How to handle an overwhelming to do list right now

At the moment, my 7-year-old son, Jack, is in camp. It’s… a challenge. He doesn’t quite have special needs (well, he does, but we don’t say that out loud) but he certainly has unique needs, and those needs are not generally met at camp.

We always go. It’s always hell. See you again next year.

Mornings on camp days are… a challenge. Early evenings on camp days are about the same. Bedtimes? Let’s not talk about bedtimes.

On camp days, absolutely EVERYTHING is a struggle. I become an emotional wreck, I start believing the stakes are far higher than they ever are, and I stress about every single facet of not just work, but life.

Even though, for the first time in a year, we have space to work without a twice exceptional unschooled 7-year-old in the office, camp days are always the days when I find it hardest to get anything done.

Perhaps I’m worried they’ll call and have me pick him up early at any moment. Perhaps I have so much invested in the time that nothing short of negotiating peace in the Middle East would qualify as productive. Perhaps I’m just sad. I don’t know.

What I do know is that I’m never as overwhelmed by my to-do list as I am when we have the office to ourselves.


I have discovered a way to stay marginally calm in these situations. I mean, I’m hardly calm. But I’m lucid, and when your to-do list is overwhelming you, that’s really all you’re asking for, isn’t it?

So today I will share this way with you, and hopefully you will find it useful. If you do not, you will perhaps be comforted knowing you’re not the only one who looks at a list and breaks out into hives.

Pick one thing.

Pick one thing that, barring death, dismemberment, or acts of God, you will get right. Not done. Done right

I will get Jack to camp peacefully.

I might not do anything else properly, and I might not get him there on time, but I will get Jack to camp peacefully.

Sometimes, this requires reorganizing my entire life in the process. Different bedtime (for me), different food, different routines, different everything, but I will fully and completely commit to getting that one thing right.

In order for this to work, we sometimes have to use the old-school definition of “commit”. Sometimes we have to use “commit” like in marriage, not like the self-development industry uses it. Committing to a marriage partner means you don’t have any other active marriages, and sometimes committing to a task means you don’t have any other active tasks.

Under circumstances like these, you can seldom get away with getting many more than one thing right.

Two or three completely unrelated things that are very far apart can work. I can make sure I get Jack to camp peacefully and make it to my Office Hours call five hours later, yes. I can make sure I get Jack to camp peacefully and make sure I brush my teeth, probably.

But I don’t know if I can make sure Jack gets to camp peacefully, I get to my Office Hours call, my inbox gets emptied, I’m optimizing my social media activity and I do something with the lamb in the fridge before it goes bad.

See, what I do in these situations (and I’m pretty sure this only applies to 100% of humans) is I panic because I’m calling all of these things equally important and I’m unwilling to admit the obvious – it just can’t all get done.

Sure, I don’t consciously say that not throwing out twenty dollars worth of meat is the same as getting Jack to camp feeling peaceful and happy. But I’m also not taking initiative and saying to my partner, “Babe, I think we’re going to have to take a loss on the lamb.” I’m also not spearheading the issue and saying to myself, “Hey, I’m a busy woman.

Sometimes you gotta throw out the lamb chops and that interview request might have to wait until tomorrow or, if we’re honest, until they follow up.”

One thing. Do it properly. Call that enough.

Good? Good. You may go.

But wait! It looks like you’re not calm yet! It looks like my handy tip has not even brought you a modicum of peace! Whyever not?

Is it possible that the advice above is functionally impossible to implement when you’re already overwhelmed? That perhaps it only works with people who are already being completely rational, and that perhaps our brain ain’t so hot when we’re already in a state of near hysteria?

OK, fine. We shall address that pesky other part.

But what if it’s all important?

Here’s what I do. It might be worth trying. I haven’t had a camp related panic attack yet this year, which means there might be something to it.

There are three steps.

Step one: Think of a short list – 5 items is good – of things you would never dream of doing right now, given how overwhelmed you are.

Examples are “finally get to the handwashing”, “take the drapes to the dry cleaner” or “call those furnace people and get on their Do Not Call list”.

For this to work, these have to be things that you really would like to be done. These are not made up, arbitrary things, they’re legitimate tasks you’ve been “meaning to get to” but it would be laughable for you to get to them today.

Go. Five things. If they don’t make you laugh, you haven’t done it right.

Got them? Good. You can move on to the next step.

Step 2: The next step is making another list, this time of 3-5 items you absolutely must do today.

Today, not tomorrow or soon. Very bad things, up to or including your own death, would occur if these did not happen today.

Examples include sleeping, eating, catching the only available flight to your honeymoon in Melbourne, attending your daughter’s annual piano recital.

These are not important things. They are things that have virtually unrecoverable consequences attached to failure.

Go. Three to five things.

Good? Good.

Step 3: Now, make a list of the things that are overwhelming you today and compare them, one by one, to the items on the other two lists.

Example: “Use up the lamb before it goes bad.” Is that more like eating, or is it more like handwashing?

Example: “Clean the cat litter because it’s getting embarrassing.” Is that more like getting to the recital, or is it more like getting on the Do Not Call list?

Example: “Respond to that interview request.” Is that more like catching the flight or is it more like taking the drapes to the cleaners?

What we’re doing here is taking the traditional binary approach and turning it into a spectrum.

Easily overwhelmable people tend to divide things that need doing into two categories. There are the things that have consequences for failure, and there are the things that have no consequences for failure.

If we don’t breathe, we’ll die. That’s bad.

If we don’t clean the cat litter, it will be stinky when the Jehovah’s Witnesses come over. That’s bad.

See? They’re the same!

The problem with the binary approach is that virtually everything has negative consequences attached to failure. The more anxious we tend to be, the worse we view each of the consequences, so that trimming the cat’s nails becomes as important as picking up cat food, and picking up cat food while it’s on sale becomes as important as giving the children something to eat this evening.

This exercise gives us the opportunity to assess what can afford to be threatened and what has room to move. We can assess what can sustain an injury and what cannot.

In military strategy, this is referred to as collateral damage. When we are overwhelmed, even if it’s scary, we must force ourselves to honestly assess what can sustain damage, and what cannot.

We’re not asking you to take your list and say you don’t give a toot about it. We’re not lining up legitimately important tasks to be shot, execution style, with an insouciant toss of our hair. We’re not laughing as we throw our tasks to the wolves here.

We’re honestly assessing what can afford to give.

“Yes, but I feel so….”

I know you do. So do I. You feel guilty. You feel scared. You feel like if you don’t do it now, it won’t ever get done. You feel like your husband thinks you’re an idiot, and you feel like this is an indicator of your worth and capacity, and you feel like a piece of dog crap.

But feeling guilty that something isn’t getting done, feeling like if we don’t do it today we won’t get it done at all, feeling embarrassed or ashamed or like an abject failure does not change the results of the assessment. Can it be threatened or can it not?

The list of things that can be threatened is long.

The list of things that cannot be threatened is short.

“Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, ‘I will try again tomorrow.'” Mary Anne Radmacher

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