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Are you swamped? The word itself—swamped—is quite unpleasant. It embodies all sorts of clichés: you’re in over your head; you’re in deep; you’re in a bad place; and you might not make it out. But unpleasantries aside, why do you feel so swamped? We’re willing to bet it’s because you have too much to do—more than you can even possibly get done. And yet, important people and important things are relying on your herculean efforts to somehow manage the impossible.

Well, it turns out, you’re not alone. Our latest study shows that when it comes to managing our time and to-do lists, we’re habitually overcommitted and overwhelmed. Of the 1,353 people we surveyed, 3 out of 5 agreed that they have more to accomplish than they can actually do in the time they have available. Another 1 in 5 say they have reached their limit and can’t possibly commit to more.

And it turns out, our tendency to say yes to more than we can manage isn’t a fluke. In fact, 1 in 3 say they ALWAYS have more tasks in front of them than they can actually get done, and 2 in 3 say they USUALLY find themselves in this same predicament. But why do we put ourselves in such an uncomfortable and precarious position? According to the research, the top 5 reasons people attribute for their overgrown to-do lists include:

  • A desire to be helpful, accommodating, and polite.
  • The tendency to jump in and fix problems, even when they aren’t theirs.
  • Ambiguous limits and unclear rules about which tasks to accept or reject.
  • Working with those in authority who make non-negotiable demands.
  • An inability to say “no” or renegotiate commitments.

Our own observation over the years suggests this over-commitment epidemic is also the result of poorly-designed workflow management systems in a world that runs on the mantra: do more with less.

Too many of us don’t have a system for organizing the various inputs that fly at us each and every day. And without a system designed to capture and organize incoming tasks and the skills to negotiate commitments, you’re bound to find yourself a victim of an impossible to-do list. Unless and until you take control of this system, you’ll continue to frantically spin your wheels and still only make a dent in that ever-growing list of commitments.

And an impossible to-do list isn’t just exhausting, it also takes a toll on our emotional health. According to the study, people report feeling stressed, worried, anxious, overwhelmed, and even defeated as they look at their inflated list and regret agreeing to so much in the first place. The most alarming side effect is perhaps that people feel like they can’t be really present—meaning when they are with the people and things that matter most, they are multitasking or thinking about other tasks.

But there is a solution. With just a few skills, it’s possible to regain control of your to-do list while also reducing stress. In fact, there are a small number of self-management practices that can have a profound impact. When you learn to manage your workload quickly and efficiently, you’ll not only take control of your to-do list but also avoid the weight and anxiety that comes with carrying an impossible workload. Below are five productivity practices that if adopted will help you realize these benefits while regaining control of your to-do list.

1. Collect everything that owns your attention

Capture all commitments, tasks, ideas, and projects in an external place rather than keeping them in your head. Use just a few “capture tools” you keep with you all the time such as lists, apps, email, etc.

2. Do a Commitment audit

Capture all of your commitments on one page. Then go down the list and decide which to-dos you will do, which you’ll decline, and which you’ll renegotiate. There’s no way you can do them all in the time given; be realistic about what you can and will do.

3. Identify Next Actions

Most people are extra overwhelmed by their lists because they are filled with vague things like “Budget” or “2019 Event.” These large projects repulse us rather than motivate us to act. Clarify you’re to-dos down to the very next action; the smallest behavior you’ll take to start moving toward closure. Sometimes the key to breaking a habit of procrastination is making the action smaller until you want to do it.

4. Do more of the right things by reflecting in the right moments

Rather than diving into your messy inbox first thing, take two minutes to review your calendar and your action lists. This reflection ensures you make the best decisions about how to use your time.

5. Review weekly

Keep a sacred, non-negotiable meeting with yourself every week to re-sync, get current, and align your daily work and projects with your higher-level priorities.

About the authors: Justin Hale is a speaker, training designer, and Master Trainer at VitalSmarts, a leader in corporate training. He has been a lead engineer in designing the VitalSmarts edition of Getting Things Done® Training and has facilitated the course and delivered keynote speeches on the skills and principles of stress-free productivity to clients and audiences across North America.

Brittney Maxfield is the Senior Director of Content Marketing at VitalSmarts. She has lead publicity and marketing efforts for the company’s line of New York Times bestsellers and award-winning training courses for the past 13 years.

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