This post was originally written by Leo Babauta for Zen Habits. Republished here with permission.
Too much to do, not enough time. This is a perpetual problem for a lot of people, but especially during the holiday season or transition periods like moving, starting school or a new job, etc. Things tend to pile on top of our already busy lives. But no matter what time of year it is, the problem is the same: our list of tasks is neverending, and our days are too short. Here are 5 tips for when you have too much to do.
5 Tips for When You Have Too Much to Do
How can we deal with this in a sane way?
I’ll offer five suggestions that work for me:
1. Use this as an opportunity to practice mindfulness. In the middle of your stress and feeling of being overwhelmed … you have the opportunity to be present.
When you notice yourself feeling this way, drop in: notice how your body feels. Take a second to observe the physical sensations of your surroundings (sounds, light, touch sensations, etc.). Notice how your body feels as your mind is spinning with anxiety or busyness.
No, stress and overwhelm are not the two most pleasant feelings, but they’re also not the end of the world. And if you see them as an opportunity to practice, to learn, to get better, then they can actually be good news. They are your teachers, and this is your time to be mindful.
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You don’t have to spend a whole minute dropping in, but just take five or 10 seconds. Just observe how you’re feeling, observe your surroundings, observe how your thoughts are affecting you.
Just notice, briefly, and in that short time, you’ve woken up from the dream we’re in most of the time.
2. Realize that you can’t do it all right now. You might have 20 things to do, or 100 … but you can’t do all of them right now. You probably can’t do them all in the next hour even. How many can you actually do right now? One.
This reminder is meant to free us from the idea that we need to do everything right now. We can’t. So instead, this allows us to focus on just one thing. Just pick one task, and focus on that. Because the others, as urgent as they might seem, can’t possibly be done right now.
You can delegate them, eliminate them, defer them, but you can’t do them all right now. So focus on one, and give it your full attention. This is the most helpful way to work, in my experience.
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3. Pick a high impact task to focus on. When we’re busy, we often get into the mode of doing a lot of small tasks really quickly. It feels like we’re knocking a lot of things off the list, which can feel productive. But it’s just running around like a chicken without a head.
If you’re going to focus on just one task, it’s best to make it a good one. Something that will have a decent impact on your day, your work, your life. That probably isn’t answering a bunch of unimportant emails or checking Facebook messages. One important email that will close a deal, move along a key project, help someone’s life … that’s a higher impact task.
For me, writing is almost always the highest impact thing I can do. It’s hard to figure out what the highest impact task might be, but if you give it some thought, you can see which ones are probably not that important, and which ones are more important. Pick one from the latter category when you can.
That said, you still have to do the smaller tasks. Answer the other emails, run the errands, clean the kitchen counter. I like to take care of those between the bigger tasks, as a way to take a break. Do something important with focus, then relieve my brain by cleaning or answering a few emails. The key is not to procrastinate on the bigger tasks by doing the smaller ones.
4. Be present with this task, with intention. Once you’ve picked an important task, set aside everything else for now. You can’t do them all now, so be here with the one you’ve chosen. Breathe. Set an intention for this task: who are you doing this for, and why? For me, I am often doing my work tasks for you guys (my readers), but I do personal tasks for my family or to help myself. Set a simple intention: I’m writing this article to help my readers who are struggling.
Then let that intention move you as you focus on the task. Be present with the task, noticing how your body feels as you do the task, letting yourself melt into the doing of it, pouring yourself into it as fully as you can.
You might get the urge to switch to something else — just notice that and stay with the urge, not letting yourself follow it unthinkingly, then return to the task when the urge subsides. Remember your intention, then let yourself be fully immersed in the task.
5. Practice letting go, with a smile. Having too much to do, and wanting to get it all done as soon as possible … can actually get in the way of doing. This desire to get it all done is an obstacle. Luckily, it’s a great practice to work with this obstacle!
The practice is letting it go. Notice what you think you need to do (your ideal), and let go of it. Instead, tell yourself you don’t know, and instead be open to the reality that’s right in front of you: you can only do one task. Be open to that idea, and the stress will be lowered.
And as you let go of your ideal and open to the reality, smile. Be grateful for the moment you actually have, rather than wishing for the one you don’t have. Smile, and be happy now, rather than waiting for happiness to come at some unspecified date.
