You’re absolutely swamped—there are no ifs, ands, or buts about it. And, despite the fact that you know your to-do list is overflowing with things that require your attention and action, you’re frozen. You have so much to do, you only feel paralyzed.
We’ve all been there. Dealing with a plate that’s far too full isn’t fun. But, while your first inclination might be to head for the couch and curl up for a lengthy nap, you know that’s not necessarily the most effective strategy for tackling your workload.
Instead, you need to take a deep breath, chug a few mugs of hot, strong coffee, and get to work. Here’s how to best wade through that daunting to-do list of yours—categorized by what exactly you need to accomplish.
1. When You’re Intimidated by a Large Project
There’s that big assignment that’s been hanging out on your list for weeks—OK, well, a month. Every day, you have the best intentions of finally getting started on it. But, time after time, you end up pushing it to the backburner.
You tell yourself it’s because you have more time-pressing things you need to handle (hey, you’re only trying to prioritize after all!). But, you’re not fooling anyone—you continue to push that project off simply because it seems so intimidating and overwhelming, you have no idea where to even get started. And, now that deadline is fast approaching.
Yes, those giant assignments are enough to inspire plenty of stress and panic—but, that doesn’t mean they’re impossible. Instead, when a huge project is taking up the majority of the space on your plate and your to-do list, your best bet is to address it with a bit of strategy.
This means that you should split that large project up into smaller, more actionable mini-milestones—rather than simply writing “complete humongous project” on your checklist. Using this method, you’ll be able to identify more manageable action items within that huge assignment that need be accomplished, which gives you an easy-to-follow roadmap you can use to stay on track.
Additionally, these bite-sized chunks give you opportunities to celebrate your smaller accomplishments and successes—rather than only taking a breather and a pause for your happy dance once the entire project is completed. And, as research explains in the concept of the Progress Principle, taking steps forward in meaningful work is enough to boost our mood, perceptions of our careers, and—of course—our productivity!
2. When You’re Overwhelmed By Small Loose Ends
Sometimes, it’s not one daunting project that’s making you feel stressed and overloaded. Instead, it’s a bunch of little things that just keep piling up. Emails that need to be answered, phone calls that need to be made, things that need to be followed up on—for every one thing you cross off, 10 things are added.
This constant barrage of tiny tasks can be both distracting and disheartening. And, while it’s a drastically different scenario from that one big, overwhelming assignment, it presents a similar problem: How can you know where to start? When all of those fires need to be put out (and soon!), where should you focus your attention first?
When your day’s jam packed with little loose ends that need tying up, it’s time to take a page from Nike’s book and “just do it.” Pick a specific item, tackle it, cross it off your list, and then move on to the next.
The nice thing about those smaller to-dos is that they aren’t incredibly time consuming, so you’ll be able to move through them pretty fast. And, thanks to a little something called the Zeigarnik Effect, once you actually get the ball rolling on those loose ends, you’ll feel that much more inspired to push forward and finish them.
So, while strategy and detailed planning are usually helpful, sometimes you’re better off just jumping in and chipping away at what you can—particularly when everything on your list is equally time-pressing.
3. When You’re Dealing With a Mix of Both
Let’s say your list consists of both of these types of things. Then what? Should you attempt to make some progress on that big project first, before taking care of any smaller items? Or, should you get those loose ends out of the way so you can channel your focus on that large assignment once and for all—without getting distracted? What method is best?
When you find yourself in this situation, you’re going to have to rely on that age-old concept of prioritization. It’s simple: You should get started with whatever needs to get done the soonest.
I’d recommend starting by outlining your “mini milestones” for that large project, so you have an idea of what smaller action items are required of you—and when they need to be done by. Then, grab yourself a highlighter and pull out those things on your to-do list that you should focus on first. For example, maybe you need to answer a few emails and then take care of the first step for that bigger assignment.
I know, this concept seems almost painfully straightforward. But, actually going through the process of highlighting where you should get started will make it easier for you to see where you should be focusing your time and attention immediately—rather than wandering aimlessly through a mess of overwhelming tasks.
We’ve all experienced those moments of sheer panic when we feel like we’ve piled way too much on our plates—and, that’s really only fun at a buffet or Thanksgiving dinner.
Luckily, there are a few actionable tips and strategies you can use to whip yourself into shape and start making some significant progress on that seemingly never-ending list of yours. Give these a try, and then let me know on Twitter how they work out for you—once you’ve wrapped up your to-do list for the day, of course.
Photo of courtesy of Hero Images/Getty Images.
Kat is a Midwest-based freelance writer, covering topics related to careers, productivity, and the freelance life. In addition to The Muse, she's a contributor all over the web and dishes out research-backed advice for places like Atlassian, Trello, Toggl, Wrike, The Everygirl, FlexJobs, and more. She's also an Employment Advisor at a local college, and loves helping students prepare to thrive in careers (and lives!) they love. When she manages to escape from behind her computer screen, she's usually babying her two rescue mutts or continuing her search for the perfect taco. Say hi on Twitter @kat_boogaard or check out her website.More from this Author