Feeling insanely overwhelmed by your ever-mounting to-do list? Blog posts, Facebook ads, business plans, client work, administrative tasks and that’s only the business stuff. Add regular day-to-day and family obligations to the list and you have the makings for overwhelm shut down, as I like to call it. You know that I-don’t-know-what-to-do-paralysis feeling you get when you have way too much on your plate? Don’t worry, every time strapped entrepreneur is right there with you.
Before you go booking a one-way ticket to your vacation paradise escape, try some of these proven strategies I use all the time that will push you through overwhelm to accomplishment on your to-do’s. Putting a little time in upfront on organizing your actions, will help you save a ton of time spinning your wheels later on.
That’s a fancy made up word for the two first steps to take when you feel the overwhelm coming on.
Empty your head & take inventory. Sometimes overwhelm is simply because all the information is stored in your head and is mentally filling your head with too much. Getting it all out and storing it elsewhere can help to clear your headspace, so you can start focusing on what needs to be done. These could be huge projects or small tasks. Regardless, get it out and done so you can move on and refer to it when you need to.
Prioritize your butt off. Once you’ve got an empty mind and your list to work with, it’s time to get real honest about what is most important and needs your attention. Channel your inner Donald Trump and fire some items from first place on your list. I use my iPhone Tasks/Reminders app a lot for this because it’s super easy for me to input them as the myriad of things pop in my head when I should be sleeping (Yeah, you know you have this problem too!). Later, I can come back to the list and assign color-coding prioritization rankings, so I know exactly what needs my attention now, next and later. You could easily do this in an Excel sheet with some color-coding or a Word doc with some numbering. If it feels like everything needs my attention, which many times it does, I turn to Stephen Covey’s Time Management Matrix in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (read this if you haven’t already!). The matrix basically forces you to classify items into 4 quadrants broken down by important/urgent, important/not urgent, not important/urgent, and not important/not urgent. This seems silly at first but it really works when you’re having a hard time whittling your list.
Make it all do-able
No, this is not some funky dance move. You should be fully aware of what needs your attention when from the prioritization you just did. Now, it’s time to make it all feel do-able. Many times, the biggest cause of overwhelm is the sheer size and scope of items to be accomplished.
Break it down. So now it’s time to take a look at your list of immediate attention items. You’ll do the same for the rest of the items when it’s time to focus on them. Do they feel do-able? Are you still feeling overwhelmed by the items? If they feel fine then awesome, get plugging away on them. If not, then it’s time to break it down. I suggest doing this regardless of how it feels, just so you have a running checklist to make sure you don’t miss anything and you’ll get some small wins along the way of accomplishing the task that feels great. You’ll keep evaluating the items and asking the same questions until you feel confident and ready to tackle them. If at any point while working on them, you feel overwhelmed again, it’s time to revisit that step and break it down to a manageable size. Take a business plan for instance. That’s a huge task to finish, with lots of little steps involved like each section of the plan, research required, first and review drafts, etc. Breaking down each step makes it feel more and more manageable and less like a scary beast. This is an entrepreneur’s key to success: take a plan, break it down into manageable steps and go one step at a time.
Set attainable deadlines. This is the one thing that propels productivity that people struggle with the most. Some struggle with it because holding themselves to a deadline doesn’t have the same weight as someone else does. Others have issue with this because they set completely unrealistic and unattainable goals that set them up for failure from the start. There’s two keys to this: valuing your business as much as your client’s business and being really honest about when things need to be done vs. when you can get them done. Client work is obviously extremely important but so is the million things you need to do to run your business and get more clients. Treat yourself like a client and work your tasks in with your client work. Then it’s time to assign realistic goals for yourself. I can’t stress the importance of this enough. Don’t create some rushed deadline for yourself, which causes you to freak out and ultimately accomplish nothing, leaving you feeling guilty, worthless and behind. Forgive yourself and your busy schedule and pick some dates that both push you to make it happen and make sense for your workload.
Tools. You can do this in your same Excel sheet or Word doc by creating indented sub-tasks beneath each main task. Or you can use a project management tool like Asana. I use this one because it’s really straightforward and easy-to-use. You can list all your items, color code them, assign staff or people you hire to tasks so you can track progress, etc. There are tons of tools like this and everyone has their go-to. This is just the one I’ve enjoyed using the most.
Delegate. Many of your tasks will require the help of your staff or someone you hire. If you have employees, make sure you go through and highlight which tasks they will be helping you with and brief them on it to get those items moving forward, allowing you to focus on your items. If you are going to need a vendor to help you complete a task, like a website designer, then make that one of your sub-tasks and then start highlighting where their help fits in, so you know exactly what is on their plate and what will be on yours.
Manage your list like a boss
Banishing the overwhelm monster requires ongoing management of your to-do list. Figuring out what helps you work the best if crucial to continuing productivity and progress.
15-minute maintenance. It can be really helpful to start and end your day with a quick plan and recap on what needs to be done and what’s been accomplished. By touching base with yourself and your progress, you’re making sure there’s no mistakes or missed deadlines, giving yourself credit for hard work done and setting yourself up for success the next day. When you know exactly what needs to be done the next day, you should slide into your schedule easily.
Check the box and celebrate. As you complete items, check or cross them off as you go, so you know what’s left and then give yourself a high-five. Celebrate the small wins along the way to keep your motivation up, especially if you’re tackling the larger projects that can feel like they’re ongoing forever.
Lists of lists of lists. For some people, having the completed items on their list after they are done can cause anxiety in itself, simply because they’re not seeing the huge list decrease. When you created your sub-tasks you were basically creating mini to-do lists of your master list. If having one master list with all your sub-tasks on there drives you crazy, then work from the mini lists you created. That way you are only focusing on what you need to and not getting caught up in tasks down the line or the size of the list.
I’m sure this all sounds like a lot of time investment on your part but what if you felt more confident about accomplishing your to-do list and had the progress and results to show? Think about how much better you’d feel about you and your business. Sometimes the investment is worth the effort upfront.
The biggest thing you can do is to take it easy on yourself. It’s really challenging being an entrepreneur and you’ve got a million and one things to do. Schedules never go as planned and even if you do plan your next day, something is bound to hijack it at some point. Attend to those fires and then get back to what needs to be done. Remember, take it one step at a time.
Now it’s your turn. What’s one strategy you read that you think can help you? Do you have any other tips, tools or strategies that help you cut through your to-do list overwhelm? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Thanks for reading and be well!
Hi, I'm Tiffany! I'm a business coach and consultant who believes businesses with soul is the way to go. That's why I've made it my mission to help entrepreneurs live out their business purpose and grow their ideas into profits. Meet other like-minded entrepreneurs now in the Dreamer & Creator online community.