Thawing to-do list brain freeze

Do you suffer from to-do list brain freeze? When you’re so overwhelmed by what you have to do that you’re frozen by indecision? You may have no trouble getting in gear when you’re facing a critically important task on a deadline, but what about those days when everything seems important? Or none of it does?

That happens a lot to me. I have my list and knock off the things that are due or critically overdue. So far, so good. But then I get to the rest of the list and I find less clarity about what should take priority. There are overdue things that nag at me, causing me to feel guilty that they’re not yet done (a lot of household projects fall in that category). And then there are ideas and projects of a less critical nature that I need to do as well. I been so overwhelmed by it all sometimes, that I suffer brain freeze and don’t do anything. I become prone to doing the meaningless avoidance inducing activities I’ve called the Push-Away Impulse.

At times like these, it’s helpful to employ a few techniques of to-do list triage by asking the following questions:

  • Is someone dependent on the task? I’ll raise the priority of a task when I know that someone important to me is waiting on my effort to accomplish something important. If it’s important to someone important to me, then it’s important to me.
  • Do I  have energy for the task? As an extrovert, I’m energized by being around people. I’ve noticed that my lowest energy point is in the afternoons, so earlier this year I restructured my workday to set aside mornings for projects that need my undivided focus and energy. Afternoons are now when I meet with people to recharge me. That same principle can be applied to an individual task. If you’re an introvert, for instance, and at your low energy point in the day, elevate in priority the tasks that don’t require interacting with others.
  • Are resources available for the task? Just as others might be waiting on me to complete a task, I may have a dependency on others to complete mine. I’ll give a task a higher priority if I know a critical resource I need will only be available for a short time. That’s especially true when the task involves a lot of personal interaction with others. I’ll schedule a task, for instance, for late in the day when I need to interact with someone on the west coast about it.

If you’re more analytical, you can also use these questions to score and rank your tasks. Assuming the tasks are otherwise of relative equal value—they are not critically urgent, for instance—you can assign points to those who meet the criteria above. Those that meet all three criteria (there’s someone waiting on it from you, you have energy for it, and the resources are at hand) score a 3 and should be considered your top priority.

Even after this triage, you may have several to-do’s that are high priority. In that case, toss a coin, work on the one that seems most enjoyable, or set a timer and alternate between several of them. In that case, it likely doesn’t matter which you start on, so long as you do something. Anything. After all, a brain is a terrible thing to let freeze.

[bad pun alert] Share your thawts: In what ways have you thawed brain freeze?

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2 thoughts on “Thawing to-do list brain freeze

  1. I struggle with trying to complete tasks when the tyranny of the urgent, mine but primarily others consumes my time and energy. This coupled with my tendency to take notes and jot down a to do item or thought on what ever is handy at the moment leaves me overwhelmed, my desk full of notes and pocket packed with Post-it notes. Thee Post-it notes are very dangerous in my hands, and as helpful as they are in reminding me, they do little to help me complete the tasks I need to finish.
    I have purchased an APP for my iPad and iPhone that I have used to organize all my ntoes, tasks to complete, etc. Each task now has a completion date and alert to reind me when the task is due. I can also prioritize each event so that when I am asked to change my priorities I have a ready list of things to be done so I can slot it in to a spot that allows me to meet the most important need at the moment. WIthout a comlete list it is easy to put aside my plans for the urgency of others.

    • Hey Ron. You’re right to point out the importance of having all your to-dos in one place. I use Things on my Mac, iPad and iPhone to keep my lists organized. Even then, it can feel overwhelming. I can’t imagine managing from Post-it notes!

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