A pile of notebooks - the joy of lists to overcome overwhelm - Dvortygirl, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons


Things to do? Books to write, movies to watch, people to see, bills to pay, meetings to arrange, trains to catch, deadlines to meet… argh! One of the most challenging tasks in today’s world is finding a way to manage overwhelm.

Let me introduce you to the joy of lists: a simple method I’ve used every day since I discovered it, and regained my sanity as a result. (OK, partial sanity. No friends would ever suggest I was ever entirely sane).

Those of you who have been following my blog for many years may remember my review of David Allen’s Getting Things Done. The central idea of that life-changing book (well, it changed mine) is that we get overwhelmed because we try to carry too much around in our heads or scattered around in places we try hard to remember.

When I first heard about the book, I was carrying round a thousand things in my head. My desk was littered with notes about things to do. I had emails waiting to be dealt with. Books on the floor, scripts on chairs, post-its on the wall.

I was scared to tidy anything unless an essential job got forgotten underneath something else…

Does any of this sound familiar?

Allen’s prescription is to put everything on a list.

Overcome overwhelm

Multi-tasking is a recipe for heartache and ulcers. And has been proved to be a massive waste of energy. So is trying to remember everything you need to do. Lists take everything out of your head, so you don’t ever have to think about anything except the one thing you’re doing at the time.

Here’s how I handle lists to make my life easier and get so much more done than I ever did before.

1. Make your list

It sounds easy and it is. To enjoy the joy of lists, first get a notebook or open a computer file and write down everything on your mind and desk (wall, computer, floor… etc). One item per line. Every single thing.

(If on your computer or phone, be careful not to get distracted by videos of cats. Or is that just me?)

This in itself is therapeutic. First, because once you’ve written it all down you can get a handle on it. Second, because it is rarely as long as you felt it would be when you had it in your mind. Third, because now you can stop worrying about forgetting something. It’s all there.

This may help you overcome overwhelm on its own, but if you want to dig even deeper, now you…

2. Prioritise

Go through your list numbering everything in order of priority. From highest (1) to lowest. Don’t overthink this or agonise over precise numbering. If two items feel as if they have the same priority, just make an arbitrary decision. It won’t matter which you do first and you can always change later.

Once you’ve finished, Warren Buffett recommends tearing off all except the top three priorities and throwing the rest away!

That might work if you’re the 6th richest person in the world, but it feels a bit drastic.

However, he has a point. You can rarely get through more than three priorities in a day, though sometimes you can squeeze a few smaller tasks into the gaps. So I recommend underlining or otherwise marking the top three.

Again, you can stop here and just get on with those three if you wish. Start with priority #1. Even if you only work on this, you know you’ve focused on the most vital issue in your life.

Or if you want to keep drilling down, we move onto the four magic Ds…

3. Delete

Go through your list again, noting which items are URGENT and which are IMPORTANT. You can immediately put a line through anything that is neither urgent or important. Unless it’s fun (which I’d personally mark as important anyway).

Then delete all items which you’ve marked as urgent but not important. This is an elephant trap. It’s only too easy to be seduced by urgency (that’s how many advertisers draw you in, with deals that expire or bargains “while stocks last”.

If they’re not important (or fun, see above) why do them?

Your highest priority will doubtless be the tasks which are both urgent and important. But make sure you also create time for those which are important but not urgent. It’s only too easy to keep putting these off, while you deal with the urgent stuff.

The novel you’ve been meaning to write. The trip to the gym that keeps getting put off. Delay long enough, and you’ll regret it.

4. Do

Go through your list, now, starting with the highest priority. Can any of the tasks be finished in 2 minutes or less.

Do them! Just get them out of the way. If necessary, make time in your diary for quick jobs and do a batch in one go.

One good ploy, suggested by Allen, is to batch up tasks which are similar, such as phone calls or filing. Then you can build momentum by moving quickly from one to another. But be ruthless. If any task runs over the 2 minute rule, it’s time to…

5. Defer

This is the easy one! Put if off.

For some items, deferring means marking an item off to be done at some indefinite time in the future. For others, it’s good to set a specific time and date in your diary.

But in all cases, it means getting it out of your head.

I also suggest that you batch the tasks up where appropriate, as in #4 above. And – this is a tremendous piece of advice I was given – write down the first step. For example, if the task is to organise a meeting, the first step might be to check for what dates you’re free.

If you have to make a phone call, it’s also a good idea to write down the number to ring.

Anything that makes it easy to get started. We all tend to find starting harder than continuing. Make it easy to begin.

6. Delegate

Finally, you’re left with a load of jobs which you don’t particularly want to do or haven’t the time or expertise.

Delegation is probably one of the hardest actions. But it can be massively rewarding. Yet I’m always surprised at how many tasks I can delegate to someone else.

The fact is that for every task you dislike or are really bad at doing, I can guarantee there is some mad person who actually enjoys it. Whether it’s making spreadsheets or putting up shelves.

And it need not involve an exchange of money. Because very often you’ll find they hate doing something that you absolutely love doing yourself.

And yes, they may well think you’re mad too.

To sum up

  • Make a list
  • Number it in order of priority
  • Delete everything that’s not important or fun (even if it’s urgent)
  • Do anything that you can complete in 2 minutes or less (starting with the highest priority)
  • Defer what you can’t do now – but try to set a time and date for it
  • Delegate the rest to some mad people who actually love what you hate
  • Sit back and enjoy the joy of lists

Read more

Feeling Overwhelmed? People love Getting Things Done – are they right?

Getting Things Done website

GTD – free resources