How to handle task list overload

May 19, 2022

Table of contents:

  1. The problem with writing down your tasks
  2. Our productivity tools are failing us
  3. It’s too difficult to choose the optimal path

It’s common wisdom that you shouldn’t try and hold all of the things you need to do in your head at once. Productivity experts have been preaching this mantra since the dawn of productivity experts.

Getting your tasks down onto paper, or in an app is a really good way of creating some space to think. When you don’t have to rely on remembering everything, you can concentrate your brain cycles on thinking through those tricky problems.

Generally, this is great advice. Our brains aren’t great at remembering every little intricate detail. It’s inevitable you are going to mis-remember something, or forget about it completely.

The problem with writing down your tasks

However, this process can very quickly lead to your task list resembling a dumping ground. Instead of a tidy organised list of things to do, your task list becomes a mess of tasks, ideas, questions, reminders, notes, and events.

When you find yourself in this situation, it’s very easy to start feeling overwhelmed. If all of your tasks start to blur into one, it becomes impossible to get a handle on what you need to do next.

It also makes it very likely that you’re going to miss those important tasks that you absolutely can’t forget about, or you end up working on low priority things because they happen to find their way to the top of your task list.

Our productivity tools are failing us

So we’ve got a situation where getting tasks out of our heads helps us create the room we need to think clearly, but doing so creates a new stress because we become so overwhelmed with what we need to do.

Most modern task management applications don’t handle the task list as a dumping ground methodology. Once you get into the habit of using a task list as a dumping ground for everything you need to do, it very quickly becomes overloaded with tasks. Nearly everyone has more new tasks getting added to their task list than they could ever hope to complete.

The problem compounds when “productivity” is measured by the number of tasks that are completed, rather than actual progress towards your goals. It’s alluring to knock off any quick tasks that are easy to complete because it will reduce the mess of the dumping ground, and it also gives you a false sense of achievement.

It’s too difficult to choose the optimal path

Once you realise your task list has become an overwhelming dumping ground, it’s probably too late. Attempting to choose the optimal thing to work on in this situation will quickly lead to analysis paralysis.

Humans aren’t very good at evaluating lots of data in one go. If you attempt to sort and evaluate all of your tasks against each other, you will quickly find that it’s a very difficult problem to solve.

Conducting a true analysis of all of your tasks will likely take a very long time, time in which you could probably be better spent actually just getting stuff done. You will spend the majority of your time trying to pick what to work on next

Philip Brown


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