How to prioritise when you have too much to do



Have you ever found that your to-do list keeps growing that you can never catch up with it?

Have you ever felt overwhelmed by all the things you need to do, but don’t know where to focus?

In the last couple of months I feel I have to juggle too many things in my plate – Xin and I have recently moved house and have to do a lot of refurbishment and redecoration work; I just finished up my Masters’s dissertation in Positive Psychology and Coaching Psychology (looking forward to sharing more on that with you in due course!), and now busy coaching new clients + designing and delivering career and leadership development curriculum for Imperial College Business School for the new term.

The beginning of the autumn is always a busy time so today I want to share some of my learning and reflection on how to better prioritise when you feel you have too much on your plate:

1. Know what is important and what is urgent.

Urgent things always shout at you, while important things stay quiet in the background longing for your attention. Steve Pressfield said: “Do what’s important first. Don’t let urgent stuff that is not important get in the way”. It seems an easy rule to follow but very few of us do this in practice. Your brain is constantly bombarded by what’s on the headline, the request in your inbox, your facebook or twitter feeds. They are all trying to grab your attention right here and right now. However, what’s urgent is generally other’s people’s priority, not necessarily yours. So if you don’t know what is important to you, then you will be easily distracted by urgent stuff that is not important to you.

How to know what is important to you? I found it useful to remind myself with these questions: What do I care about? What do I want to create? What is meaningful for me and gives me purpose? Reflecting on these questions can help you stick to your compass, and steer clear from the noises. Write them down and put them in a place you can see regularly to be reminder of the important stuff that you need to do first.

2. Focus on one thing at a time.

In their bestselling book: “The One Thing: The Surprisingly simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results”, Gary Keller and Jay Papasan suggest “going small” by ignoring all the things you could do and focus on one thing that matters most at the time. You only have that much time and energy for every single day and often you are spreading yourself too thin by trying to do too many things at the same time. By narrowing down your focus and finding out the thing that matters most and focusing on it, you can achieve extraordinary results.

In their book, Gary and Jay conducted research on some of the most successful companies and found that they always have one product or service that makes them famous and successful. For example, Google’s “one thing” is the search engine, which makes other sources of revenues possible; Apple is another company that is great at creating an extraordinary “one thing” and then transition into another extraordinary “one thing”.   If you are starting up your own company, it is also worth thinking about what is the “one thing” that you want to be known for. Similarly, if you are working for someone else, it is also worth asking yourself – what is your unique personal brand? What do you want to be known for and what do you want others to remember about you?

So how can you know what is the “one thing” that you need to focus on? It takes consistent reflections, practice and feedback to cultivate a strong sense of self-awareness. I also like this one question proposed by Gary Keller that you can reflect on at the beginning of every week: “What is the ONE thing you can do this week such that by doing it everything else would be easier or unnecessary?”

3. Accept that your priority changes from time to time.

Steve Covey once gave advice to a woman in a high-flying career who felt consumed by her wedding preparation and found it frustrating that her work to-do list was always distracted by wedding-related issues. And this is what Steve told her: “your life is going to be unbalanced for a time, and it should be. The long run is where you go for balance…Maybe the only role that matters this entire month will be your role as a new bride. And if you fulfill that role well, you will feel satisfied”.

It is true that we always want to achieve some sort of “balance” or “integration” at any given point in life, but it is worth thinking from a different life-span perspective on how your priorities might change and what you can do to adapt to it. I know my priority in the next two or three years will shift a lot towards my family, which makes me feel both excited and nervous. It is natural to have the mixed feeling when you know the role that matters to you most have changed. I noticed that I tended to focus on the things that I didn’t do and feel guilty about it (e.g. I wish I could write more blogs, do more marketing and networking, and etc) but failed to acknowledge all the things I already achieved. This negative bias was not serving me well and I’ve had to learn to let go of the guilty feeling that is associated with the change of my priority and recognise that I am doing my best with the time and resources I have.

So as you notice priorities start to shift in your life, ask yourself, “what is the role that matters to you most now? What do you want to do now to fulfill that role?”. At the same time, learn to accept the complicated feeling that comes with the change of your priority, let go of the guilt and trust that life has its own timing and you’re doing the best you can.

4. Learn to say No. 

I know, it is not always easy to say no. You want to help others and respond to other’s people’s need – your clients, your boss, your partner and your children. You might feel guilty sometimes when saying “no” to others. But it is important because if you don’t say no to those things that are urgent but not important, you won’t have the time and energy to attend to what’s important to you and focus on the ONE thing that matters most to you.

When those urgent but not important things knock on your door, learn to take a pause and say this: “I know you need this, but I have something important that I really need to focus on right now, can I come back to you or can someone else help you?”

5. Know when to delegate.

One reason we tend to take on too much is that we don’t know when and how to delegate. Know that your time is limited and it is best used to do things that only you can do and create things only you can create. When you say “no” to people, it is also useful to guide them to those you can delegate to. Do you have to do all the accounting reports yourself for your business or can you hire an accountant to do that? Is it the best use of time to do all the housework while you can hire some help?

Ask yourself these questions: “What is unique about me?” “What is that I can do that no one else can do?” “Who else is better placed to do _____ than me?” Knowing when to delegate not only frees you up to do the things that matter most to you, but also helps build a circle of support around you which you can trust and rely on.

Now I’d like to hear from you. What are your top tips to keep focused on your goals, especially when your priorities change and you have too many things on your plate? What is the one thing you can start doing now to focus on what truly matters in your life? Please do share your thoughts in the comments below!

If you found this article helpful, please do share it with friends, especially those who are experiencing a shift in their priority and/or feeling overwhelmed by their to-do lists, so that they can also learn to manage their energy better and focused on things that truly matter to them.

With lots of love,


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