How to Cope With a Never-Ending To-Do List

Has the perilous thought ever occurred to you that you will never reach the end of your to-do list? There will always be something more to do, another task to complete, and one more box to check. But we’re humans, not machines, so we need to be gentle without ourselves — no matter who you are, you only get 24 hours in a day. Ignoring this and pushing to do more will send you into a real downward spiral. Plus, our moods are consistently inconsistent, which makes it even harder at times to continue on with the monotonous (yet chaotic!) routine of the never-ending to-do list.

Regardless of how you do your to-dos — digital calendars, whiteboards, journals, voice messages to yourself — there are methods of getting the best out of lists without allowing them to become a source of all-consuming stress. These include the mental check-in/check-out, identifying natural start and stop points, defining “good enough,” and setting boundaries. 

So, here it is (…ironically) — a to-do list for coping with never-ending to-do lists:

  1. Use physical signals and rituals to mentally “check-in and out” of doing mode. There needs to be a time to tackle projects and a time to put them away in your mind. Physical signals or rituals can be a great way to communicate with your body to either slow down or ramp up. For instance, something as simple as a five-minute walk can put you into the headspace to dive into your list. On the other hand, you might play a certain song or eat a specific food to tell your brain to rest at the end of the day.
  2. Get good at defining “good enough.” Throughout time, great thinkers have proposed that perfection is the enemy of good, or as Winston Churchill said, “the enemy of progress.” Then there’s the old proverb from Confucious: “Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without.” Figuring out how to step away is important; one way is to ask yourself how you would articulate “good enough” to a colleague or friend. 
  3. Identify natural starting and stopping points. Think of it this way — if you were driving across the country, you would have to make stops to sleep, use the restroom, get gas, and stretch your legs. We often forget about these stopping points when it comes to our to-do lists. When completing your tasks, think about yourself as being on a journey and plot out rest points. Remember, only you can define these points. For instance, one person may be able to drive for eight hours at a time, whereas another person might only be able to make it three hours in one stretch. 
  4. Create boundaries. We teach other people how to treat us. If you’re too fluid, focused on people-pleasing, you’ll drain yourself. We need certain muscles to build and maintain our boundaries, which means ongoing work for maintenance — it’s not one and done! The real work of boundaries is internal. Think about what it means to have them, then continuously train to keep them in place. Remember, if you’re a people pleaser, you can set boundaries in a way that is both respectful and complete.

I know the never-ending list is daunting, but like with most things, we just need to take it one day or task at a time. By enacting these methods of optimizing the to-do list, you’ll be able to gain more control over your list, helping to ease your mind. While the never-ending list is just another part of life, it’s proof that you’re making forward progress all the time. One day at a time, one step at a time, one item at a time. And there is something that feels great about that!