Too Much from the To-Do List

To-do list

You know how you can have too much of a good thing? Too much coffee. Too much vacation. Too much exercise. Too much focus. Too much chocolate. Too much sleep. Too much relaxation. These are all good things in moderation, but too much is…well…too much. The good thing turns bad. Too much coffee gives you GI issues and kidney stones. Too much vacation produces restlessness. Too much exercise results in injury. And so on. Recently, I experienced how too much success with my task management strategy has created frustration and anxiety over my commitments.

In January, I wrote about my struggles with task management. I’ve tried several strategies over the years, both paper-based and using technology. Given that I’m a rather organized person, I’ve been frustrated that I had not been able to master a technique for keeping track of my task responsibilities.

Part of my frustration was feeling that I was alone. Yet even a casual observation of people’s workspaces will help you see what I saw: that most people still depend on an un-strategic mess of Post-Its, paper checklists, and misuse of their email inbox. So I put that to rest.

I’m not the only leader who struggles to effectively managing their to-do list.

The other part of my frustration was that I was going about personal behavior change (a new task management strategy) all wrong. I won’t spoil the story for you. Go read my other article on this issue. The bottom line, though, is that I’ve been effectively and even happily using Todoist for two months now. (I think my previous record was something like one week.)

That bring us up to today.

I use Todoist on my smartphone, with a Web browser at my full time gig, and the Todoist app on my MacBook Pro. (By the way, I highly recommend Tim Challies‘ strategy for setting up Todoist, or any other task manager. It’s much more intuitive and flexible than other strategies.) Since the beginning of the year, I’ve completed hundreds of tasks, and at any given moment I have dozens of tasks in my queue.

It’s been amazing how this has all reduced my stress and anxiety. No longer do I wake up in the middle of the night and say, “Shoot! I forgot to…!” Nor do I have to apologize to people for failing to follow through on a commitment (as often as I used to). And I don’t have the anxiety associated with figuring out how I should spend my time when I don’t have a good grasp on all I’m supposed to be doing.

However, there can be too much of a good thing.

Now that I have an easy-to-use (even fun!) and effective strategy for managing tasks, I know with certainty that I have too many tasks to manage.

I can’t get it all done. To be honest, I’ve never been able to get it all done. In the past, though, I thought it was because I didn’t have a good strategy for managing tasks.

Now I do. No excuses.

I’ve just got too much to do. I can’t have integrity in honoring my commitments in all these areas of life. Something has to change.

Now I need to circle back to another recent post about the need for “pruning” in life. I wrote about Henry Cloud’s book Necessary Endings, in which he advocates pruning three types of responsibilities:

  1. Those that are healthy, but not the best.
  2. Those that are sick and not going to get well.
  3. Those that are dead and taking up space from healthy and vibrant responsibilities.

What I’m learning is that I need to apply this thinking to my to-do list.

Tasks that are healthy but not the best

I read a lot of blogs. Or, rather, they are on my newsreader and I take lots of time to scan headlines. I can cut back on that task! The same goes for my reading list. I have a large stack of books to read. Many of them are not worth my time. What’s on your list that is healthy and good, but not the best? Volunteering somewhere? Special interest clubs at work? A mentoring relationship that isn’t progressing? Prune these tasks.

Tasks that are sick and not going to get well

Back to mentoring, have you ever engaged in a mentoring project that was actually a long-term rescue effort? It’s not going to work. Prune this task. There are some responsibilities we take on in an effort to make them better. It’s good to put some effort into these opportunities. Good might come of it. If fruit isn’t realized soon, if progress isn’t made, this may be something that is sick and won’t get well. Prune it.

Tasks that are dead and taking up space from healthy and vibrant responsibilities

In some ways these are the hardest tasks to identify and prune because we’ve already created a cognitive crutch of self-deception that reinforces the need to keep on with the task. In other words, you’ve so effectively convinced yourself that this is a worthy thing to do that you no longer see how dead it is. I see this all the time when coaching others. It looks like this: There is something you commit a lot of time and/or money to, and the most evident result is stress and frustration. Prune this responsibility.

Do you know any leaders without too much to do? I can’t think of any either. It’s quite likely that your responsibility task list has you committed at 120%, 130%, or more. What you need to do is prune your responsibilities until you are committed in the 90-100% range. Less than 100%? Yes. Most emphatically yes. You need margin.

Margin is a good thing. I suspect you don’t have too much of that.

Dr. Scott Yorkovich is a leadership coach and consultant. He works with individuals, small and medium organizations, and ministries. Contact him at ScottYorkovich[at] with your questions.


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