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I recently had a feedback session with my Air Force Reserves supervisor that wasn’t entirely rosy.

By and large, he was happy.  But then he turned serious and asked me, “Can you handle some honest feedback?”

I took a deep breath.

He’d noticed that I had the habit of panicking when I felt I had too much work on my plate, and then rashly canceled on my commitments.

I didn’t necessarily disagree.  I knew I had the habit of signing up for too many activities and projects, mainly because I’m easily excited by opportunities to problem solve.  When my to-do list got to be more than I could handle, I re-prioritized and either wrapped up or backed out of the work that no longer suited me.

What was wrong with that?

He pointed out that not only was I clearly suffering emotionally when I felt overwhelmed, but I was hurting my professional credibility as well.

He told me I had a time management problem.  I argued I had an over-commitment problem.

Over time, I realized he was right.  And the problem was far worse than I realized.

Fortunately, I discovered a process that, with just one day of concentrated effort, allowed me to take control of my calendar, break my enthusiastic tendencies to over-commit, and finally (finally!) let me feel in control.

Today I’ll show you step-by-step how I did it.

Do more great work … up to a point

In his book Do More Great Work: Stop the Busywork. Start the Work That Matters., Michael Bungay Stanier highlights why we need to be conscious about managing our time between bad, good, and great work.

When I worked in the corporate world, most of my work fell into the categories of bad and good work. Bad work is the pointless, meaningless work that wastes your time but someone inexplicably keeps asking you to do it.  Good work is the vital, useful, and profitable stuff that keeps organizations running.

But it’s the great work most of us are interested in.  For organizations, it’s the stuff that drives strategic difference and innovation.  At the individual level, great work inspires and engages.  It is deeply meaningful work that connects to your aspirations.  But Stanier also provides a warning

Great Work is also a place of uncertainty and discomfort. The discomfort arises because the work is often new and challenging, and so there’s an element of risk and possible failure. Because this is work that matters, work that you care about, you don’t want it to fail. But because it’s new and challenging, there’s a chance that it might.

This is an issue no one talks about as you consider making the transition from a decent career to one you love.

You will be tempted, particularly the over-achievers among my readers, to take on more great work than you can handle.  For the first time in your life, you might see your full potential reflected in every project you consider, every collaboration.

Those of us who already have a tendency to over-commit can very nearly drown when surrounded by opportunities to pursue great work.

As Stanier brilliantly puts it

What are you saying yes to? And by saying yes to this, what are you saying no to?

In many cases, we’re saying no to sanity, to sleep, and to professionalism.  And the worst part is, we largely don’t even realize we’re doing it.

The step-by-step plan to sanity and fulfillment

While it’s not really necessary to show you the actual projects and decisions I wrestled with, I want to walk you through my thought process.  It all started with making three very important lists.

Step 1: Capture how you spend (and want to spend) your time

So let’s start by focusing on the positive.  What are the things I definitely know I want to do (in no particular order)?

  1. Give a TED talk
  2. Continue some sort of offering for the No Regrets Career Academy
  3. Write books
  4. Creative marketing (e.g. make “viral” videos)
  5. Interview series
  6. Continuing my education (books/seminars/masterminds)
  7. Grow my blog
  8. Spend quality time with my family

Now what are the things I think I’d like to do?

  1. Seminars & workshops for corporate settings
  2. Client mastermind program
  3. Find sponsors for my work
  4. Put on my own live event
  5. Regularly scheduled coaching calls
  6. Travel

Finally, I annotated other activities that take up my time.  This will include things like sleeping, eating, and chores.  But it also includes good work, stuff like answering blog comments and (ahem) my Reserve work.

Step 2: Analyze for “critical mass”

The first thing that struck me just looking at these two lists is: no wonder I often feel inadequate!

Nearly every activity on the two lists above is a big project requiring focused effort, a lot of learning, and connecting with the right people who can help me move it forward.

For example, I’ve been frustrated that my number of blog subscribers has been stagnant for several months now. I fooled myself into thinking I’d reached the point where I could just write a great post every week and the numbers would magically rise on their own.

