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Chaos in Quarantine—What Can I Do About My To-Dos?

Dear Justin,

With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, I am up to my ears in work. I don’t know any other way to say it: I have too much to do, and not enough time. With the quarantine, kids at home, and clients cancelling, I have ten to fifteen new projects on my plate, on top of what I already had. I wish I could declare to-do list bankruptcy and walk away from it all. Is there any way around this?


Dear Bankrupt,

I’m really sorry you’re experiencing this, and I feel for you. I don’t know anyone right now whose to-do list got shorter as a result of current events. Here’s the reality, there is no way “around” this. As the saying goes, “the only way out is through.”

But there is some good news in what I’m about to share. If you follow my suggestions, you’ll know how to get through next time the waves of life come crashing down—and it’s not IF that happens, but WHEN. What we’ve found over the last few decades is this: when it comes to gaining control over your world, it’s less about the amount of work you have or even the hours in the day you have or don’t have; a highly productive life is much more about your habits than anything else. And that means YOU can get through this.

Start by making an inventory of EVERY commitment you’ve made. If you do this one thing, you’ll naturally follow most of my other suggestions. People come to me all the time complaining about how overwhelmed they are. When I ask what’s overwhelming them, they can’t really say. As far as they’re concerned, it’s just this aching feeling, this weight on their shoulders. The problem is this: if you can’t define what’s overwhelming you, you can’t do much about it.

So, grab a piece of paper and take the next fifteen minutes to write down everything that comes to mind when you think about the “weight” and the “ache.” Every task, every to-do, every project, every errand, every phone call, every meeting—you get the idea. Get it all out of your head and in front of your eyes, ASAP. If you do this, a few things will start to happen:

You’ll begin shifting the blame from the lists to yourself. This is a good thing. You need to take ownership of the fact that no one made those commitments for you. You made them.
As you start to see the sheer volume of what YOU have said yes to, the letters “N-O” will start to come to your lips more easily.
Then determine the following for each task:

  • Which will you do by the date you committed?
  • Which will you delegate?
  • Which will you decline (whether commitments to yourself or other people)?
  • Which will you renegotiate, whether when it’s done, how it’s done, or who does it?

Once that’s clear, further clarify each item by asking yourself, “What is the next action I need to take to move forward on this?” Try to identify the smallest next action. Not all of the actions you might need to take, just the next action.

You will never reach the heights of personal efficiency, productivity, and satisfaction if you aren’t having “no” and renegotiation conversations on a regular basis. I’m not saying it’s ok to overcommit when you know you’ll end up renegotiating later. I’m saying that the more you audit your inventory of commitments, the more clear you’ll get on how much work you actually can do. You’ll get better at noticing when you’ve gone over that threshold. In the short run, you might need to go back and turn down or renegotiate commitments. In the long run, you’ll be better up front about accepting or declining requests.

None of us will get through this pandemic without having these conversations and making these adjustments. I’m reminded of a time when my wife went into the hospital unexpectedly for 50 days. At the drop of a hat, I was essentially a single working dad with a three-year-old and a two-year-old. The first night she was gone, after I put my boys to bed, I sat down with my full inventory of personal and work-related projects and I simply said, “Here are my limitations. Here is my time each day. Which of these can I realistically do, which should I decline, and which should I renegotiate?” I then took a few hours to make those decisions and make a plan for executing on them.

Yes, sometimes people will be disappointed, and that’s hard. But that’s a natural consequence of doing what you CAN. It’s a consequence of focus.

Good luck,

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7 thoughts on “Chaos in Quarantine—What Can I Do About My To-Dos?”

  1. SAS

    Very timely, concise, and appropriate. Thank you.

    1. Justin Hale

      Happy to help! I’m glad it was valuable.

  2. DG

    This was really well done–thanks, Justin!

  3. Matt

    Thanks for the article. I think a slightly different way to express it is moving from “what things am I going to do?” to “in what order am I going to do things?”. Understanding you can only accomplish a certain number of tasks and getting alignment on the priority of the tasks can be very helpful. I would also add to your comment on disappointing others. This is not about doing less, but being more organized and transparent about what you are doing. They were already going to be disappointed. Now they have time to adjust instead of being disappointed when you missed a deadline and it’s too late to do anything about it.

  4. Vicky M Smith

    This resource has been helpful to me:

    Intuition as a Key Factor for Implementing Theory U

    Within Theory U, we find a model that can help evolving leaders modify the way they process information and make decisions that meet the challenges of our current world and the leaders’ new spheres of responsibility. … We advocate training and coaching that addresses a fundamental change in how leaders make decisions.

  5. Becky Hastings

    This is great information and provides clarity for those who are in a stage of life or circumstances where they feel overwhelmed. I would appreciate any insight for the opposite issue. The corona impact on reducing weekly activity for many can result in uncertainty about any action. Many older people with reduced family commitments (children at home always create work and distraction) have far less to do because of the restrictions implemented. For instance, I was volunteering several times a week, teaching and counseling at a non-profit. This has ceased due to meeting restrictions. Perhaps a future post could address personal strategies for handling the malaise and ‘numbness’ of finding ourselves in unexpected inactivity. Managing a calendar when there is nothing on the calendar! Personal responsibility for the best use of the new free time I now find myself with. Thanks

    1. Justin Hale

      Great thought. I think that the solution can be similar for this type of situation. It still requires one to ask themselves, “what do i want to accomplish during this slow time? what are some goals i have?” Define the outcome and then define the next action. For some people, this is one of the first times in their life when they can truly lift their heads up from the “weeds” and view the forest for a while. thanks for your comment

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