Gigster Insights Blog: How to Re-prioritize Your To-Do List when it Overwhelms You

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I usually have a number of to-do lists going for everything from work tasks to phone messages to shopping lists – oh, and then there’s email... What do you do when it all becomes too much? For many people this actually leads to lowered productivity, depression and ultimately inactivity. We’ve all been there so how do we get out of that rut? Sometimes we need a different approach than the one that we’ve been conditioned to take.

Prioritizing the Task List

For anyone who’s ever written a list of tasks, we all know that the next step is to prioritize that list. There are a number of well-known strategies for this. They have fun mnemonic labels like the Three D’s Method: Do Now, Delegate, Delay. Then there’s the famous Eisenhower Method and it’s derivatives. This was discussed in the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People book by Stephen Covey, and is pretty much the standard now. It’s even integrated in most productivity apps. There are many other methods too.

The problem with all these is when you simply have too many tasks (or a really demanding boss) that you just can’t keep up with all of them. That level of prioritization becomes a time-hog. If you barely have the time to write a list in the first place, you’re probably rushing from task to task. Using a complex prioritizing scheme may not be the best approach.

What Happens When We Are Bogged Down

When we lose control over our tasks we scratch and claw our way through the workday not really accomplishing much. By the time we arrive home from work, we are exhausted, we toss some unhealthy package in the microwave, we plop ourselves in front of the TV and we try to decompress. After binge watching Netflix, becoming more depressed from the news, and distracted by advertisements… we finally fall asleep in front of the tube only to wake up the next day to repeat the misery.

The fact that we don’t accomplish anything well actually leads to further inactivity. We fall back on filler activities at work like YouTube, online games, and social media. Unfortunately, we don’t really enjoy them because in the back of our minds we are still feeling like we accomplished so little. Not only are we unproductive, but we become more demoralized and miserable over time, doing even less.

Incorporating the Psychology of Inactivity into the Solution

To deal with this, we need to become aware of the psychology that underlies the inactivity. It’s a self-defeating process, the more we lag behind, the unhappier we become, and the less we do about the issue at hand. Put simply, we cannot get out of the cycle, until we deal with the fact that we aren’t happy about our progress, or lack there-of.

That is done by re-prioritizing the list. Now the easy answer would be to put the fun tasks at the top of the list. Well that would be great if all the tasks were fun, but this is probably not the case. This is especially true if the tasks are being handed down from the company, or worse, a demanding boss who is breathing down our neck.

There is another solution: put the tasks that will take the least amount of time at the top. As we complete these, this re-builds in our minds a sense of accomplishment. Completing tasks, even very short ones like responding to a phone call, help make us feel like we accomplished something. There is nothing more satisfying than looking at a list of tasks that so depressed us the day before and seeing the top items neatly crossed out. This then energizes us to do the rest of the tasks.

Even if we don’t finish all the tasks that day, we have built up positive energy. When we come home after work, we are more energized, we eat better, and we don’t turn on the TV. We might even decide to go to the gym or do a load of laundry. We also sleep better, and we start the next day refreshed.

That sense of accomplishment and the resulting happiness is then also reflected in how we interact with others at work. This then further improves how they interact with us, including that pesky boss, which leads to more positive feelings which then gives you more energy to tackle new tasks. You’ll smile more and everyone will wonder what your secret is.

Conclusion

Now I’m not saying that the other methods of prioritizing tasks aren’t valid - they certainly can be very powerful. However, we will always have new tasks to add to our lists and there will be times when the tasks pile up faster than we can finish them. Those other methods can add complexity and extra work that then only further the inefficiency.

When things get to a point where we feel ourselves slipping into unproductive behaviors, perhaps it is time to consider a different way to prioritize our tasks that also addresses the psychology behind them. I know it sounds deceptively simple, but I’ve found that prioritizing them by how long they take often helps to get me out of a rut and back on track.

If you ever feel yourself slipping into depression because of your to do list is overwhelming you, this method may just help you out too.

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