Growing my blog requires an investment, one I couldn’t provide because I was too busy working on other activities on my dream list.

In fact, my lack of focus actually meant in some cases, I was losing ground.  There’s the concept of critical mass, and in most cases, I was spread too thin to reach it.

For each of the tasks on my list, I made a guess as to how many hours a week I thought I needed to reach critical mass.  These are estimates for now, and in all likelihood are probably still too optimistic, but it’s a place to start.

Step 3: Put some ideas in the “ice box”

We all know there’s only 24 hours in a day, but many of us conveniently ignore that fact when deciding how to spend our time.

I’m not suggesting you give up on your dreams.  Quite to the contrary.

I’m suggesting each needs its own space to breathe and grow.

I can see myself up on that TED stage.  I really want to make that happen.  But I also know that will probably be a much easier task once I’ve accomplished some of my other great work ideas.  I can save it for later.

I also realized that given all the big items on my “definitely want to do” list, nearly everything on my second list of “would like to do” would likewise have to wait.

Lastly, I took a number of items off my “stuff that takes my time” list by outsourcing them.  I hired a housekeeper.  I hired a travel agent.  Does it cost more to do that?  Absolutely.

But this exercise helped me see the invisible cost I was paying by not getting help: I was constantly stressed out and unable to focus on what mattered most.

Step 4: Set your core work hours

To further simplify the process, I created core work hours.  The concept is a little like skimming money off the top of your take-home pay and putting it into savings.

Basically, you set aside time for the things of greatest consequence.  Your core hours are the hours that remain.  And that is what forces you to get serious about prioritization.

I came to my core hours by setting some fixed parameters:

  • The time from when my daughter gets out of school at 3 PM to when she goes to bed at 8 PM is set aside as family time.  This obviously includes dinner, but might also include chores that can be done together, such as grocery shopping.
  • I stop working at 10 PM every evening.  This ensures I have time to let my mind wind down and get at least 8 hours of sleep, since normal wake-up time in our house is 7 AM.
  • My weekends should largely be reserved for more family time, socializing with friends, travel, chores, or just plain ole down time.  My only exception is from 8 to 10 PM on Saturday and Sunday.

This gave me 44 hours of core working hours.

Step 5: Build your ideal week

You’ll remember in Step 2 we set aside the hours we thought we needed to reach critical mass. Now the trick is to fit these on the calendar within the core work hours you’ve designated.  I found the best way to do this is to just draw it out.

A few tips to keep in mind:

  • Some activities, like continuing education (shown here as CE), can easily be broken into small chunks.  But many activities benefit from concentrated focus.  Be honest about these, and if you can’t give an activity the critical mass and focus it needs, maybe it needs to go in the ice box.
  • An ideal (and free) tool for managing the number of tasks you’re working on at any one time is Kanbanery.  You can set lists for to-do, doing, and done.  Best of all, you can limit the number of tasks in your “doing” list.  I love it!
  • Create time for the unexpected, infrequent, and less than ideal.  Things like doctor’s appointments, travel, visiting relatives, etc.  Your schedule has to have some slop or you’ll drive yourself insane.
  • You have the ability to break your own rules.  Finishing up a big project and want to work all weekend?  You can!  The ideal week schedule allows you to make conscious decisions about how you want to spend your time.
  • You can move things around as needed.  For example, this schedule provides 8 hours for coaching a month.  I can do that in 2 hour chunks each week, or I can take 2 days each month at 4 hours each.

Step 6: Where’s Waldo?

Believe it or not, you can go through all these steps and still realize you forgot something important.

For me, as I looked at my ideal week, a light bulb went off when I realized there was no time for going to the gym.  My life (and fitness levels) up until now started to make a lot more sense.

I had several choices:

  • I could remove some core work hours
  • I could adjust my parameters (for example, one day a week I might get less sleep)
  • I could outsource some of my regular work, like getting my daughter ready for school, to my husband one day a week, then use the other two options for the rest of the time.

