Limiting Tasks to Get More Done

Limiting Tasks to Get More Done

To get more done, you need to do more things. That’s self-evident. But what if I told you the secret to getting more done was limiting your tasks?

I am one of those people, who, when faced with a huge list of things to do, will shut down and do none of it. It’s not uncommon. Most people, faced with a pile of work where they don’t know where to begin, will not being at all.

So how do you get past that? Read on.

List Overwhelm

List overwhelm happens when you have a massive task list. One with more tasks on it than you could possibly do in a day, or two or three. Perhaps even a week.

It happens because modern task management systems don’t take into account life (See Managing Personal Tasks). Most of us don’t have the luxury of handing our tasks over to a staff, and our lists just grow and grow.

So if you keep everything in one place (which is good, so you have a complete picture) and you write everything down (which is good, because it keeps you from re-thinking), you end up with a massive list.

Arbitrary Deadlines Make It Worse

The first thing people try to do is set deadlines on tasks. They see when they can fit the tasks in, and start scheduling. I’ve done it myself (see How To Time Block) And sometimes that works, especially if you are trying to get past the mindset that you have no time to do anything.

However, if you are faced with an Everest task list, this strategy can backfire. Deadlines and time blocking are for sprinting – you get a lot done quickly. But sprinting is not a sustainable pace. Do it too long and you won’t want to do anything because you’ll have collapsed wheezing.

Setting arbitrary deadlines on your tasks in the long run just contribute to the feeling of overwhelm. It’s never good to set a due date for something that isn’t truly good just because you intend to do it. We all know what they say about intentions and the road to hell….

The Danger of MITs

There are several schools of thought out there that say you should pick your three Most Important Tasks (MITs) and do those before anything else. You don’t have to do anything else other than those tasks – you can stop.

I have two problems with this: the first is that those of us who work for others don’t have the control of our schedules to do this; the second is that three isn’t enough when you have a mountain.

Let’s deal with the second objective first. You can make progress on your task list if you do three things every day, but the truth is that things get added faster than that. So if you stop after three, you still have a mountain waiting to climb, and it’s growing.

Now the first one: do it before anything else. OK, but if you have to work? They respond that you should do them first when you get home. OK, but when you get home the kids need help with their homework, the dog needs to be fed, and dinner has to be started. They respond you should do them before anything else. So that leads me to believe that homework and feeding the family, while very important, isn’t going to help you tackle the task Kilimanjaro.

Having tasks compete for your attention to become one of the three is too limiting. Also, you need to be conscious of your list at all times and be able to flex to do what you can when you can.

Limiting Tasks For Better Control

Let’s talk about how to limit tasks – flexibly – for better control, to avoid overwhelm and still make progress.

Check Your Available Time

You have to know what your time schedule looks like before you can realistically choose tasks for the day. If you have a day where you are working, followed by a session at the gym, and you have a PTA meeting in the evening after dinner, don’t expect to get much done. If you have no meetings in the evening, and no one requires your services as maid/chauffeur/cook, you will be able to get more done.

So figure out what your time blocks are. Be realistic. Know how much time you can give to tasks based on your schedule.

Start With Those Actually Due

Next, look at what is actually due that day. Not arbitrarily due because you’ve imposed a deadline on yourself, but that have an externally-set deadline. Write these down.

Can you get them all done? Yes? Great!

Oh, wait, you said no? Well, then either you are going to have to move things in your schedule to free up more time, or not do some of the tasks or find another way to get the task done. This can include delegating it to someone, or purchasing an item instead of putting in the time. Whatever you do, consider this carefully….cutting sleep doesn’t really work in the short term or long term.

Pick A Few

Now, let’s talk about if you have some time left over. Don’t go for the whole list. Remember, you don’t want to overwhelm yourself. Pick things you know you can get done.

If you have tasks grouped by location (See Managing Personal Tasks), try to knock a bunch of those out at once. If you have things that can help you get ahead for the coming week, choose those, especially if those days are tight on time.

Final Note

Don’t worry about limiting your tasks. You’ll get more done than you think, and if you find yourself in the (enviable) situation of having time and your task list is complete, you can always choose to pick more! (Or you can sit back and relax, too!)


Limiting your tasks to the time you have available will help you get more done than being overwhelmed by the whole list or by picking three to do.

Action Item

Try the method above for one week and see if you get more done, or if you feel less overwhelmed.

Photo by Robert Katzki on Unsplash