5 Steps to Break Free from To-Do List Overwhelm

Start listening

As Christians we want to be faithful in the tasks the Lord has given us. But often we mistake busyness for productivity. We think if our to-do lists are full, and we are frantically working on them each day, surely we must be on the right track.

But more important than getting things done is ensuring you are getting the right things done. And that’s where to-do lists can be less than helpful.

In this essay, I want to share a simple strategy for utilizing a technique called time blocking to prioritize and plan a few strategic blocks of deep work each day so you can steward your time more effectively.

1. Define a Successful Day

The first place to begin is by defining what a successful day looks like for you. And this definition must be something you can actually accomplish.

Most of us vaguely think a productive day means a day in which you got a lot of things done. Or if you do keep a to-do list, you define your success by whether you finished everything on this list. But to-do lists, by their nature, are never fully done. We’re always adding new things to them. And thus they can be a poor measure of success.

Living in a pattern of broken promises is spiritually harmful to you. It trains you to live comfortably with unfaithfulness. You get used to not following through on your commitments.

One way to define a successful day is to limit your hopes for your to-do list. I like to choose just 3 things from my list for the day. Then I circle just one. That one is the only non-negotiable. If I finish that one thing, I’m happy with the day. That’s how I define success.

You may be thinking, “Just one thing? That’s setting the bar too low!” But what you’ll find is that by setting an achievable, bare you’ll actually get more done and feel less overwhelmed by your to-do list in the process.

2. Understand Why Your To-Do List Makes You Feel Guilty

It feels rotten not to finish what you set out to do. In fact, it can leave you feeling positively guilty. But there is a reason for this.

The reason you feel guilty about that undone to-do list is that it feels like a broken promise. You said you were going to do something, and you didn’t do it. And as someone who was made in the image of a God who always keeps His promises, it makes sense that we feel bad when we break our word to others or even just to ourselves.

“Know therefore that the LORD your God is God; he is the faithful God, keeping his covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commandments.”

Deuteronomy 7:9

It is true that we will always fall short. We will always break commitments to ourselves, others, and to God. And we can be thankful for the grace we have in Jesus Christ when that happens. But if you are so busy you can’t actually get the things done you’ve committed to, you need to make some changes.

Living in a pattern of broken promises is spiritually harmful to you. It trains you to live comfortably with unfaithfulness. You get used to not following through on your commitments. This habit not only leads to a sense of guilt, but the more you live this way the more it diminishes your chances of reaching your future goals. When you habitually don’t follow through, you train yourself to doubt your ability to complete what you start.

So what is to be done if we want to get off this merry-go-round of guilt, failure, and undone to-do lists?

You must redefine success apart from your to-do list.

3. Focus on the Schedule Not the List

I’m a fan of to-do lists. I have a whole chapter in my book on how to use them more effectively. But I’ve learned that defining success by the to-do list is ineffective.

There’s a real power to getting stuff out of our heads and onto paper, but once it’s written down everything on the page starts to look equally important. “Change the lightbulb” looks exactly the same as “write that book.”

If you judge the success of your day by whether you finish every triviality on your list, of course, you’re going to fall short. But worse, by having a list of tasks both important and unimportant next to each other, you will often choose the easier (but less important) things to work on. And the most important stuff will keep getting bounced to tomorrow.

If you want to master distraction, you have to start by mastering your schedule.

Nir Eyal

So keep the to-do list, and keep chipping away at it, but the most important projects need to live somewhere else—on your calendar.

Let the stuff on your to-do list be the 80% of tasks that don’t really matter. But reserve your calendar for the 20% that truly move the needle. Then judge whether you had a successful day or not by whether you put in the time you planned for those scheduled activities, not by the number of boxes you checked on a sticky note.

Some people call this practice of scheduling the most important tasks “time blocking.”

4. Unleash the Power of Time Blocking

One of my first ever blog posts I wrote here 7 years ago was about time blocking. I still use that practice today. But I’ve greatly refined how I do it. And making that mental shift from “a successful day is getting everything on my list done” to “a successful day is putting in scheduled time on my most important projects” has been a recent development.

Now, instead of planning every single hour of my day, I optimize for deep work on critical projects by scheduling a handful of well-defined time blocks.

Here are my current time blocks:

  • 60 minutes: Wake up and complete my morning routine (devotions, exercise, planning the day, etc.).
  • 90 minutes: Writing time (just a dedicated slot to work on whatever writing project is next, books, blogs, scripts, etc.)
  • 90 minutes: Working on projects, and business-building activities (website improvements, designing courses, creating automations, etc.)
  • 60 minutes: Maintenance tasks (answering emails, community management, phone calls, putting out fires, to-do list stuff, etc.)

If you’re really good at math, you’ll notice that adds up to only 5 hours— just 4 if you don’t count the morning routine, which isn’t really “work time.”

In the past, I would have felt like that was a lazy schedule. It’s only a half-day after all! But I’ve learned that a half-day plan you actually complete is far better than a day where you’ve scheduled every minute but you don’t even complete half.

Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might – Ecclesiastes 9:10

The real trick here, though, is that I’ve redefined what a successful day looks like. It’s not about sitting at my desk for 8 hours or completing that never-ending to-do list. A successful day is one in which I did my time blocks. Any additional I work complete is a bonus.

If you choose your time blocks wisely, you’ll learn to trust that by doing them consistently each day, you’ll always be making progress on what’s most important. Over time you’ll switch to squeezing in the unimportant stuff in the margins, instead of the other way around.

5. Keep These Principles for Maximizing Your Time Blocks

Here are some general tips I’ve found useful for setting and keeping my time blocks.

  1. Have a prioritized list: Separate from your to-list. keep a list of projects you need to accomplish in each area of your life (e.g. writing, building, etc.) so you always know what to work on next in each time block.
  2. Schedule your time: You often have to fit your time blocks around meetings and changes in your daily schedule. So plot them on your calendar at the start of each day. You’ll notice I didn’t put the time of day next to my time block items. While they generally follow a set schedule, it varies by day.
  3. Time yourself: I use Rize to track my time blocks. I also close email and turn on Freedom to block distracting websites like social media during these blocks. Then I just flip on some background music and work until the timer stops.
  4. Don’t over-schedule: Four hours of focused time is on the high side. Not just for our ability to sustain focus, but also because many people, because of the nature of their work, can only realistically schedule one or two. That’s okay. Focus on what’s most important and be realistic about what you can consistently accomplish even on bad days.

Scheduling just one 90-minute time block a day to work on your most important project may be enough to get you out of the busyness trap.

When you define success as keeping your time blocks, you’ll enjoy a continual sense of progress, productivity, and most importantly confidence that you are being faithful to do what you said you were going to do.

And that honors God.

Join the discussion

Morning Routine Planner

Get My Free Morning Routine Planner

A practical guide to creating a Christ-honoring morning routine.