The point is, the choice was mine, and for the first time, I could accurately weigh the consequences of whatever I decided.

Is this a fantasy?

In the past, I told myself I just had too much to do.

As Alice Walker says

The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.

You decide how you want to spend your time.

Not everyone wants to hear that message.  For the longest time, I know I didn’t.  Being busy, overwhelmed, and in-demand seemed like the hallmarks of success to me.  That didn’t change when I left the corporate world and decided to work for myself.

I acted as if a burden was being thrust upon me, instead of acknowledging it was one I was choosing to carry.

That doesn’t mean that lots of people won’t rush in to tell you what they think you should be doing with your time.

Your boss, your spouse, your friends, your co-workers … they all have demands.  Some of the demands and distractions will even reside in your own head.

All I’m saying is: it’s your choice to listen.

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42 Responses to How I Tamed My To-Do List, Stopped Looking Like a Flake, and Regained my Sanity

    • On
    • April 24, 2012 at 11:59 am
    • Ailyn
    • Said...

    Jen, are you that good that you can read my mind? Well, you did! This past month and a half I have been so completely overwhelmed with “Misc” that everything else took the backburner! And the week is already half way through and I don’t get to anything, so stressed and overwhelmed with to-do and want-to-do that I do nothing!
    You just gave me a clear idea of what I need to work on first, and it will be Great Work!
    Thanks :-)

    • Shhh, Ailyn, don’t let my secret out!

      Knowing what you’re going through, of course you’re stressed out! Not only do you have a lot on your plate, but you’re making big changes. This system will definitely help, but also remember to be gentle with yourself about progress (says the woman who has a very difficult time doing that herself!)

  1. Great post, Jen – and very helpful. I’m wondering where you fit in email time. Do you schedule that, as well? I feel like my whole day is eaten up by responding to the constant stream of email message I get every day. What do you do to manage that?

    • I consider email to be part of business operations. But there are two caveats: 1) While I’m better about not checking my email all the time and interrupting my flow, I still have a long way to go, and 2) I still haven’t fully tackled the email overwhelm problem. My best solution is just to acknowledge that you’re not going to answer them all. Or maybe you limit yourself to the length of a tweet in response. Consider making the problem an opportunity to be creative and it might make the whole thing less burden and more fun.

    • On
    • April 24, 2012 at 12:27 pm
    • Barbara
    • Said...

    Time management is the bane of my existence Jen. I’ve never been great at it and yet I’ve managed to succeed where I put the effort. I’ve found I’m better without an iron clad schedule. I tend to rebel against too much structure. It’s good to acknowledge that I suppose and work with it instead of beating myself up for not being better organized. Your work ethic is to be admired greatly but I have to accept it wouldn’t work for me.

    • Just to be clear, this method isn’t about creating an iron clad schedule. It’s getting real on how much stuff you can realistically fit onto your to-do list. I certainly don’t follow this schedule, but it was what I needed to convince myself I had to drop some projects.

    • On
    • April 24, 2012 at 12:43 pm
    • Leigh
    • Said...

    This was SO MUCH exactly what I needed this week. Thank you! You captured something I’ve never heard said: That when you find your calling and work you love to do, the time pressure gets more intense because so much creativity and new ideas/projects come into being. Thanks again. Love your blog.

    • Yes, I think that’s the biggest misconception. A lot of my clients come to me wanting to dial down and work less. I tell them that if we’re successful in finding the work they truly love, that’s not likely to happen, but they will be happier. I think a lot of the talk about balance derives from our dissatisfaction with our work.

      Thanks for the kind words!

    • On
    • April 24, 2012 at 12:48 pm
    • Clara
    • Said...

    Jen, another excellent post that is oh-so-much-more-powerful because you’re candid about your own struggles and because you give us a real-world example of how you’re working it through. Time management continues to be a big issue for me, particularly now as I’m in the R&D and starting to implement mode of my new work.

    For those of us who are driven by ideas and achievement oriented, It’s damn hard to let go, or even to postpone some of those bright and shiny objects that lure us. It’s a process of reviewing, listening to ourselves, re-assessing, and re-prioritizing. And it’s just as important to remind myself that this is a continual process without a completion date–it simply (ha!) needs to be factored into daily life. Thanks!

