How overwhelm brought me to a new to-do list system




I’m an organizer and planner so I do love a good to-do list. Ask my friends and family and they will tell you I am a safe pair of hands – things get done when I am involved. But in the last year, my to-do list has increasingly become unruly and I felt I wasn’t getting things done at all!

Starting my own business turned this simple productivity tool into something I came to resent. There was this never-ending list of things to get done that seemed to judge me for not making more progress. I’ve tackled the challenge of email overload by finding the off-button. Feel free to laugh but I know there are folk out there for whom turning OFF technology induces symptoms similar to a detox. (See my journey in my blog post here). So I knew there was a way to conquer my troubled relations with my to-do list.

I tried going electronic with an on-line to-do list Asana. That helped me feel on top of things for a while then before I knew it, I was operating a daily to-do-list on paper and the longer terms tasks on-line. Things got out of sync. (I’d like to blame the poor app version of Asana but that would be attributing blame in the wrong direction!)

I was in a permanent state of feeling on the back foot. Anything that was paid work always went straight to the top of priorities, and other things like marketing my business kept dropping off every list. I had no time for the big thinking stuff like product development. My plans to read and research would happen late at night when I was too tired to take things in. I’d start work at 8 in the morning but feel at the end of the day that I just hadn’t done enough. I was the proverbial hamster on the wheel feeling miserable.

Ridiculous…. Or is it?

I realize now I was experience a classic case of overwhelm. It happens all around me. My clients experience this as do my friends. We all long for more hours in the day so we can get more done.

Then I came across Most Important Tasks – MITs. The idea of MITs are not mine. I stumbled across the concise notion in Leo Babauta –  book about the Power of Less. Leo defines MITs as things that HAVE to get done TODAY and suggests that these activities should be feasible to complete in anything up to a few hours. So we are talking about taking out a bite sized chunk of a large project, or a task in it’s own right like completing a proposal.

It’s early days but it is working like a dream for me. Each day, I list 4-5 MITs as part of the morning preparation. I turn off distractions like email and phone and focus on one task at a time. By the end of the day  – most times even before that – I have complete these MITs and feel like I’ve achieved something for that day.  This is a new habit for me so check in with me in a few more weeks to see how it’s settled in. New habits take time and compassion for oneself!

The sense of overwhelm is gone. I really am quite cheery about my to-do list. What works for me is this sense of achievement. If you were measuring my output, I expect I’m not getting a whole lot more done than under the previous method but there is an important and subtle shift here. I now know what I’ve done at the end of the day and how it contributes to my bigger plan. I can feel content with life once more.

I expect this is at the heart of the matter for many of us. Our overload and overwhelm is as much down to lack of visibility about what we do actually get done. Most of us are quite able to crack through a huge amount of work but don’t stop or have a way of realizing the achievement. (There is another aspect of this of course which is about having too many commitments. I’ll cover that in upcoming blog post.)

Overwhelm is a serious symptom of modern day life. Perhaps MIT’s can be a salve for at least one part of it.


  1. 8 tips to simplify your life | Belgrave Street
    September 2, 2014

    […] and you have more time in your day, as you aren’t responding to other people’s priorities. (See my blog post on how I stumbled across the concept of […]

  2. Paolo
    September 14, 2014

    So – I like the theory. My question is how does dealing with the 120 small but necessary things fit into this model? When do they get done?

  3. Catherine
    September 15, 2014

    Hi Paolo,
    I get your point. There are often small things floating about that need to get done. What works for me is to still follow the MIT approach, and give yourself a chunk of time for the small things – say 1 or 2 hours that day – and see how many get done. Usually small things don’t need alot of our attention or our best prefrontal cortex so you could schedule them towards end of the day.
    Hope that helps.


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