Study: 60% of people can’t finish everything on their to-do list (but there’s hope)

People are overwhelmed by their long, impossible-to-finish to-do lists – but you can take a step back.

What does your to-do list look like? Does the very idea fill you with terror?

To-do lists are touted as a simple, easy method of helping people stay on task. When you take on too much, however, they spiral out of control and become objects of doom.  VitalSmarts, a leadership training company released findings from a study of more than 1,300 people showed that 3 in 5, or 60%, of people are overcommitted, with more on their to-do list than they can possibly finish. An additional 1 in 5 say they’re at the point where they simply cannot take on any more.

Just how overcommitted are we?

  • 60% of respondents said they have more than 60 tasks on their weekly to-do list (including both personal and work tasks)
  • 15% said they have more than 100 tasks

When people were asked if they had more tasks than they could actually get done, 23% said that was true “about half the time,” and 37% answered “usually.” A very stressed 32% answered “always.”

How did we end up here?

Taking on all these tasks comes from a good place. 73% of people said their to-do lists were out of control because they wanted to be helpful and generous to others, not to mention polite. 53% were problem-solvers, even if they were solving problems that weren’t necessarily theirs.

It also comes from being bad with boundaries. 39% cited unclear boundaries and limits over what commitments they should and shouldn’t accept, and 32% said they just weren’t able to say ‘No.”

Of course overcommitting yourself for whatever reason comes with side effects, regret, and feelings of overwhelm. 50% of people asked said they were moderately stressed, with 35%  highly stressed. Over half of respondents (52%) worried about letting themselves or others down, and 46% felt overwhelmed.

How to move forward

“There are a small number of self-management practices that can literally change a person’s life by dramatically improving performance while also reducing stress,” and Justin Hale, co-creator of Getting Things Done Training, in a release. Hale is one of the study’s lead researchers. “When you learn to manage your workload quickly and efficiently, you’ll not only take control of your to-do list but also avoid the weight and anxiety that comes with carrying an impossible workload.”

Hale suggests keeping your to-dos in an app or on a piece of paper – not in your head. Then, do a “commitment audit – this may mean bowing out of some commitments, or re-negotiating others. Next, break large,  vague “projects” into a set of smaller, doable actions – even the tiniest action is one step further to your goal. Review your progress weekly – never skip this check-in meeting with yourself.

Incrementally, you can create hope out of chaos.

Sheila McClear|is a reporter for Ladders and can be reached at smcclear@theladders.com.