    • On
    • April 24, 2012 at 1:38 pm
    • Portia
    • Said...

    Far too often I have found myself whipsawed by my to-do list. I realized a couple of things about myself. I am distracted by bright shiny objects and I tend to over commit because I have an abundance of enthusiasm about things I think I could add value to. I love your methodology. I’m still trying to work out my system but one thing I discovered five years ago is the power of outsourcing all non-value added items like housework. I think this is every working mom’s friend. As someone who is relentlessly achievement oriented, I’ve gradually started narrowing down my list of must do’s to focus on just a few things that will help me accomplish the big list. Thanks for articulating what I suspect is a struggle for many of us.

    • Intuitively I know that outsourcing is smart, but my frugal tendencies get in the way. When I hired our personal chef, I told myself it was ok b/c we didn’t get a housekeeper. It was a good trade. And I certainly don’t regret hiring the chef! But then I didn’t keep up the house, or when I did, I got super cranky. So yeah, figuring out when it makes sense to outsource is a real challenge, but obviously one that pays more than it costs.

  2. What an excellent — and oh-so-thorough — post! I love the “ice box” idea. :)

    I know that one of the best things I’ve done for my sanity lately is to ask myself what I need to do next, not long-term, just “next.” So while I’m sitting here thinking about the client retreat I want to create/offer, the book I plan to write, the conference I’d like to speak at, and other huge-ish goals, I must also figure what I’m doing next, which usually has to do with the smaller goals. So I’ll ask myself “What can I do right now to move my business forward?” And often that’s as simple as finishing a proposal, or going to a networking event, or finishing an article for a client.

    I think it’s challenging for those of us with so many ideas and creativity sparks to settle down and give ourselves distinct and separate time to work on the core things that will move our dreams forward now, and the other,longer term “ice box ideas,” because we want to do it all, right now! At least, that’s been my challenge. : )

    • Yes, it IS thorough, isn’t it? I keep saying I’m going to write shorter posts, and then this one comes in at nearly 2000 words! So thanks for liking it anyway!

      Totally agree with you about breaking the big projects into “What can I do today.” That’s what Kanbanery is helpful for, for me. I could do a whole post on that topic alone. Very important piece to fighting those feelings of being overwhelmed.

    • On
    • April 24, 2012 at 2:08 pm
    • Clara
    • Said...

    Jen, re-reading this post–yep, that’s how much I need it. I may read it yet again–I was reminded that reading posts like this one, and responding when I have something useful to say, is one of those things that I’d like to incorporate more regularly into my life. How do you manage to factor this in, since I assume you do? (And I’m not even touching on the potential for being whooshed away by the Internet, only to re-surface hours later.)

    • I don’t read or reply to other blog posts as much as I’d like to. It partly falls into my writing category, since I’m often doing web research to put my post together, but the commenting still gets short-changed. But I also try to connect with bloggers behind the scenes and develop a deeper relationship, which is easier to do as a fellow blogger. I’ve also made a point of trying to meet with other bloggers in person where I can, a strategy that has been enormously rewarding, personally and professionally.

      Glad this is helpful for you, Clara. Read it as many times as you need–sorry it’s so long!

    • On
    • April 24, 2012 at 11:52 am
    • Stacy
    • Said...

    Boy, did this come at the right time! I’m currently suffering from project overload and have been looking for a way to organize my time better. I knew I needed to do something like this but wasn’t sure how to go about structuring it. Thanks for this, I’ll be using it as a guide as soon as this afternoon to try and preserve what little sanity I have in the first place. :)

    • LOL. Good luck on preserving the sanity. I too struggled for a long time on how to organize and prioritize. This session brought me instant relief, but I also learned it’s something I need to check in with regularly. It’s not a do-once-and-forget-it kind of activity.

    • On
    • April 24, 2012 at 3:21 pm
    • Carolina
    • Said...

