I hear women say, “I just can’t add one more thing to my to-do list” all the time. And while I get it—who wants to be busier?—that desire to have a shorter to-do list is keeping you from getting the stuff that matters to you done.
It’s all about the size of your tasks.
At one of the first writer’s conferences I attended over 10 years ago, one of the presenters used a metaphor that has stuck with me.
He said, “Imagine that your time is a big bowl, and your projects are rocks. A big project is a big rock, and a little project is a little rock.
If you put one large rock in your bowl, you might have room left for another little rock, but probably not. You’ve got to break your projects up into smaller pieces, and then you can fit plenty of projects in your bowl.”
Pretty simple, right?
And yet, every time you write down “Clean out closet,” or “Write presentation,” or whatever typical thing goes on your weekly to-do list, you are essentially putting a big ole rock in your bowl, which feels like it sounds—heavy and overwhelming. These are not the best conditions for getting things done!
Maybe you do some good work on that particular task, but you don’t end up finishing, so you don’t get to cross it off, which makes you feel lame.
Or maybe you don’t even start because it feels so big. And those other rocks likely never make it into the bowl.
None of those options are good, and none of them lead to you getting the things that are important to you done.
The problem isn’t that you want to do too much, or that the things you want to do are too big, or even that you have too many things you want to do. The problem is that you aren’t breaking them down into smaller rocks.
Which means that the more you can put little rocks on your to-do list, the more you’ll ultimately accomplish.
Here’s how to do that without getting overwhelmed or driven mad by the number of things on your list.
1.) Let go of trying to manage the timeline too tightly.
I say this as a very deadline-oriented person, so I know it can be hard to swallow, but hear me say this: It doesn’t matter when you finish something.
Things take as long as they take, and that’s OK.
Which means, timing just isn’t something you need to spend energy on. Why? Because we are all always getting what we need. Maybe you needed an extra two days to have the idea that really makes your project sing. I promise you, the loving reason for things taking longer than you thought is always there.
I mean, definitely, do your best and aim to hit your deadlines. But if things take a little longer, all is not lost. In fact, all is fine. Just be transparent with anyone you may have promised something to by a certain date – I intended to get this to you earlier, but it just wasn’t ready until now. You don’t want to give them a long sob story or elaborate excuse. If something remarkable happened – a family member got sick, for example – share that, but if it’s just that you got busy, you don’t need to share the particulars. Everyone’s got a busy story. Things take as long as they take.
2.) Being done isn’t your most important barometer—progress is.
You’ve got to challenge yourself to appreciate and celebrate each little rock that you accomplish. It’s not easy to do! Your ego is going to want to dismiss the little things and berate you for not being finished yet. Don’t listen to it. If you’re looking for a new job, feel good about just printing out your resume and reading it over. Tomorrow you can send it to your word-smithiest friend and ask her to take a look. The next day you can write a few new drafts of your summary paragraph.
These past two weeks I’ve been working on cleaning out the trunk of my grandmother’s old car, which is currently housed in our garage. When my Mom had the car shipped to us, she packed it with boxes of my old photos, yearbooks, and letters. At the time, we had just moved in to a fixer-upper—I didn’t have the bandwidth or the space to unpack that stuff. As a result, those boxes have been sitting there for three years. Three years!
Finally, this spring, I was ready. The first thing I wrote down on my to-do list was “Open the trunk of the Mustang.” It may sound like a silly thing to write on your to-do list, but once I got the trunk open, I couldn’t resist bringing in a box. And then I had to open it. I got way more done than I said I would do that first day, which felt great. And feeling great propels more action.
3.) Think only a few rocks ahead.
You don’t have to figure out what every single rock is before you get started, nor do you have to put all the rocks on your list at once. You only need to determine what’s best to do now and in the next few days—you can worry about the rocks that come later once you’ve gotten a few out of the way.
So while I do believe in adding more things to your to-do list as a way to get more done, I don’t believe in adding every single thing you can think of all at the same time. Keep a running list in a separate notebook if you want to make sure you don’t forget things, but don’t label it a “to-do list”. There may be more to do, and it may take a few weeks to get them all done. Does this matter? No. (See number one.)
What breaking your projects up in to the little tasks means is that you can be simultaneously working on a lot of different projects. It’s not flaky or scatter-brained to be working on more than one important project at a time. It’s life. And it’s fun!
If it ever starts to feel overwhelming, you can absolutely set one of the big rocks aside. Because there is no perfect time to finish something, remember?
Do you have any to-do list tricks or tips you’d like to share? Leave a comment on the web version of this article, or reply to this email! I love hearing from you.
And speaking of hearing from you, would you do me the honor of taking this one-question survey? I’m embracing more planning in my life and working on an editorial calendar for future posts. I’d LOVE to know what you’re most interested in hearing about.
Here is the link: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/PYNDRQQ
From the bottom of my heart, thank you!