Paralyzed By Your To-Do List? A Quick Guide to Prioritizing

“Besides the noble art of getting things done, there is the noble art of leaving things undone. The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of non-essentials.” ~Lin Yu Tang

Do you have so many tasks, projects or interests that you are paralyzed by confusion and indecision?

Are there so many things that you love to do, want to do, or have to do — that you don’t know where to start first?

If you are like me, your inclination is to do what is easiest or most fun. But then a nagging feeling lurks around me about the chores that need my attention, and it undermines the pleasure of the task at hand.

At one time, I would do all the grunt work first so that I could get it out of the way to enjoy the things I liked without that guilty feeling. I would fill my “to do” list with all of the projects hanging over my head and impeding my mental freedom to pursue my goals, dreams,  and deepest desires.

But a funny thing happened on the way to clearing my “to do” list. It kept reproducing.

I’d get everything checked off, only to see ten more items appear at the bottom of the list. It was never-ending, and I became endlessly frustrated that I was trapped by mind-numbing tasks, events or work I didn’t like.

Eventually, I was able to step off this treadmill, but only after I reached middle age and felt I was going to suffocate and die if I didn’t.

When you come to the realization that half of your life is over, you’re lucky if a voice in your head shouts, “There’s got to be more to life than this! Do something!” And there is more, whether you are fifteen or fifty.

Yes, there are chores and tasks that have to be done, unless you want to risk squalor, eviction, divorce, or arrest.

There are other chores and tasks that are time-sucking albatrosses of your own creation. For example, I live in a lovely, big suburban home. We have a big yard. When we bought the house, I was beside myself with joy and excitement.

But I didn’t realize how much work it took to maintain a big house with a big yard. I became a slave to the house.

So how do you find the freedom to do more of the things you enjoy doing, and less of the things you don’t, without going broke or losing the respect of those you care about? To start, there are four concepts you must embrace:

1. You can’t do everything right now. You will have to make choices and let go of some things.

2. Some people may not like your choices, and you have to accept that discomfort knowing that it will likely pass in time.

3. You will have to shift your perceptions about what you value and what really brings you happiness, and proactively create your work and activities around that.

4. There may be some things you can’t change right now, but you can work toward changing them.

If you can embrace these realities, you are ready to begin clearing the mental paralysis so you can prioritize and accomplish more of the things that bring you sustained joy and meaning in your life.

Here’s a quick guide to getting started.

Action # 1

  • Get four sheets of paper.
  • At the top of the first page write, Things I Do Now That I Enjoy.
  • At the top of the second page write, Things I Wish I Could Be Doing.
  • At the top of the third page write, Things I Do Daily That I Don’t Enjoy.
  • At the top of the last page write, Things I Still Need to Do That I Don’t Enjoy.
  • Under each heading, write a list of all actions related to work, home, family, finance, recreation, fitness, education, spiritual life, and any other category of your life that requires your time and attention.
  • Using your best estimate, assign an amount of time it takes to pursue or complete these actions. For work, you can assign the total amount of time you spend on the job.

Action # 2

  • Look at the page titled, Things I Still Need to Do That I Don’t Enjoy. Are there any items on that page that if left undone would not adversely affect your life  (beyond the discomfort of disappointing someone else)? If so, cross them off the list for now.
  • Are there any items on this same list that could be delayed for one month or more with the same parameters as above? If so, cross these off your list.
  • Looking at the items you crossed off the list, are there any people you need to advise that you will not be doing these things? If so, before you lose your courage, make those calls right now.
  • List all of the actions that you absolutely must do yourself.

Action # 3

  • Now take a look at the page, Things I Do Daily That I Don’t Enjoy. Look at the most time-consuming item. Write down 5-10 possible ways that you could spend less time on that item.  Could you delegate, streamline, or completely eliminate any part of this item? Do this exercise with the next three most time-consuming items.
  • From this list you just created, write down any actions or calls you need to make to implement the ideas. If possible, handle those right now.
  • Of the remaining daily actions that you don’t enjoy, are there any tasks that you can eliminate or delegate without a serious negative impact on your life?
  • Of the actions you absolutely must handle yourself, is there a more efficient way of doing these that will take less time or seem less intrusive? Write down your ideas.
  • List all of the actions that you absolutely must do yourself.

Action #4

  • Look at the list titled Things I Do Now That I Enjoy. Prioritize this list with the most important activities at the top.
  • Now do this exercise with the Things I Wish I Could Be Doing.
  • Pulling from both lists, prioritize the top 6-8 activities that you do now or wish you were doing and write them down in order. This is where you would like to be spending the majority of your time.
  • Be aware that you may not be able to do all of the things you enjoy. The goal is to spend more time doing things you enjoy rather than  activities you don’t.

Action #5

  • Look at the final list of actions you don’t like but absolutely must do yourself. Calculate how much time those activities take on a daily and weekly basis.
  • Now do this calculation for the list of 6-8 activities that you enjoy.
  • By eliminating, postponing, or delegating some of the activities you don’t like, have you found more time for activities you do enjoy?
  • By prioritizing the activities you enjoy, do you feel a better sense of direction about how to spend your time?
  • Using these lists, create a weekly schedule for yourself, leaving 1-2 hours a day of cushion for unexpected events. Remember to build in time for sleep, grooming, and eating.

This guide will be a start for examining and organizing how you spend your time. Of course there may be bigger questions  related to your career, your relationships, or how to fulfill a bigger goal or dream that can’t be addressed so quickly.  If so, use the guide to carve out time to address these issues. Make “life creation” one of your daily activities.

If you need a coach to help you through this process, you can read more about my coaching work here.

Want some ideas on what makes life truly joyful and meaningful? Download a copy of my FREE eBook, How to Live A Meaningful Life, and receive regular email updates to Live Bold and Bloom.