    To Jen and everyone else struggling with plans and schedules,

    This post came in such a good time. My boyfriend and I have had some difficulties lately trying to sort our tasks out. I’ve saved this post for future re-reading!

    I’d like to share something that’s might be helpful: Freemind (http://freemind.sourceforge.net/wiki/index.php/Main_Page), a very simple yet highly effective mindmap tool that I’ve been using to create organization charts and to-do lists!


    • Yes, I love mind-mapping. Very helpful tool, though I prefer the one created by IHMC. Then again, I work for them, so I’m biased. :)

  3. This is timely. Having gone back to work full-time has put a major crimp in my writing. Creativity needs time to spill forth from my mind onto the page. Over this past year I have learned that is important to me and how to better manage my time. I no longer try to write after a particularly tiring day. I read instead. Sometime my husband and I will sit by the fire and do our respective leisure activities, puzzles, reading, etc. It’s tough to balance it all.

    • It is hard, Denise. My recommendation would be to find an aspect of writing that is energizing for you. For example, reading always gives me a buzz of energy and makes me want to write, even if I’m tired. For others it could be brainstorming, day dreaming, or talking through ideas with your husband. If you can find your energizer, you might be able to recapture some of your writing time at the end of the day. Hope that helps!

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    • On
    • April 24, 2012 at 11:25 pm
    • Annabel Candy, Successful Blogging
    • Said...

    Hi Jen,

    One question first: How come you still have sessions with and Air Force supervisor? I need one;)

    Love how you’ve structured this. I posted a similar discussion on Successful Blogging today about how not to be a victim of your won success. it seems the better you do the more demands there are on your time and the higher your expectations become.

    So I think it’s normal that we constantly have to reprioritize. I’m making progress by being more disciplined and focused but things do pop up unexpectedly so it’s great ou realize you need to be flexible.

    Early in the year I wrote about how 2012 was going to be the year of the book for me. Shortly afterwards I started getting invites to go overseas and travel opportunities that may never come my way again.

    Now I won’t even start the book until mid year and when I do something will have to give but I think I know what that is.

    I’m sure hill get to do a TED talk sometime and that it will be amazing but (and I’m not sure how it works so I could be wrong) it seems to be that if you carry on with your other priorities especially the book, the academy and the blog at will naturally happen when the time is right:)

    • I still do work for the Air Force in the Reserves. Originally this post had all that detail in there, but it got to be so long, I had to cut that out. :)

      I have long believed I’m a victim of my own success. Figuring out how to manage that has been tricky, and I’m glad I’m doing it now, when I’m still a relative nobody. One of these days I want to write a post about why quick success is often a curse.

      And yes, I’m not sure if my book writing will actually start this year or not, but at least I’m at the point where I’m thinking about the topic and whether I want to self-publish or not. It’s been fun and I’m enjoying the process, which for me, is the best indicator of success.

    • On
    • April 25, 2012 at 12:09 pm
    • Romelle
    • Said...

    Excellent post, Jennifer! It couldn’t have come at a better time. With a full-time job, 2 boys who are active in baseball, soccer, and track (happening concurrently), and my own triathlon training, not to mention my writing, and the Platform challenge I’m participating in…that’s enough to make my head spin! Your post is going to be “save” file. I’ll be reading it over and over. Thank you.

    • Wow, that does sound a lot! I think this whole system grows even more important with kids (esp. more than one!). For much of their life, their activities are your activities, like it or not. I hope this system can help–I’d love to know what you come up with. Maybe I need to share it with more active parents? And good luck with the triathalon–fun!

    • On
    • April 25, 2012 at 3:28 pm
    • JC
    • Said...

    Well, every case is a world. In general terms I have my available time for activities in my mind, but I do my organization from a different perspective.

    I fix only the things are strictly “FIXED”. Everything else is in my to-do list available to be taken every time slot I have available. Sometimes, I take in advance a time slot in the knowledge that something is really a big priority, but in general terms I privilege the flexibility.

    Keeping my options open, and having clear the priorities I take every chance to advance to my goals.

