ATD Blog

Overcommitted? 5 Tips to Take Control of Your To-Do List

Thursday, February 21, 2019

You’ve got too much to do, and not enough time to do it. Sound familiar? You’re not alone. Our research shows that when it comes to managing our time and to-do lists, we’re habitually overcommitted and extremely overwhelmed.

Our latest survey of 1,353 people reveals three out of five have agreed to accomplish more than they can actually do in the time they have available. Another one in five say they have reached their limit and can’t possibly commit to more.

And it turns out our tendency to overcommit isn’t a fluke. In fact, one in three say they always have more tasks in front of them than they can actually get done, while the rest say they usually find themselves in this same predicament.

While the problem is both familiar and clear, the why behind it is telling. The top five reasons survey respondents attribute for their overgrown to-do lists are:

1. A desire to be helpful, accommodating, and polite.
2. A tendency to jump in and fix problems, even when they aren’t theirs.
3. Ambiguous limits and unclear rules about which tasks to accept or reject.
4. Working with those in authority who make nonnegotiable demands.
5. An inability to say “no” or renegotiate commitments.

Essentially, this over-commitment epidemic is the result of poorly designed workflow management systems in a world that runs on the mantra, Do more with less. Most people lack a system that can both capture and organize incoming tasks as well as the skills to negotiate commitments. And without these tools, people are bound to find themselves overcommitted.


An impossible to-do list isn’t just exhausting, it also takes a toll on our emotional health. People report feeling stressed, worried, anxious, overwhelmed, and defeated. Perhaps most alarming is their inability to be really present with the things and people that matter most. When they should be focused on meaningful relationships and activities, instead they find themselves physically multitasking or mentally occupied with other tasks. Specifically, 44 percent say they are “really present” only half of the time and 37 percent say they are rarely or never present.

But there is a solution. With just a few self-management practices, you can regain control of your to-do list while also reducing stress. When you learn to manage your workload quickly and efficiently, you’ll not only take control of your to-do list but also avoid the weight and anxiety that comes with carrying an impossible workload. Below are five productivity practices for regaining control of the to-do list in 2019.

1. Collect everything that owns your attention. Note all commitments, tasks, ideas, and projects in an external place rather than keeping them in your head. Use just a few “capture tools” you keep with you all the time, such as lists, apps, or email.


2. Do a commitment audit. Capture all your commitments on one page. Then go down the list and decide which to-dos you will do, which you’ll decline, and which you’ll renegotiate. There’s no way you can do them all in the time given; be realistic about what you can and will do.

3. Identify next actions. Most people are extra-overwhelmed by their lists because they are filled with vague things like “Budget” or “2019 Event.” These large projects repel us rather than motivate us to act. Clarify your to-dos down to the very next action—the smallest behavior you’ll take to start moving toward closure. Sometimes the key to breaking a habit of procrastination is making the action smaller until you want to do it.

4. Do more of the right things by reflecting in the right moments. Rather than diving into your messy inbox first thing, take two minutes to review your calendar and your action lists. This reflection ensures you make the best decisions about how to use your time.

5. Review weekly. Keep a sacred, nonnegotiable meeting with yourself every week to re-sync, get current, and align your daily work and projects with your higher-level priorities.

Do you want to achieve stress-free productivity? Download our guide, Five Skills for Increased Focus and Productivity, and start being more productive today!

About the Author

David Maxfield is a New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for business performance. He is the vice president of research at VitalSmarts, a Top 20 Leadership Training company. His work has been translated into 28 languages, is available in 36 countries, and has generated results for 300 of the Fortune 500.

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