managing a never-ending to-do list

Leaving to freelance ignited a lot of change in the way that I thought about my life and career – specifically in the way I created and managed work for myself against whatever was going on in my life.

I took a risk in April of 2015; but a “safe” risk. Before I made the decision to resign from my full-time position and pursue work as a contractor, I looked at the amount of work that I would take on as I left and made sure that the change had no impact to my income. A little less than two weeks in, our agency lost a few major clients. My workload got cut in half, and so did my income.

I gave myself a break and enjoyed having less responsibility. I had the opportunity to use airline miles and crash on the sofa bed in our yearly timeshare in Aruba and took a low-cost Caribbean vacation. A reduced workload allowed me to experiment with traveling while working for the first time in my life. Easing into this was one of the reasons I believe I became so good at it, but that’s a story for another day.

Having to come home and begin searching for part-time opportunities was the first time I forced myself to maximize each day. 4 hours of work a day and 4 hours of opportunity searching. 4 hours of work then 4 hours building a website. Social events turned to networking events. Even without opportunities, my number one focus was to end each day knowing that I spent my time on things that would progress me and not waste my time on things that wouldn’t. At least I was trying and putting in effort to better my situation and re-gain my income.

Even when my plate was full, or my workload was around a typical desk job, I still made sure I was utilizing my time for things that would put me in a position to grow. Not commuting meant I had extra time in my day – was I filling it with binge TV watching or things that would make me smarter, more efficient or better at what I do?

I kept myself busy as a way to grow, and I kept myself busy as a way to deal with personal issues I encountered in the last year. Busy was good.

Until the downside of busy started rearing its ugly head. Trying to maximize each day forced me to move quickly, but I was moving too quickly and not putting the amount of focus I needed into one thing before I moved onto the other. I started making mistakes I shouldn’t have been making. Busy cut out of my rest and relaxation time and that has always been a battle for me. The truth is that a proper balance of rest is crucial to keeping you sharp, agile and focused.

And my to-do lists became never ending. The majority of days I wasn’t accomplishing what I set out to do. It made me question, “Did I bite off more than I could chew”, “Am I just being lazy and refusing to put in the effort I know I need to put in?”, “Am I calling it quits too early?” Too bad I’m always one to deliver on my promises. Slacking on client dates and deliverables wasn’t an option.

Now add a long distance move to the mix. Now my personal life had a to-do list. Rent agreements, utility set up, paperwork, packing, reservations, flights, health insurance changes and car insurance changes, essential furniture. Oh yea, it’s also tax season and I’ve self-employed, meaning preparing my taxes for my accountant is not as easy as when I just e-filed my W2. Some of this is fun, but now both lists rival each other in length and both are intimidating to say the least.

I’m a prioritize-r. My career always takes first priority, knowing without my career, moving, traveling and living on my own is not possible. So for the past few weeks I’ve been cramming a workout in from 7:30-8:30, career in from 9-5 and leaving 7 ‘til I pass out for moving stuff. The moving stuff is fun – I figure I’ll be motivated to pack and do the essentials even if I’m tired from the day, because it’s something I’m passionate about right?

I usually can’t wait to shut my computer down at 7. And if I’m still a bit motivated, I’ve been trying to get ahead on my career to-dos instead of my personal to-dos. Leaving me in the same situation I started with, my to-do list is still never ending, I still don’t feel accomplished.

The past two weeks I took a different approach – one that equally prioritized my personal to-dos with my work to-do list and I’ve found 10x more accomplishment and stress relief from following this approach. If you are a go-getter, consider these few tips for unburying yourself from never-ending to-do lists or making managing them a bit easier.

Make a list of things you are excited doing and schedule them. Do a few things, or one thing each day earlier in the day, before lunch. I was waiting until night when I was burnt out and therefore, pushed these things back. But doing things that excite you can energize you, motivate you and actually help you do more than if you waited until after you had already had a full-day under your belt.

Take proper rests during the day, even if your day is super-full. The stacked bowls and coffee mugs in my office reminded me it’s been a long time since I tore away from my computer. I ate lunch while working, snacks while working, coffee while working. It was causing me to lose focus just trying to quickly move through my to-do list and lack of focus can eat time and make your day less productive. I allowed myself a personal phone call yesterday in the middle of my work day. Before I took the call I was literally dragging trying to wrap up a presentation. Had I continued to drag, it would have taken me longer. The call provided a nice break from it allowed me to quickly refocus, regain momentum and move quicker so I had to time to finish other things.

Balance long days with planned short(er) days. For a while I had a lot of success making Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday 10-12 hour days while keeping Mondays and Fridays around 8 hours to accommodate my social life. But 3 days was a long time to go without having some” me” time to dedicate to things I wanted to do. Instead, I switched to every other day. If Monday hit 10-12 hours, Tuesday stayed around 8 and I recommitted to a longer Wednesday. If things were still crazy by the time Friday rolled along, getting up 1 hour earlier to fit it all in was easier when you know the weekend and a solid break is only 10 hours away. I did my laundry two weeks ago – and I finally put it all away tonight because I forced myself to take a shorter day. I certainly had the energy to commit to my work and career, but the sight of the laundry put away instead of the floor of my room loosened my stress, fed my need to feel accomplished and lessened the feeling of being overwhelmed by my to-do list. (yes, something that simple).

Re-arrange your routine. Is there something you do during the week that you can push back to the weekend? For me, it was a workout. I would always take a rest day on a weekend – which was pretty silly of me, I had more time on the weekends to workout. Instead I moved a rest day to the middle of the week, which gave me extra time to catch up on work or slow my day down a bit so I didn’t feel like I was cramming.

It’s okay if you can’t do it all. Don’t beat yourself up over it, it’s only going to make trying to push through the next day even harder.

Coffee is your friend. The 2pm feeling is very real. Coffee improves my mid-day energy and focus. So does water.