    Again, it works for me. Every case is particular.

    Very interesting article.

    Best Regards

    Twitter: @ComoMeOrganizo
    Ultima Nota: ¿Cual es la mejor herramienta de comunicación?

    • I don’t think our two systems are all that different. I don’t follow this schedule rigidly. The point is to see what you really have time for. And until you allocate the number of hours a week, on average, that you need for critical mass, and starting moving those hours around on a schedule with the things that are fixed, it’s easy to delude yourself you have time for things you don’t. That’s certainly been my main issue for many years. So I think this is a yardstick to deciding what to say yes and no to, not as much as a weekly planner, though I can see how it looks that way.

    • On
    • April 25, 2012 at 8:01 pm
    • Shawn Tuttle
    • Said...

    Thanks for sharing your process—it’s helpful to see how you took this complicated subject and broke it down. The point I found most intriguing that I hadn’t heard before was that of critical mass for a project to take flight. Indeed! Without it, it’s like trying using a soaker hose to wash your car—not much coming out of the nozzle and what does make it out the nozzle is low-pressure/minimal impact. Way to reclaim your power!

    • Shawn,
      Yes, the critical mass is a key concept, and one I can’t totally take credit for. That came out of discussions with my husband, who was trying to make me feel better about the blog numbers. When he pointed out that I wasn’t spending nearly as much time tending to my blog as I used to, the proverbial lightbulb went off. Like the soaker hose analogy!

  5. Hi Jen,

    This is a very helpful post, so thanks for the details. I’m at a very similar point and over the past few weeks realized that I just had to put certain goals aside, for now. I also get very exciting about great projects and want to do them all NOW! 😉

    Like you, speaking is one of them, but I need focus on a few other things first. I’ve cobbled together my own time management system, but this post gives me some great ideas, thanks!

    • Yes, since I’ve been following your posts, I wondered if this wouldn’t hit home for you! Putting aside the speaking goals was hard for me. I love speaking, and if an opportunity landed in my lap, I’m sure I’d take it. But the lie is that the only time spent is pulling the speech together and giving it. The real time is hustling for opportunities, and that’s time I don’t really have. Here’s to keeping each other grounded!

      • ” The real time is hustling for opportunities, and that’s time I don’t really have. ”
        –Exactly. I even went and made a presentation to a small committee, but now realize the hustling part is a huge commitment and I really need to plan it out … after a few other things are done 😉

        • Exactly. I’ve only got so much hustle in my bustle. LOL

  6. Hi Jen – I love this post as I am feeling incredible time crunch lately. My counseling practice is very very busy, I am managing a well-known blog at the moment, (but that gig should end soon) and my two books are in final drafts…but this post was exactly what I needed and it made sense…thanks, Kathy

    • Sounds like you’re successfully busy, Kathy. Good problem to have! :)

    • On
    • May 8, 2012 at 11:57 pm
    • Andi-Roo
    • Said...

    I engage in self-sabotage, wherein I schedule way too many things for a day, become overwhelmed, & then decide in a panic to take a nap instead, so that NOTHING gets accomplished. I need to find a way to “trick” myself into only looking at one task at a time. One of my favorite mottoes, from the gals at http://thedaoofdoing.com/ : The key to doing ANYTHING is doing SOMETHING. This is so very true. I just don’t seem to remember it when I need to most.

    Andi-Roo /// @theworld4realz

    • Have you tried Kanbanery? It really, really helped me deal with the overwhlem and simply DECIDE there were things I would say no to (at least for now). Give it a try and see what you think!

        • On
        • May 9, 2012 at 3:34 pm
        • Andi-Roo
        • Said...

        I had never heard of it, but just checked it out on your suggestion. Looks like a very nifty tool, indeed. I’ll give it a try. Thanks for the push — I needed to try SOMETHING! :)

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    • On
    • June 27, 2014 at 10:01 pm
    • google
    • Said...

    ay too many things for a day, become overwhelmed, & then decide in a panic to take a nap instead, so that NOTHING gets accomplished. I need to find a way to “tri