Managing an unmanageable to-do list

With everything that’s happened in the past 18 months, it’s no wonder a lot of us are feeling burnt out. Sometimes the lack of motivation or exhaustion can feel like an immovable barrier that you just can’t get past. Your list of things to do just grows and grows.

The best thing to do in this situation is usually to give yourself a break. You can’t keep giving if there’s nothing left to give.

Unfortunately, sometimes this just isn’t an option or there are things to do which just can’t wait.

Here are some suggestions for helping you make a dent in that to-do list…

Put together a list

If you don’t have all of your outstanding tasks in one place, then start this first. Jot it all down – everything you know you need to do.

Then look at your list and properly analyse what you have to do. You then need to take one of these actions with each task you have:

  1. Do: this task needs to be done – put it aside so you can address it in the next step
  2. Defer: this task doesn’t need to be done in the next quarter/six months/year, so put it aside for addressing later
  3. Delegate: can you assign it to someone else? Could you outsource this task?
  4. Delete: you actually don’t really need to do this task, so remove it


Once you’ve tidied up your list, put your things to do in order of priority starting with the most important/urgent things first. 

If you’re not sure where to begin, it can help to write each task on a sticky note. Write what you have to do and when it has to be done by. It can also help to write a rough guess of how long you think it will take to do it. You can then organise and order your sticky notes and create a prioritised to-do list from that – much easier than trying to write it down all at once in a notebook. 

You could also use Trello for this, if you prefer the paperless route. We wrote an article on Trello in July.

For the particularly big jobs – the multi-day ones – try to split them into smaller, more manageable tasks. 

Book the time into your diary

Now you’ve got your list organised and structured, book the time to do the tasks into your diary. This is where any time estimates you wrote before will really help you out. 

Be mindful of when you actually feel productive and don’t try to overbook yourself. There’s no sense saying you’ll do a job for a solid eight hours in one day – very few of us are actually that productive! Likewise, if you’re an early bird, don’t try booking in a two hour task at 9pm; it just won’t get done. 

Realistically, we’re all only truly productive for a handful of hours a day. For some it can be just two hours a day when they manage to bash out some really good work. You need to be mindful of this when booking time for your to-dos. You’ll likely need to keep on top of your day-to-day work at the same time as getting your to-do list down. Don’t fall into the trap of booking every hour in your day out. You need spare hours for breaks and other work.

If you’re really struggling, get a quick win

If you’re still really struggling, and you can’t quite get past the hump to get started, give yourself a couple of quick wins.

Pick a couple of the shortest tasks on your to-do list and smash them out the park straight away. The feeling of crossing things off and being able to think “well, thank goodness that’s done now” can help motivate you and give you the push you need to tackle the bigger tasks. It always helps to see the list shrinking!

Don’t be afraid to ask for help

There’s no shame in struggling and going through rough patches, we are all human after all and no one is infallible. Try not to be afraid to ask for help. Here are three charities that can help you:

  1. Mind
  2. Mental Health at Work
  3. Samaritans