities to be effective.
In reality, there is a reason you’ll never reach the end of your to do list, and that’s because we are finite humans living in a world of infinite inputs. As Oliver Burkeman said in his book Four Thousand Weeks, “there’s no meaningful limit to the number of emails you could receive, the number of demands your boss could make, or the number of family obligations you might feel weighing on you, nor the number of exotic locales you might long to visit or creative projects you might wish to pursue. So of course, there’s too much. And beating yourself up for not being able to do it all is like beating yourself up for not being able to jump a mile in the air. These are things that human beings simply can’t do.”
I could spend a long time talking about the pleasure and the pain that comes from surrendering yourself and admitting defeat in the impossible struggle to get everything done (in short: it’s uncomfortable because you will disappoint people and give up certain goals, yet It’s unavoidable and will help you make better decisions about what to neglect – and what to focus on.)
I’ll save the longform of that for another time. Instead, I wanted to offer up a simple reframe around our ‘to do’ lists that I’ve been practicing off the back of Oliver Burkeman’s advice.
Rebrand your ‘to do’ list as a ‘don’t forget’ list.
Here’s how I’ve gone about it:
Make a long list of everything you need or want to get done – call that your ‘don’t forget’ list. This don’t forget list is a now a long menu of possibilities for using limited time.
Look at that list and break it down into daily tasks. For me, that means selecting tasks – big or small – and writing them on post it notes each day which I stick on a ledge next to my computer. These become my much more manageable ‘to dos’. These post its are the only tasks I must get done during that day. Sometimes they might be 20 small admin type tasks, other times they are just one or two things that require some deep work and concentration. I deliberately make sure that the number of tasks on my post its are entirely possible to get done in the time I have available, taking into account time spent on meetings, calls or travelling.
If tasks arise during the day, I add those to my longer ‘don’t forget’ list – safe in the knowledge that I have them noted down and will review them again.
I’ve found that in doing so, I have completely changed my relationship with the impossible infinitely long list and instead allowed myself to focus on what is gloriously possible instead.
It might not work for everyone, but it has been revelatory for me.