How to Get Shit Done When You Have a Huge To Do List

You’ve been there before. You had a list of things that all needed to get done ASAP and you had no idea where to start. So what did you do? You re-wrote the list again trying to separate the must-do’s from the have-to-do’s (those are different, right?). You paced back and forth, counting down the days you have left until the last possible moment the tasks could get done. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Getting overwhelmed by the sheer amount of tasks that need to be accomplished can happen to anyone. When you are planning a wedding, preparing for your first child to arrive, taking on more responsibility at work, or moving into a new house you are going to get frazzled and flustered if you don’t have a system in place to capture and control all of the things you need to do. Life gets a little busy from time to time.

Lately, my life has been a little busy. In the past few months my wife and I planned and had a wedding in another state, I’ve taken on the Assistant Editor position for Think Traffic, I completely redesigned a client’s website, and we are planning the transition from me spending the week in a corporate cubicle in Seattle to traveling the U.S. and the world full-time in the next month or two.

How the heck are we able to do all of this and not freak out daily about all of the things on our plate? I’ll tell you.

Mind Dump

Write everything in your head down on a list and then go take a break. Whenever I am feeling overwhelmed I just grab a piece a paper or use a to-do list manager like tadalist by 37 Signals and write down every single thing that I am thinking about. I don’t do anything else while I am doing this and I give myself at least 15 minutes of uninterrupted time to complete it.

When you are done making this “mega list”, go for a walk, to the gym, or to grab some food. Your mind should be cleared and you will probably think of a few more items to add to the list when you get back to it.

Make Smaller Lists

Take your massive list and break it down into smaller lists that would be manageable in a single day. You can group tasks that go together on the same lists (such as errands, on the computer, etc.), but don’t waste too much time prioritizing.

Each day, just start at the top of the list and don’t jump around the list. Just complete every task in order.

Single Task

When you get done doing work at the end of the day you want to be able to say “I did that” or “I did a little bit on all of those things”? Focus on doing just one task at a time until it is complete or there is no way that you can complete it (i.e. you have to wait to hear back from someone).

A few months back I wrote about why a to do list should be just one task long and I mentioned that you can build a system based around completing one big task everyday to have your most productive month.

Single tasking is the best productivity/efficiency/lifehacking tip there is.

Get Your Email Under Control

Being behind on email and having an inbox that is overflowing certainly doesn’t help you keep your sanity when you are overwhelmed by other responsibilities. Have a system for keeping your email in check. Simplify your email inbox and create capacity for you to spend more time on that list.

Research the Systems Other People Use

I have read many of the recommended resources for building productivity and task management systems. Here are my two favorite books that took pieces from to create the system I use.

Getting Things Done by David Allen

This was the first book I read in regards to productivity and task management. It made me become more aware of how much time I was wasting each day and allowed me to handle the increasing volume of my load at work. I still use a modified version of the system he presents in this book. You can read my review here.

Zen to Done by Leo Babauta

- A minimalist task management productivity system
- Key habits needed to be productive, organized and simplified.
- How to implement these key habits
- How to organize these habits into a simple system
- How to simplify what you need to do.

Do What Works for You

I’ve built a system for processing my tasks and organizing my life that works for specifically for me. I can’t tell you exactly how to do it in your life. As with everything I write here, you will need to try things out and just do what works best for you.


What do you do when you have an insurmountable amount of things you need to get done ASAP?

(image of Jules Verne's workshop via Stuck in Customs)