Taking Back Monday: How to Conquer Your Chaotic To-Do List

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Here's how to be productive without burning yourself out.

At the start of the day, you roll up your sleeves, determined to knock out each item on that to-do list. It begins.

Two hours pass. You’re still at it–go you! Two hours turn into four hours, which soon turn into nine. By the end of the day, some items are crossed off, many are not, and worse yet, even more have been added. To top it off, you have a throbbing headache that won’t seem to go away.

Does this sound familiar?

Such is the freelance life, where the to-do list is simultaneously wonderful and evil. We keep running and running seemingly to nowhere because the to-do list ends up running our day. Perhaps the problem here isn’t that you, “don’t have enough time,” or, “you have too much to do,” – it’s that you don’t know your priorities.

Here’s how you can take back control of your day and still be productive, without burning yourself out.

Is It Urgent or Important?

The first step to crushing your to-do list is to know the difference between “urgent” and “important” work. With email and social media at our fingertips, the two can be easily confused. Everything may seem important, but one way to tell what really demands your attention at that moment is with the Eisenhower Decision Matrix. It was popularized by Stephen Covey in his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

According to the matrix, urgent and important tasks can be grouped into these categories like so:

  1. Important and urgent: Deadlines and emergencies
  2. Important but not urgent: Family time and working out
  3. Not important but urgent: Emails, meetings, and requests for help
  4. Not important and not urgent: Spending time on Facebook and Netflix binges

You’ll notice that urgent tasks tend to be more time-sensitive and often distract you from making progress toward meaningful goals. Answering an email is an example of an urgent task that’s masquerading as important, but we all know how emails seldom get us anywhere.

Set Clear Boundaries

Charles Darwin is recognized as one of history’s most celebrated and accomplished figures, but do you think he achieved what he did by working 80-hour weeks? No, he was totally a slacker. He wasn’t lazy, but he did make sure to fit naps and plenty of leisure time into his day.

This isn’t to say that we all need to be napping (though it wouldn’t hurt). This does mean you need to be protective of your time. After all, if you are being pulled in all directions, you are not properly blocking off your time and energy, two of our most sacred resources.

For example, if you keep forgetting to take your lunch (or breakfast and dinner), then start blocking off those times so that you can actually recharge. Remember that nothing is ever that urgent that you cannot enjoy a little downtime with some company and a delicious meal.

Slash Your To-Do List

How many things are on your to-do list? 10? 20? Infinite?

You’ve heard the saying: less is more. And it is true, and better for your mental health to focus on a couple things and get those done to win the day. Ash Ambirge from The Middle Finger Project recommends that you slash your to-do list by 75%.

It sounds like madness at first, but you’ll quickly realize that some things are just busy work to let you procrastinate on something you really need to be working on.

Answer This One Question

To take it a step further from the above point, there’s one question that should help guide you as you navigate what should be cut from your to-do list. I heard it on the Tim Ferriss podcast and now I ask myself daily:

“If this were the only thing I accomplished today, would I be satisfied with my day?”

It really makes you ponder whether that important task is really as important as you think. Then follow it up with, “Will moving this forward make all the other to-do’s unimportant or easier to knock off later?”

Know Your Goal

Why are you working so hard?

It’s easy to burn yourself out if you don’t understand what you’re working toward. There’s also a difference between artificially inflating your bank account and being financially unburdened. If you don’t know, it’s time to find out your “why.” Grab a pen and paper and ask yourself these clarifying questions:

  • What would a perfect day to you look like?
  • What kind of business would support this?
  • Is what I’m doing truly getting me toward my ideal life?

Once your path is clear, even amid the chaos, you can check out these Gigs on Fiverr to help you “keep calm and carry on.”

Stephanie Lee writes about fitness, travel, and personal development on her website FY!S and is a regular contributor to Lifehacker, Thrillist, New York Times, and more. Her work has been featured on Business Insider and Inc. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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Stephanie Lee
Stephanie Lee is a Los Angeles-based writer who freelances for Lifehacker, The New York Times, VICE, Bodybuilding.com, and more. She's a fitness geek and unabashed coffee lover. Currently, she travels the world with her laptop, sharing her digital nomad adventures on her website FY!S.
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