Drowning in Work? This Is How You Can Get Your To-Do List Under Control

Source: @karolina-grabowska | Pexels
Source: @karolina-grabowska | Pexels

If you feel like you’re always playing catch-up with your ever-growing to-do list, you’re not alone. Between a busy social life, wanting to maintain wellness routines, and killing it at work, the girlies are feeling more than a little overcommitted these days. When it comes to careers, in particular, many of us are feeling overwhelmed with everything that’s on our plate, only to be told there’s a new project kicking off that we’ll be leading! Between struggling to log off and balancing your 9-5 with your latest side hustle, there’s a good chance you’re probably juggling more work than ever before.

But there’s good news: With a bit of strategy and a few clever techniques, you can transform that overwhelming list into a manageable path to success. Whether you’re dealing with competing deadlines, striving for more balance, or simply trying to make your 9-5 more enjoyable, finding the right approach to tackle your to-do list makes all the difference. This step-by-step guide can help you take your to-do list from overwhelmed to under control in eight steps flat.

Step 1: Prioritize your tasks

When you’ve got a lot going on at work, figuring out what’s most important and what can wait should be your first step (after a few deep breaths). It’s easy to feel like everything’s on fire and needs immediate attention, but that’s rarely the case. Take a moment to create a list of everything you’ve got on the go (yes, everything!). Then, list what needs to get done first. You could use the ABC method where you list tasks into three categories: A tasks are most important, B tasks are important but can wait, and C tasks need to get done but don’t have a deadline. Another system that works well is the Eisenhower matrix, where you rank tasks based on their level of urgency and importance.

Your to-do list might include a mix of urgent tasks like prepping an agenda for a meeting later in the day and important tasks like finally getting started on that strategy work—that’s common. No matter your sorting method, try not to have more than two to three high-priority items on your list. If it’s more, it’s unlikely you’ll get to them all. This can leave you feeling even more overwhelmed at the end of the day, which is the last thing you need when you’re wondering what to do when your to-do list is out of control.

Step 2: Break your tasks into smaller steps

Once you’ve narrowed down a few key things that you need to get done, now’s the time to break them into smaller steps. I don’t know about you, but writing something like “revamp email process” or “prepare onboarding for new hire” always leaves me feeling more stressed. There’s actually a lot that goes into seemingly easy to-do’s! By breaking things down into small steps, you create a structure for your brain to easily process what you need to do and save time on endless spinning (ahem, procrastination).

For example, instead of listing the onboarding process as just one item, breaking it down into key steps like getting IT set up, updating any documentation from your last employee, and arranging 1:1 meetings during their first week is much more actionable. Chunking larger tasks into three to five manageable steps also allows you to check things off and see your progress as you go, helping you to stay motivated.

Step 3: Set realistic timelines

If you identify as a perfectionist or a chronic procrastinator (hi, it’s me!), this next step is made for you! When you’re drowning in work and feeling overwhelmed, it’s easy to follow steps 1 and 2 above and come up with a beautiful list of priorities and next steps. The problem is that you might find that it’s completely unrealistic when you start working through each item. Whether you’re prone to underestimating how much time something will take you or like to set lofty goals under tight timeframes (for example, “plan cross-company networking event by end of week”), you’re only setting yourself up to fail if you’re not being realistic.

Once you have your priorities aligned, use this step to honestly reflect on how you’ve completed similar tasks in the past. Then, identify what you should prepare for this time. Do you need extra time? Are you able to juggle this to-do alongside your other tasks? Is there a chance that you’re underestimating the scope? When in doubt, assume something will take longer and have more steps to complete. Best case scenario, you finish ahead of schedule!

