It seems like there is always too much to do.
That urgent project at work. Your doctor telling you to take up yoga. The 64 unanswered emails in your inbox. Your family demanding more attention.
The longer this goes on, the more you lose agency. You are not in control of your life anymore — it controls you.
There are two things you need to do to get out of this fix.
First, you need to come up with a strategy to get a handle on your current to-do list. We will call this the Emergency Plan. It consists of 15 steps.
Second, you need to analyze how you ended up in this situation in the first place, so it won’t happen again. We will call this the Mindset Shift. It consists of six steps.
Let’s explore these two strategies in detail.
- The 15 Steps of the Emergency Plan
- 1. Stop Taking on More Work
- 2. Cut Out the Digital Noise
- 3. Do a Brain Dump
- 4. Categorize Your Items
- 5. Renegotiate Your Calendar
- 6. Unburden Yourself
- 7. Practice the 2-Minute Rule
- 8. Delegate
- 9. Eliminate
- 10. Define the Next Action
- 11. Make a Daily Plan
- 12. Plan for a Buffer
- 13. Differentiate Between Urgent & Important
- 14. Review Your Lists
- 15. Recharge Yourself
- The Mindset Shift
Note: Much of the following is inspired by the GTD system of David Allen.
The 15 Steps of the Emergency Plan
The Emergency Plan consists of 15 action steps that build on each other. For it to work, it’s important that you don’t skip any steps.
1. Stop Taking on More Work
It’s a paradox — people who are swamped with work will still say “Yes” to new projects, just because someone asked nicely.
This must stop now. From this moment on, you won’t take on any new work.
Understand: You must stop digging yourself into a hole.
For that, you will have to disappoint the expectations of other people. That can be difficult.
But ask yourself, what is more important: their wishes? Or your mental health?
2. Cut Out the Digital Noise
This will free up mental bandwidth to handle your heavier-than-usual workload.
3. Do a Brain Dump
Think of your brain as the RAM memory on your computer. If your internal memory is handling too many requests, your system will crash.
Therefore, it is imperative to write everything that’s on your mind down in one central place. I like to use my Evernote inbox for that.
Include everything here, no matter how minuscule. If a thought like, “Do I still have shower gel?” keeps popping up in your head, it goes on the list.
This alone will significantly reduce the anxiety you experience when you have too much to do.
4. Categorize Your Items
As good as it feels — it’s not enough to write everything down.
Because what you get is an amorphous list of to-dos, appointments, ideas, questions, etc.
To remedy that, we need to look at each item on your inbox list and move it to one of five different sublists:
- Calendar — things you have to do on a certain day, at a certain time, i.e., doctor appointments or meetings
- Habits list — things you should be doing every day, like stretching for 10 minutes
- Actionable list — things you should do as soon as you have time, like submitting a proposal for a new client
- Upcoming list — things you’ll have to do in the future, but not now, like taking your car to the garage for the annual check-up
- Optional list — things you might or might not do one day in the future, like learning to surf
Let’s look at the first five items of an exemplary inbox list:
- Dentist’s appointment next Wednesday
- Walk an hour every day
- Prepare presentation for upcoming meeting
- Evaluate new sales strategy 6 months from now
- Learn Russian
Now, let’s sort these items into the correct sublists. I like to use my Google Calendar for all calendar items. For the remaining four lists, I will use four different tabs within the same Google sheet.
Your dentist appointment goes on your calendar. It’s immovable — this has to happen on a certain day, at a certain time.
“Walk an hour every day” goes onto your habit list. It is something you do daily, to accumulate (health) benefits.
“Prepare presentation for upcoming meeting” goes on the actionable list. It is a one-time project that you must do as soon as you have time.
What about “Evaluate new sales strategy in 6 months from now?” You cannot do it now, so it’s not an actionable item. It doesn’t have to happen on a certain day, so it’s not a calendar item. Hence, put it on the upcoming list.
“Learn Russian” is a candidate for the optional list. It’s something you might do someday (or not), but there is no urgency to it.
5. Renegotiate Your Calendar
Often, there are some things you already said “Yes” to, that you shouldn’t have.
Now it’s time to undo that.
Cancel whatever appointment that you can. That conference you were supposed to speak at. That party you promised to attend. The family dinner next Sunday.
You will have to step on some toes to get this done. But that is the price to pay when you have too much to do.
For those items that you can absolutely not cancel, you must try to reschedule to gain further breathing room.
6. Unburden Yourself
Let’s now turn to your actionable list.
You now have a coherent action list in front of you. But it is still way too long.
Therefore, we need to radically reduce it.
There are three ways to do that:
- Practice the 2-minute rule
7. Practice the 2-Minute Rule
If an item on your actionable list takes 2 minutes or less to complete, get it out of the way now.
It will shorten your to-do list, without distracting yourself too much from your actual mission, i.e., organizing yourself. The trade-off is worth it.
Next, look at what you can delegate. Do you really need to clean your apartment yourself? No? Get a cleaning person. Do you really need to learn how to create your own website? No? Get a web designer.
