Published on June 3, 2022

Key to Coping with an Overwhelming To-Do List

I recently saw a digital print on Etsy for a productivity haiku: “One thing at a time. Most important thing first. Start now.” Timeless wisdom for sure, but also very tricky for the average small business entrepreneur. Defining the most important task is difficult when you fulfill many roles and there are many urgent things (both important and unimportant) that require your attention.

Moreover, being human can also throw roadblocks in our way.  We have a limited capacity to store things in our working memory.  Constant demands for attention (from customer complaints to pop-up emails) can distract and overwhelm us.  More subtle threats to performance are the to-do list tasks that pop up in our consciousness throughout the day.  When this happens, focusing on the task at hand can become impossible; remember our working memory limitations?

How have some successful entrepreneurs overcome this? Yes, the usual sage advice is valid here, and one day we all plan to get more sleep, turn off notifications on our devices, and say no more often. In the meantime, there are some short-term hacks to a bit of relief from the overwhelm.

First, when an idea for an action or remembered task pops up, write it down. This removes it from working memory. Then allot a small amount of time each day sorting these thoughts into action: schedule a time to act on it or delegate it. Delegating is really important and as I have noted before, one thing women entrepreneurs are particularly bad at. The productivity benefits are undeniable however, as they are for the act of writing down thoughts.  The actual task of writing is more effective at removing “shoulds” from working memory but some people prefer the more modern approach.  Or they may simply be in a situation where writing is problematic. Some free dictation apps which can help are Dragon Dictation for apple users, and Evernote and Voice Notes for android users. Evernote and Dragon Dictation have more options in terms of sharing and organizing your notes but do require network connection to work. Voice Notes has less applications but can be used offline.

Second, move some decisions to autopilot.  Pull a Steve Jobs and limit your wardrobe.  Eat the same thing for breakfast every day.  Get a boringly regular exercise routine with pre-planned workouts that you only shuffle every few months.

Third, when scheduling your “act time” specify a small concrete step you can take in that direction. Cheesy as it sounds, this is a surprising life-hack that works. Say one of your to-do list tasks is calling a new supplier. After having scheduled it for 8am tomorrow, lookup and add the number next to the note now.  If you want to work on an employment contract, download/bookmark a sample template from Nolo on your browser immediately.  It is amazing how this makes the next step so much more fluid and doable….as well as acting as a form of commitment that makes us more inclined to follow through.

Last, enjoy your improved capacity to focus on important business concerns. And eventually, do try to work on that sleep.

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Article written by Krista Tuomi.
Krista Tuomi is a professor in the International Economic Policy program at the School of International Service, American University. She has worked as a policy analyst in the areas of innovation and investment, and recently her focus has been on best practices in the startup investment climate, particularly on policy related to angel investing, crowdfunding and seed financing. Her passion for the field of innovation and entrepreneurship extends into her volunteer work, which includes SCORE, Boots to Business, the Veteran Small Business Challenge Competition, Syracuse’s Institute for Veterans and Military Families, and the Angel Capital Association.