Overwhelmed? Here’s how to stop your to-do list going stale | Oliver Burkeman


Focusing on a few tasks until they’re finished is the best tactic

One of the less obvious problems with having too much to do – besides the main one of, you know, having too much to do – is the phenomenon you might call “task staleness”. There’s something you need to get done: an email that needs sending, say, or an event that needs planning. So you make a note, either mentally or wherever you record your to-dos. Then you fail to do it. And fail to do it. And fail to do it some more – until eventually it’s been hanging around so long that you really don’t want to do it, because it’s old and stale and therefore profoundly unappetising. Sometimes, admittedly, this kind of procrastination is a sign that it never needed doing to begin with. But often it isn’t. And then you’re in the ironic pickle of hating the thought of precisely those tasks that, because you’ve neglected them so long, are now the most urgent.

As the Silicon Valley investor Daniel Gross pointed out on his blog in January, in a post titled Improvisational Productivity, part of the problem here is that thinking about working on a given task is in fact a form of working on it, and a relatively easy and enjoyable one at that. So returning to it repeatedly in your mind naturally reduces its novelty, and therefore its appeal. “It’s like chewing on a fresh piece of gum, immediately sticking it somewhere, then trying to convince yourself to rehydrate the dry, bland chewed-up gum,” Gross wrote.

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