Delegate anything you can to shorten your actionable list.
Now look at the remaining items, those things you can’t solve quickly or delegate.
Cut all the tasks that can possibly be cut.
But how do you make that call?
By applying these two criteria:
1. Keep the items that relate to your survival
2. Keep the items that relate to your number one goal in life
Everything else is cut or is at least moved to your optional list for now.
About 1: You need to eat. You need to pay your bills. You need to stay somewhat healthy. Actions related to these essentials are non-negotiable.
But be sure to not fool yourself. Working out for 20 minutes three times a week at home is fine. Spending two hours in the gym each day is overkill.
About 2: The challenge here is to identify your priority in life. If you struggle, go with the goal that seems the most desirable at the moment. If your hypothesis was wrong, you can still change course later.
10. Define the Next Action
Even now, your actionable list will still feel overwhelming.
That’s because you haven’t defined the next action for each item yet.
“Buy a present for my brother’s birthday” sounds actionable enough. But what is the next thing you really must do?
- Call his girlfriend to ask her what he would like?
- Contact his friends to chip in for a group present?
- Just take the car to Best Buy and get him those headphones he has been talking about?
Almost every actionable item will require you to make that decision.
But once you decide on the next action for every item, clarity will ensue.
For many of your actionable items, you will have additional ideas for the completion of the project, besides the next action. I like to note these ideas down in Evernote, by saving them in a separate project file.
Congrats — you now have a manageable list with well-defined next actions in front of you.
11. Make a Daily Plan
We will now create a daily time-blocking plan, our final list. This will be your seventh list in total. I like to use a new Evernote note for that.
Here is how you go about it:
- First thing in the morning, you sit down and come up with a plan for the day. It is important that during these 10 to 15 minutes, there is no outside stressors. This way, you will make better decisions.
- Now open your calendar and all your previous lists in Google Sheets.
- The first list you will check is your calendar. What appointments/meetings do you have today? Copy and paste them into your daily plan with the corresponding times.
- Next, go to your habits list. Copy and paste all your daily habits into your daily plan, below your appointments.
- Now check out your upcoming list. Is there anything on there that has become current? If so, move that item to your actionable list.
- Next, look at your actionable list. Pick a few tasks (not too many) that you can realistically take care of today, considering your appointments and your habits already on your daily plan. Copy and paste these items at the bottom of your list.
- Now order all of your items chronologically for the day. Plan around your calendar items, since these are immovable. Decide what you will do first after this planning session, then next after that, and so on.
- Use time blocking. That means every item on your daily plan gets an allotted time slot in which it has to get done. For example, if one of my items is “Prepare my upcoming tax return,” I might give that the slot from 6 to 8 pm.
There are two major benefits of creating a daily plan.
First, your too-much-to-do anxiety will fade away. You have essentially made an agreement with yourself on what will get done today. Anything else will have to wait until tomorrow. There’s no point in worrying about it.
Now there is peace of mind.
Second, you are less likely to choose busy work over important work. When you sit down first thing in the morning, you can really weigh up your options. Only the truly urgent and important go onto your list. No more random choices made in the moment.
Now there is a true sense of priority.
Our highest priority is to protect our ability to prioritize.Greg McKeown
12. Plan for a Buffer
We all underestimate the time it takes to complete a task.
Therefore, account for a 50 percent buffer for every task you put on your daily time-blocking list. If you think writing a proposal should take two hours, plan for three hours.
More often than not, this extension will turn out to be the exact time interval you needed to get this task done.
13. Differentiate Between Urgent & Important
When you are creating your daily plan and considering your actionable list, it is important to differentiate between urgent and important items.
Urgent things should have a deadline attached to them.
Important things relate to your number one goal in life.
It can happen that one item is both urgent and important. But that is rare. Most of the time, urgent items relate to the necessities in your life, like job or relationship agreements. And usually, there is an outside entity enforcing this task, like your boss, your customer, your parents, your partner, etc.
In contrast, important items usually come without a deadline. There is no external entity enforcing them, only your internal drive to make them happen. That is exactly the reason why important items usually lose out to urgent items. There is no outside pressure.
When you are aware of that problem, you can consciously choose to include at least some important tasks during your daily planning session, to counterbalance the urgent tasks.
This way, you don’t wake up 30 years from now wondering what happened to all of your dreams.
14. Review Your Lists
For this system to permanently relieve you from stress, you need to keep it updated. If the items on your lists don’t represent what is going on in your life, the anxiety will return.
Let’s remember that this system contains seven lists in total:
- Inbox list — where everything goes initially before it gets processed.
- Calendar — for appointments/meetings.
- Habits list — all the things you want to do daily.
- Actionable list — for the things that you should be doing as soon as possible.
- Upcoming list — for things that will become relevant in the future.
- Optional list — for things that you might do one day, but not now.
- Daily list — for the urgent/important things in your life that you have chosen to tackle today. I use an empty Evernote note for that.
Not all of these lists require the same level of attention to stay up to date. Here is how to review them.
