Is Your To-Do List Taller Than You Are?

Is your personal workload holding back your entire company? Two days in a row I had the same conversation with two different clients. They weren’t completing simple tasks related to key marketing projects, and as a result, were holding up the entire workflow on the projects. All they needed to do was invest a half hour of work, but in the past three weeks or three months they hadn’t gotten to it.

how big is your to-do list?

Can you relate? I can. Every successful business leader knows the feeling of overwhelm.

For my clients, and usually for the rest of us too, it wasn’t just one half-hour task left undone. There were ten, twenty, fifty, or maybe a hundre­d s­eemingly insignificant tasks waiting for attention. And the list was growing longer every day.

No, it wasn’t because Christmas was three weeks away. It wasn’t because they had a business emergency. However, I do remember seeing a business crash and burn because of this very issue. The owner was stretched too thin, struggling to meet deadlines. Then trouble erupted on several fronts in the business. Since he was already burning the candle at both ends, he had no bandwidth for dealing with these new fires that needed to be put out. He failed to delegate and eventually closed the doors.

Speaking from experience

I care deeply about this topic. For too long I was the business owner with a towering to-do list that overwhelmed me. I had a severe case of “rat race disease,” and my family often suffered as I worked long, late hours to meet my work commitments. Even when I was home, I was often in my own world contemplating problems at work.

Then I took a course by Michael Hyatt called Free to Focus. It’s not an exaggeration to say that it transformed my life. I tell people that it was the third most transforming thing I’ve ever done. The first was being born again and the second was marrying my amazing wife. She will testify to the difference that becoming “free to focus” has made in my life, and by extension, in our home.

Yesterday, two days before Christmas, my daughter cut her thumb badly at work. I got the call at 8:00 a.m. and rushed to the scene. After a ride in an ambulance and an emergency room experience I was back in the office. Though I had not planned for that three-hour delay, I was able to go home for supper on time. As I’m writing this it is 4:47 p.m. Christmas Eve. I’m set to leave the office on time with my to-do list completely checked off. I can go to our family Christmas event tonight and be fully present without work worries dogging my mind.

In contrast, five years ago an interruption like my daughter’s accident would have created a mini-disaster. Today, thanks to learning how to delegate, control my schedule, and manage my to-do list, yesterday’s emergency didn’t domino into even more emergencies.

Are you feeling the results of overload?

We probably all agree that being busy is better than not having enough to do. But busyness has its own set of hazards, especially if our workload gets out of control. Here’s what can happen:

A feeling of hopeless resignation sets in. We start to believe that digging out from under our massive to-do list is impossible.

We drop the ball more often. Others begin to question our character and integrity as they see us developing a pattern of not meeting our obligations or commitments.

We feel guilty. We know that while the business may be succeeding, we aren’t doing well personally.

We get even further behind. Attempts to multitask or rush through our work result in mistakes and inefficiencies that put us even further behind.

We feel drained. Our energy levels drop and we don’t have the gusto to tackle important, tough issues that are ours to face.

We disappoint and frustrate others. Our team may not say much, but we can sense their distrust beginning to grow.

We become irritable. The stress of an overwhelming to-do list affects our relationships, and we may become hard to get along with (both at work and at home).

We send the wrong signals. We scurry around at such a pace that our employees and customers feel we don’t have time for them. They don’t want to bother us with “unnecessary” questions, so they tend not to communicate like they should.

We lose opportunities. When we are maxed out, we don’t have the time and energy to take advantage of opportunities that may open for our business. For example, maybe you know that an opportunity exists for you to tap into a new market, but you just don’t have the time to begin exploring the possibilities.

We stifle growth in ourselves and others. A leader who doesn’t have time to lead well is like a Christian who doesn’t have time to pray—we’re only shooting ourselves in the foot. We aren’t growing professionally in our roles as leaders when we are stuck in an endless rut. Others around us may be ready and willing to step up and take on new responsibilities if we would only empower them.

I hope you are not in an experience like this, but maybe you can look ahead and see one coming your way. Or maybe this downward spiral matches your current experience exactly. Either way, you can take action now to slowly begin extricating yourself from this trap of the too-tall to-do list.

How can you exit the rat race?

Take responsibility. Don’t blame others for how busy you are. Look yourself in the eye and recognize that it’s never going to change until you change it.

Understand the importance of managing your energy. Michael Hyatt, creator of the Full Focus Planner, writes this about productivity: “It’s less about managing time and more about managing energy. Why? Because time is fixed, but our energy can flex. Most people get this exactly backward. They cram their day with tasks, thinking they can get it all done. Instead, they end up working more and more hours, less and less efficiently, because they wear themselves out.”

