Are you overwhelmed by long lists?

Question: I get overwhelmed by the huge lists of things to do because I’m not sure which items to work on next. Any suggestions for that?

David Allen’s Answer: Yours is a universally common question, and one I frequently hear from people as they begin to adopt the Getting Things Done methodology. GTD promotes the idea of producing an inventory of all commitments, as well as an inventory of what specifically needs to be done about those commitments, called next actions. The result is a large to-do list.

Most mid- to senior-level professionals have on their plates on any given day between 30 and 100 projects (tasks that require multiple steps) and over 150 next actions that relate to the various moving parts of their multi-level commitments.

Welcome to a lovely restaurant with a menu of an overwhelming number of choices!

The challenge is that there is no simple A-B-C, 1-2-3, high-medium-low prioritizing formula that makes much sense in the day-to-day, minute-to-minute real world—though these have been promoted ad nauseam.

When you decide to take a nap or spend quality time with your daughter (or your puppy), is that a “high priority” on your list? And if you’ve identified some high-priority tasks on your list and fail to do them in the moment, does that feel good or bad? Does that mean you’re doing the wrong things?

One simple way to abandon all those ridiculously simplified notions of priorities is to simply ask yourself, at any moment in time: what could I do right now that would produce the greatest value to me? Handle that “ugly” email? Sit in my easy chair and meditate for a few minutes? Start sautéing onions for dinner? Create a crude first draft of a business plan? Take a hot bath? Call my brother and discuss his latest decisions about Mom? What?

Life is a bit more complex than one, two, three.

It becomes less complex, however, when you have lists of all the possible actions you might take, at hand, current, and in your face. Here are all your errands to run. Here are all the things to talk to your life partner about. Here are all the things you’re waiting for. Here are all your projects. Et cetera. Then, at least, you have a complete menu of your options. Without that, you’re likely to be driven by whatever shows up latest or loudest.

Even if you have thoroughly applied GTD in your life, there are at least three dynamics in play that influence your best decision-making.

First, your limitations. Where are you, and with what tools at hand? How much time do you have until your next engagement? How much creative energy do you have to put into this potential action?

Second, your adaptability. Are you best doing something already defined on your list, acting on new inputs, or taking time to clarify and organize what has just shown up in your in-basket and inbox to ensure your inventory of work is current and complete?

And third, from an overall context, your life purpose. What are your core standards and principles, your goals and objectives, your areas of focus that need appropriate levels of engagement? What is your long-term vision of success?

Hah! If you have a simple formula that takes into account all of the above while helping you quickly and successfully prioritize, please share it with me. I’ve spent the last 35 years of my life trying to simplify the process of prioritization and haven’t yet.

That said, here’s how I curate all factors into a rather basic rule for myself: What most has my attention right now? What do I need to do, next, to get that off my mind? I do this because I have a very high standard for having a clear head—I want nothing on my mind except the object of my intended focus.

There is not a simple formula. You must practice and refine the art of managing the flow of life’s work. It’s about capturing, clarifying, organizing, and reflecting on all your options—and engaging, moment to moment, with the thing that serves you best, based on a rigorous coordination of your conscious commitments and your intuitive knowing.

Best of Luck,
David Allen


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  1. Hi David, yes! If my list is too long I may not get anything done but if it’s short I can accomplish it all and then add more to it. Excellent point made here about having to do lists. And if we have too many choices like you mentioned in a restaurant or a store we may not make any choice at all.

  2. Thanks for the nice article. I work with many clients in my working routine. I too feel overwhelmed at work because of many tasks. But I have project management tools which provide productivity in my business which makes the task schedule and reminders on the go.

  3. Emphasizing that to link productivity with time and performance.. It is enough for you to know that in order to accomplish your tasks efficiently and effectively, you need nothing more than to know:

    The amount of time you will devote to completing the work.
    The time when you are at your best in mood, motivation, and level
    The right energy to get what needs to be done and done.

    1. Hi Manuel, would you like to say more about your situation and why the post didn’t apply?

  4. Great article. Something that stands out here for me is just the challenge of committing. With so many choices, it’s hard to just pick an option and commit to it. Sometimes choosing and committing to anything is better than continuing to groom my lists and thinking about what I should be focusing on next.

    This is a recent Happiness Lab episode that I think is a great companion to this article:

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