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Speak Up to Keep Up: One Trick to Manage To-Dos

Dear Crucial Skills,

I find that I am asked to do more in a day than I can actually accomplish. Each day, I might get ten things done but twenty new tasks get added to my list, so the list just grows and never shrinks. I try to always focus on the most important tasks, but the additional tasks nag at me. The only time the number of tasks decreases is when I do a review and a task is no longer relevant. How do I manage more new things coming in each day than I am able to complete?

Never-Ending To-Dos

Dear Never-Ending,

You are not alone. With the quantity of inputs and the breakneck speed of work, the items on our to-do lists seem to multiply overnight. I know I can relate and I’m sure most readers empathize as well.

There are a lot of best practices for managing your to-do list. We teach these practices in our course Getting Things Done. David Allen’s bestselling book of the same title will also offer pointed guidance for managing your inputs, capturing ideas and requests, and doing focused work. It sounds as if you are at least somewhat familiar with these skills because you mentioned the value of your weekly review. As you allude, this one practice will bring you clarity, help you prioritize your tasks and your time, and allow you to focus on what and who is truly most important.

For readers who are not familiar with a weekly review, it’s a sacred non-negotiable meeting you hold with yourself every week to re-sync, get current, and align your daily work and projects with your higher-level priorities. Block out time on your calendar and commit to reviewing your to-do and project lists to ensure that what is taking up space on your lists and on your mind is still relevant.

So, continue with your weekly review and consider some other best practices from GTD. Today, I’ll focus on one skill that I think will help you get a handle on your to-do list: speaking up. It’s true that we don’t always have control over what we are asked to do or complete in a day. Saying no doesn’t feel like a prudent option. But consider that saying nothing is even worse.

When you agree to new requests that you cannot accomplish, nobody wins. You might think never turning down a request makes you look good, but in truth not delivering on the requests you take on will damage your reputation and results more than being honest and up front will.

Perhaps you’ll argue that you didn’t formally agree to anything, perhaps you were simply told what to do without an opportunity to accept. But, if you voluntarily write a task on your to-do list, you have indeed made a commitment—both to yourself and to the person who requested your help. That impossible task will continue to nag you, and when it doesn’t get completed it will add mental and emotional stress. The person who asked for your help will not only be let down, you may also face other natural consequences associated with incomplete work.

Flip the mental script. Instead of seeing yourself as someone who is a helpful team player who never says no, realize that a yes to one request is a no to something else. As you mentioned, there aren’t enough hours in the day, and something will be left undone. What is more helpful to both you and others is being honest and upfront about your time and your commitments. So speak up.

And because I believe your intentions are genuine and you truly do want to be a helpful team player, don’t look at my advice as simply turning people down. I’m not suggesting you say no and walk away. Rather, be clear about what you can and are willing to do. It sounds like this:

Boss: “I need you to get those reports back to me by the end of the week.”

You: “I’d be happy to do that, but to deliver on that commitment I’m going to need to reschedule some other tasks on my plate. Do you have a second to help me decide what I can hold off on while I work on the reports?”

The key is to get your manager or colleague involved in helping you prioritize your to-do list. My colleague Justin Hale, cocreator of our Getting Things Done course, says it like this: communicate as a contributor craving focus, not a complainer craving less. Managers are eager to work with contributors craving focus.

In my one-on-one meetings with my direct reports, we often have similar discussions. Sometimes I can sense the overwhelm in their voices and I’ll say something like, “Let’s review your projects and see if we can clear up some space for you to focus.” Other times they ask me to help them decide between competing to-dos. These conversations result in relief and freedom to work on what’s most important.

As their manager, I find this dialogue around priorities and to-dos to be invaluable. It gets us on the same page and is essential to avoiding burnout and overwhelm.

I understand the stress and pressure of too much work and too little time. I also recognize that my teammates work better, are happier, and more focused when they aren’t buried by overwhelming and unrealistic expectations. I don’t want that for myself, and I don’t want that for them. I’d like to think your own manager and colleagues will feel the same.

You are the keeper of your to-do list. If it’s overgrown and unrealistic, you are the only one to blame. Keeping it manageable and focused often comes down to speaking up. Try it. I think you’ll find that you won’t get more hours in your day, but you will get more hours to focus on what is most important to you.

Best of luck,


You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

4 thoughts on “Speak Up to Keep Up: One Trick to Manage To-Dos”

  1. Hannah Garfinkel

    Excellent advice. You may have intended ‘allude’ vs ‘elude’?

    1. Ryan Trimble

      Ah, you’re right. I’ll fix that.

  2. Connie L

    I wonder if you have thoughts on working through the issue of you putting unrealistic expectations on yourself, so it’s not all externally imposed.

  3. What if Someone Believes in “Might is Right”?

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