Step 4: Implement your favorite time management strategy

I’m sure you’ve heard about a dozen time-management strategies, but they exist for a reason. I’m not exaggerating when I say that the Pomodoro technique (one of the most popular!) completely changed my life once I tested it for myself. (If you’re unfamiliar, the Pomodoro technique is where you focus for 25 minutes and then take a 5-minute break during blocks of working time.) Before identifying and implementing the technique that works best for me (that’s the key!), I used to try to work for hours straight, take 15 minutes off, and get back to work. I’d inevitably need a break earlier, get distracted on social media, and end up wasting a lot of time.

Take a look at your to-do list as it stands with your priorities and targets and identify how you can realistically get each item done. What time management strategy can you implement that can 1) assist you in accomplishing your tasks and 2) prevent you from burnout? There are a lot of different strategies you can use, but by providing yourself with some structure you’re going to get a lot more done and feel more productive at the end of the day (win-win!). Plus, when you sign off after work, you’ll be confident you used your time well and still had plenty of breaks.

Step 5: Automate where possible

We’re living in a glorious time where technology can help us in a myriad of ways, especially when it comes to work. If you’ve got a lot on your plate and you’re constantly asking yourself, “How do I limit my to-do list?!,” be sure to take a few minutes to check that you’re automating things wherever possible to save time and brain power. This could look like setting up recurring holds in your calendar for working blocks, scheduling emails to send later so you can work whenever is best for you, or using a social media management tool to schedule all of your content at once.

You could also explore using tools like ChatGPT to help with things like looking up spreadsheet formulas. (Just check with your manager to ensure your company is OK with using artificial intelligence and that the information you’re given is correct!) Looking for ways to automate your workload and take mundane tasks off your to-do list will always be worth the 10-20 minutes to set up!

Step 6: Ask for help from others

When you’re underwater with your work, you might feel like you have to be the one to get everything done. If you don’t do it, who will?! While I have every confidence that you’re a key person at your job, you can’t do it all alone. If you’re feeling overwhelmed with your workload even after you’ve prioritized and used your best time-management strategy, it might be time to ask for help. This could look like asking an intern or associate to provide support on a project by taking on some of the basic aspects so you can focus on bigger things, letting your manager help you deprioritize so you’re putting your energy into the most important projects, or asking colleagues to jump in with their skills where possible.

If you’re self-employed, consider bringing on an extra pair of hands. Then, you can outsource tasks that take up valuable time (like accounting or editing) where possible. It’s not a weakness to ask for help—it’s a smart time management strategy! You could likely be leaving resources on the table that would make things more efficient, so don’t be shy about speaking up.

Step 7: Take a smart break

It can be easy to feel like you don’t have time to stop and instead, opt to keep working when you have a lot on your list. Trust me when I say that this is bound to backfire. You’re human and definitely need breaks when working to let your brain rest and recharge. The key, however, is to take smart breaks. Scrolling on social media between tasks is something we’re all guilty of. But since it forces you to process rapid amounts of visual and audio information very quickly, it’s actually the opposite of a brain refresh. Instead, try to get outside when possible. Go for a quick walk, look out a window, or do some basic stretches at your desk to get your body moving. And if you do find yourself scrolling on your next break (guilty!), don’t fret. Just try to do something different on your next one!

Step 8: Say no to additional work you don’t have time for

I can clearly remember the first time I ever said no to a task at work. I was a writer for a digital publication when I was approached by a senior editor to take on writing for a new section. While exciting, I was also covering for a writer on maternity leave and another co-worker who had left suddenly. I was barely staying afloat when the latest ask came in, but I almost said yes without stopping to consider how I would cope with it. However, I knew I would do a poor job and likely drop the ball, so I professionally said, “Thanks, but no thanks.” And guess what? The world didn’t stop spinning. I wasn’t fired by setting a reasonable boundary. In fact, nothing happened at all except me having less work.

If you know you don’t have the capacity and are clearly communicating that to whoever should know, you’re within your right to respectfully push back on any additional work. But, if you’re excited about an opportunity and do want to take it on anyway, be sure to identify something else that can be removed from your list first. The “one in, one out” philosophy works on more than just your closet!