In the end, will these suggestions clear away your to-do list? No. You’ll always have a lot of things on your list, and not enough time to do them all. What this does is help you to deal with that fact, and make you more mindful and focused in the middle of that reality.
Life is too short to spend most of it stressed out by an unchangeable fact. We don’t have to waste our time and mental energy worrying about too much to do. Instead, we can smile and be happy doing what we can do now.
Too Much to Do, and Not Enough Time
One of the biggest frustrations many of us feel is having too much to do, and not feeling like we have enough time to do it. We are overwhelmed. Of course, having “not enough time” is just a feeling — we all have the same amount of time, but we often fill up the container of our days with too much stuff. What do you do when there’s too much to do, and not enough time?
The problem is having too much stuff to fit into a small container (24 hours). If we look at task management and time management as simply a container organization problem, it becomes simpler.
How do we fit all of the stuff we have to do into our small container?
And letting go.
I promise, with this two-step process, you’ll be able to deal with the problem of “too much to do, not enough time.”
Simplifying Our Tasks
When we realize we’re trying to fit too much stuff (tasks, errands, obligations) into a small container (24 hours), it becomes obvious that we can’t get a bigger container … so we have to get rid of some stuff. It just won’t all fit.
We do that by simplifying what we have to do.
Mindfulness is a helpful too here: pay attention to all the things you do today and tomorrow, and try to notice all the things you’re fitting into the container of your day.
What websites are you going to in the morning? In the evening? What games are you playing on your phone? What are you reading? What busy-work are you doing? How much time are you spending in email, on Facebook, on Twitter, on Instagram? How much time on blogs, online shopping sites, Youtube? How much TV are you watching?
How much time do you spend cleaning, maintaining your personal hygiene, taking care of other people? How much time driving around or commuting? What are you spending the valuable commodity of your attention on?
What you might realize is that you’re fitting a lot of junk into the container. Toss some of that out. Ban yourself from certain sites or apps until you’ve done a few really important tasks.
Notice also that you’re committed to a lot of things. Those commitments are filling up your life. Start getting out of some of them, and saying “no” to new ones.
Now look at your task list: how many of those things can you reasonably do today? I say three.
If you could only do three things today, which would be the most important? If you’ve ever played baseball, and swung a bat, you know that what matters is not so much how hard you swing, but hitting the ball with the sweet spot of the bat.
What you need to do with your task list is hit it with the sweet spot of the bat — find the tasks that have the most impact, that matter most to your life. Choose carefully, because you only have so much room in your life.
Now ask yourself this: which task would you do if you could only do one task today? That should be what you put your focus on next. Just that one task. You can’t do your entire list today, and you can’t do your top three tasks right now. So just focus on one important task.
Clear everything else away, and focus on that.
By picking your tasks carefully, you’re taking care with the container of your time. You can pick important tasks or joyful ones, but you’re being conscious about the choices. You’re treating it like the precious gift that it is: limited, valuable, to be filled with the best things, and not overstuffed.
The Art of Letting Go
What about all the other stuff you want to do (or feel you need to do)? What if it doesn’t fit into the container?
This is where the joyful art of letting go becomes useful.
You have too many things to fit into your container, and you’ve decided to only put the important and beautiful things into the container. That means a bunch of things you think you “should” do are not going to fit.
You can get to those later. Or you can not do them. Either way, they won’t fit into today’s container.
This in itself is not a problem, but it only becomes a problem when you are frustrated that you can’t fit it all in. Your frustration comes from an ideal that you should be able to do it all, that you should be able to do everything on your list.
Plus more: you want to travel, workout, meditate, learn a new skill, read more, be the perfect spouse (or find a spouse), be the perfect parent/friend/sibling, draw or create music, and so on.
Your ideals don’t match with reality — the reality is that you can’t do this all today, or even this week. You can choose to do some of them, but the others will have to wait, or not get done at all.
Since you can’t get a bigger container, you need to adjust your ideals. The ideal you choose to have can be this: that this moment be exactly as it is. The old ideal is one that you can toss into the ocean, as it was harming you (causing frustration). Let it go with joy and relief.
The new ideal is that this moment is perfect, and it deserves to be in your container.
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