Learn to delegate. Delegation is a key to whittling your to-do list down to size. In the daily grind we often drop the ball on entry-level type tasks because we have “bigger fish to fry.” While it’s true that we have more important work to do, if we don’t delegate some of our responsibilities, our lack of follow-through on tasks sabotages our progress on our most important goals.

Systemize recurring tasks to save you time or better yet, to enable you to delegate them. Following are some tips to help you get started delegating:

  • Identify your strengths and weaknesses. What are you good at it? What are you not so good at? What can others on your team do better than you can? What unique gifts do you bring to the business that can move it forward in a way that no one else can?
  • Delegate work you aren’t good at. You don’t need to be the smartest, most capable person on your team. Delegate jobs that others can do better than you can. Chrysler CEO Lee Iacocca said, “I hire people brighter than me and get out of their way.”
  • Delegate work you don’t enjoy. You’ll probably never enjoy every aspect of your work, but you can delegate work that you find boring or tedious.

Leaders often hesitate to relinquish control, to their own detriment. You may worry that the other person “won’t do it right.” In addition to being clear about the process and the outcome you want, you need to be okay with something being done a little differently than you would have done it. Getting a task DONE is usually more important than getting it “just right.”

Do a time study. It’s the end of a long day. Looking back, you wonder, Where did all my time go? Try tracking your time for several days. You’ll be surprised at how little time you actually spend on your most important work.

Here are some common time wasters:

  • Checking email
  • Handling mail or paperwork multiple times
  • Scheduling work and meetings
  • Phone calls or requests others could handle
  • Solving petty problems
  • Interruptions: calls, messages, people

During your time study, take note of how many times you were interrupted when working on your most important tasks. Interruptions are costly in wasted time. Once interrupted, it takes time for us to refocus on what we had been doing (more on this a bit later).

In addition, interruptions cause us to forget something we needed to do. Did you ever have someone ask, “Did you do __________ like you told me you would?” And your response was, “Umm . . . no. I was going to do it, but I got interrupted.” The interruption made you forget because your attention shifted away from what you had intended to do.

Hire an executive assistant. Your assistant doesn’t need to work for you full time. Even a part-time helper, once trained, will make such a huge difference that you will wonder what you ever did without them. A good assistant is much better and faster at administrative and secretarial tasks than you are. You can then focus on high-level work that will bring a bigger payoff for your company.

Prioritize your tasks every day. Re-examine your duties with a critical eye. Ask questions like this:

  • Is it necessary for this to be done? If not, remove it from your workflow.
  • Is it necessary for me to do this? If not, delegate it to someone else.
  • Is there a better or more efficient way to do this?

Every day narrow your priorities to “the Big 3,” as Michael Hyatt calls them. These are three items that you must get done. Then do these first.

Just because something feels urgent, does not mean that it is important. For example, working on a marketing project may not feel as urgent as some of your other duties, yet failing to invest time into the project may leave your business farther behind in the long run.

Set time aside every day or every week for planning. Regularly take time to look ahead and start bringing some order to your upcoming activities. Schedule time where you can give undivided attention to a particular task, and batch similar tasks together. Going back and forth between dissimilar tasks (like talking to clients on the phone and trying to create a marketing plan) is inefficient use of your time and mental energy.

In his book The Personal MBA, Josh Kaufman explains how our brain “loads” information about our task into its working memory. He writes, “If you constantly switch the focus of your attention, you’re forcing your brain to spend time and effort thrashing, loading and reloading contexts over and over again. That’s why it’s possible to spend an entire day multitasking, get nothing done, and feel exhausted at the end—you’ve burned all of your energy context-switching instead of making progress.”

Schedule margin into your day and your week. It’s inevitable that things will come up that you had not planned for. If you have no “white space” in your schedule, you’ll have no choice but to leave something else undone.

Ask your team. Your team can be a source of ideas for what to delegate and practices you could change to conquer your to-do list. Try asking them—they’ve been observing you and can supply insights that you may be overlooking.


Being simply busy doesn’t count. It’s being productive—getting the right work done at the right time—that counts. Get out of your own way and let others help you get your work done. Don’t let micro-management, entry-level tasks, or lack of self-discipline keep you back from working on projects that move your entire business forward.

About the Author: Roy Herr is the senior marketing consultant at Rosewood Marketing. The Rosewood team guides business owners through marketing challenges into sustainable growth. Contact Roy at