25 thoughts on “Paralyzed By Your To-Do List? A Quick Guide to Prioritizing”

  1. You’re either reading my mind and know what I need to hear, or there are a lot of people out there like me who feel overwhelmed with to-do lists and just don’t know where to start. This was the perfect post to read after a frustrating monday spent slaving over things I felt I had to do or wanted to get out of the way.

    Thank you for your step-by-step guide to figuring out priorities and integrating that into time management. I’m a girl who likes a plan and something concrete I can “do” to work out a problem, so your action plan will now be the first thing on my to-do list tomorrow.

    • Hi Lori,
      I’m so glad you found the post! It’s funny how that happens — you stumble across something that seems to have been put in front of you for a reason. I like action plans too. If I have some sort of control or road map for the situation, I can usually figure it out. I’d love it hear how it works for you once you go through the steps!Thank you for commenting.

  2. Barrie, thank you so much for this step-by-step guide! In the past I’ve done weekly schedule to monitor my time, but your plan feels much more active: you’re not passively looking at things you do, but actually taking control of your life.
    Great post!!
    .-= Cristina´s last blog ..Vanilla- Lime and Raspberry cake =-.

    • Hi Cristina,
      Yes! Taking control of your life. That’s what it’s all about. Once you run the show instead of life running you, that’s when real living begins. Thank you for your kind comments.

  3. Thanks for this inspiration. I find my to-do list to be the only thing that keeps me out of psycho-stress mode, but also perpetually overwhelming in itself. Your post gives me some great ideas on how to deal with the overwhelming part. Thanks!

  4. This post speaks volumes to me! I happen to be fifty and at a crossroads. I look at my current life (which I take full responsibility for creating) and think exactly what you wrote: “there’s got to be more to life than this!” It’s not that my life is bad. It’s just that my to-do list leaves little time for what I really want to be focusing on. Thanks for the tips. I’m going to give them a try.

    • Hi Julie,
      I hope you do give them a try and would love to hear how it works for you. Sometimes our entire lifestyle forces the never-ending to-do list, and then you have to evaluate whether or not you want to make a real shift in your life. It’s scary but really exciting too!

  5. Your statement of “mental paralysis” is a good one. Too often, I think more than I do. I think when the right time would be, or I try to anticipate every obstacle before beginning. This leads to little action and disappointment.

    Your guide is a good blueprint to help me get over the hump and into action.

    Thanks Barrie,


    • Hi Alex,
      That over-thinking can really impede getting things done! I’m a great over-thinker too. Thinking seems like great preparation for action, and sometimes it is. But it can also be a trap that leads to indecision and immobility. I hope these exercises help you over the hump. Thank you for your comments.

    • Adalia,
      I am so glad you found it useful. And I love the idea of having a “Don’t List.” It does put things squarely in our control.

  6. Wow we sold our home last week and are looking to buy a condo. Major stuff and your article came at a perfect time! I’m getting my 4 sheets of paper out!

    • Hi Tess,
      I’d love to hear back from you on how it worked during this really busy time in your life! Thank you for commenting.

  7. Dear Barrie,

    This is a great guide for examining how we live on a daily basis. It is my heartfelt desire to spend my time on what I love as much as possible.

    As you say, we need a balance as there are those necessities of life to think of!

    I’m excited to do this exercise and to move further into doing what I love and having my work reflect my passion.

    Thanks so much.

    Be well,
    .-= Lauren´s last blog ..Join The Circle of Fun Acts of Kindness =-.

    • Thank you Lauren. I’m so glad you liked it. I hope your life is filled to the brim with things you love to do!

  8. Barrie,

    This is just what I needed right now! Thank you for providing clear action in addressing our overwhelming to-do lists. I’m getting out my four sheets of paper after I share this on Facebook.

    Thank you!

    • Hi Maura,
      I am so glad you found it useful and would love to hear how following the process works for you. Thank you for sharing it on Facebook — I really appreciate it.

  9. Barrie, I love this guide! It really is phenomenal how the list grows as we clear it. It can really take over if we don’t handle it. Separating out onto four sheets of paper really does give me a clear picture.
    .-= Aileen´s last blog ..Dance is Like a Box of Chocolates =-.

  10. Hello Barrie, I love the opening quote. I am the queen of wanting to do it all. I have many interests and ideas. I find it helpful to ask my self what is realistic in a day? in a week? in a month? in a year? in a lifetime?

    I can’t do it all, so where do I want to spend my energy – on what’s most important sprinkled with a little mundane. I do tend to do the grunt/mundane before I do the fun stuff. I have been thinking about recording how much time I spend on the computer and how much time I spend working from home….but am avoiding really looking at the numbers. Thanks for the nudge to get more concrete about how we spend our time.
    .-= Marci´s last blog ..30 Minutes to Learning the Art of Networking =-.

  11. As a student, I actually found this surprisingly unhelpful. Everything on my “Things I Still Need to Do That I Don’t Enjoy” list, if left undone will adversely affect my grades, the deadlines are set and can’t just be pushed back by a month without extenuating circumstances and mountains of paperwork for professors, and all have to be done myself.

    For “Things I Do Daily That I Don’t Enjoy”, those are all things I must do myself, it’s not like I can delegate tasks to my roommates or cat, or have my mom to do my laundry for me.

    Just basically, the strategy is to delegate, postpone, and eliminate…I foolishly thought this would be for people who have a paralyzing amount of things to do, aka, things that cannot be delegated, postponed, or eliminated. I already schedule time, set alarms, keep calendars, have prioritized checklists, my problem is getting everything done that needs to be done, falling behind, and then being buried.

    All in all, nicely written but not applicable or helpful.


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