Process your inbox list daily. It’s not a nice feeling when it builds up too much. Also, you might overlook urgent items on there, if they don’t get processed soon.
Check your optional list once a week. If there is anything on there that you want to accomplish soon, move it to the actionable items list. The rest of the time, you don’t need to pay much attention to this list.
All your other lists — calendar, habits, actionable, daily — you should check on a daily basis as part of your morning planning session.
But it’s still a good idea to review those too, to think about them on a fundamental level. “Do these items really represent my life?” I do that every couple of weeks when I feel there is some discrepancy creeping in.
15. Recharge Yourself
Even with this Emergency Plan — when you have too much to do, you will occasionally feel stressed out.
That’s dangerous. Not only does it make you less productive. It can also contribute to serious illnesses like mental health problems or even cancer.
So you must find ways to get yourself back to zero again.
Assuming that you spend most of your time in front of a screen, my best advice is to do something without a screen:
- Take a walk
- Take a nap
- Do a quick stretching/mobility session
- Talk to a friend
- Masturbate (without watching porn) / have sex
- Take a shower
- Read a book
- Learn to meditate
Learning to strategically recharge yourself is vital. Take it seriously. You cannot function when you are out of steam.
The Mindset Shift
Having an emergency plan is not enough. It won’t solve the root problem of why you have too much to do.
This is where what I call “The Mindset Shift” comes in. We need to become aware of certain fallacies in our thinking about time management.
Let’s look at the six most important axioms in that regard.
1. You Don’t Have Too Much To Do
The first truth is, nobody ever has too much to do.
We only feel like we have too much to do when we fail at prioritizing.
Too much to do = I want too much.
Granted, almost anybody alive is making that mistake. People get married, have kids, get multiple jobs, buy houses and cars, take up several hobbies, have an affair, buy a never-ending stream of consumer goods, etc.
But just because almost everybody is doing it, does not make it right (or enjoyable.)
The choice is yours. You can do what everybody is doing, and always feel like you have too much to do. Or you can go against the grain of society, and finally experience peace of mind.
2. Procrastination = Loss of Reality
There are two reasons why we procrastinate:
- We hold ourselves to excessively high standards
- We hold ourselves to excessively low standards
Both are bad, as they do not correspond to reality.
When we don’t take action because we want everything to be perfect, we misjudge reality. Life can never be perfect. Yes, we should always try to improve things. But inaction is proof that we have overdone it.
On the other hand, if we have very low standards and think the bare minimum is already enough, we are also mistaken. It is just an excuse to give in to laziness. Striving does lead to better results.
We must learn to understand these misjudgments, so we can correct them.
3. We Cannot Please Everybody
People who have too much to do have a strong tendency to please everybody.
That can never work out.
Even when you are surrounded by just 20 or 30 people in your life, you will now get 20 or 30 different inputs on how you should behave — to better accommodate them.
The only solution to this dilemma is to say “No” to everything as your default. Only when an outside request aligns with your most important goal in life, does it get a “Yes.”
Interestingly, helping yourself first is also how you provide value to others. Only when you build yourself up, can you offer something to the world. In contrast, people pleasers rarely provide much value to anybody.
4. You Cannot Wing It
People will get interested in time management because they have too much to do.
But when you present them with a solution, i.e., a well-thought-out system, they often don’t have the patience to apply it.
Instead, they will get busy. Their thinking — “Better to get started doing than to dwell on details.”
But doing for the sake of doing is never the answer. In fact, it’s a type of laziness. You are too lazy to think things through first.
There is no way around it — time management is a complex skill to master, like learning a language or playing an instrument. When you choose to ignore that complexity, you will lose control of your life.
But if you do acknowledge that complexity, it will be a game changer. It will revolutionize your ability to go after your dreams.
If I only had an hour to chop down a tree, I would spend the first 45 minutes sharpening my axe.Abraham Lincoln
5. All Things Take Longer Than You Think
I touched on this earlier, but it needs to be mentioned again. Everybody thinks that they can do things much more quickly than they can actually do them.
There is even a scientific term for that — the planning fallacy.
All of us have experienced this fallacy in action, yet we continue to assume that this time, somehow, magically, it will go much faster.
Constantly remind yourself — wishful thinking will not bend reality to your will. Always plan for a buffer.
6. There Is a Battle Going On
There is a battle going on in our lives.
This battle is between the urgent and the important.
Urgent is the world trying to impose its will on you, usually in the form of
- your job
- your partner
- your parents
- your friends
- society’s expectations
The world will ask you who you are, and if you don’t know, the world will tell you.C.G. Jung
It is easy to give in to “urgent,” as there is the threat of punishment (legally, financially, emotionally).
But if you do, you will never get to your mission in life. You will neglect your unique talents, those things that could really make a difference, for yourself and others.
Therefore, you must develop the courage to stand up against the urgent and favor the important — your self-chosen goals, your one thing in life.
This is why time management is the most fundamental skill set in life. When you sit down in the morning to decide how to spend the day, you get the chance to create yourself.
Choose the important often enough, and you will have an extraordinary life.