‘Strengthen the habit of completing things as soon as you turn to them.’ Illustration: Michele Marconi/The Guardian
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Overwhelmed? Here’s how to stop your to-do list going stale

Focusing on a few tasks until they’re finished is the best tactic


One of the less obvious problems with having too much to do – besides the main one of, you know, having too much to do – is the phenomenon you might call “task staleness”. There’s something you need to get done: an email that needs sending, say, or an event that needs planning. So you make a note, either mentally or wherever you record your to-dos. Then you fail to do it. And fail to do it. And fail to do it some more – until eventually it’s been hanging around so long that you really don’t want to do it, because it’s old and stale and therefore profoundly unappetising. Sometimes, admittedly, this kind of procrastination is a sign that it never needed doing to begin with. But often it isn’t. And then you’re in the ironic pickle of hating the thought of precisely those tasks that, because you’ve neglected them so long, are now the most urgent.

As the Silicon Valley investor Daniel Gross pointed out on his blog in January, in a post titled Improvisational Productivity, part of the problem here is that thinking about working on a given task is in fact a form of working on it, and a relatively easy and enjoyable one at that. So returning to it repeatedly in your mind naturally reduces its novelty, and therefore its appeal. “It’s like chewing on a fresh piece of gum, immediately sticking it somewhere, then trying to convince yourself to rehydrate the dry, bland chewed-up gum,” Gross wrote.

One thing I’ve mentally rehearsed, usually pointlessly, is what I’m going to say when I finally phone the bank, and it’s vastly more tedious to have to actually say it. And the effect is arguably more pronounced for tasks that start off exciting – creative projects and the like – because they’re more fun to think about, and the humdrum aspects of carrying them out are more disappointing.

One antidote for task staleness is to use an organisational system which stores all your to-dos out of sight and out of mind, other than a tiny handful that you’re working on right now. (The “personal kanban” , which I’ve mentioned here before, is one example.)

If this approach makes you anxious that you might be neglecting something important, don’t worry: you definitely are. That’s what it means to be overwhelmed, after all – and focusing on a few tasks until they’re finished is the best way to reduce that feeling of being overwhelmed over the long term.

Another way, Gross points out, is to strengthen the habit of completing things as soon as you turn to them, wherever that makes sense, and to resist over-planning. “I try to respond to emails the moment I open them,” he says. “I write down a few bullets of what I need out of a meeting, and then refuse to think about it until the actual event.”

To be clear, this doesn’t mean responding to emails, or other demands on your time, as soon as they arrive; that way lies a life of enslavement to digital notifications, random interruptions, and other people’s agendas. The point is to abandon that practice of scrolling through your inbox, dipping in and out of messages, waiting until you feel an urge to reply to one. Instead, just reply (or delete or archive, if you won’t be replying). That message isn’t going to taste any more delicious tomorrow.

Read this

In their book Personal Kanban, Jim Benson and Tonianne DeMaria Barry explain the surprisingly powerful strategy of limiting your work to a few tasks at a time.