Are You Making Your To Do List Too Hard? Find Out Why.

I was glad last week’s post resonated with many of you. It’s clear from the comments that if you can turn one task into a complicated project, you’re in good company.

It led us up to the question:

Why do we tend to make jobs harder on ourselves?

Why would we make something more complicated?

For me, it’s because I always see the full picture. I can’t look at just one task without seeing everything related to it.

It feels like my mind is covered with post-it notes all the time. I might look at one, and all the rest will be right there. (Yes, thinking about all the things to do can be overwhelming to the point of feeling paralyzed or making me want to hide.)

It’s not necessarily a disadvantage. It’s really an amazing ability to think of all of life’s various details in an orchestrated way. How else could women manage with small children and balance all the demands that we carry?

Some of you have husbands who are more productive by focusing on one task and just starting, and I do too.

Sometimes when Doug and I talk together, I’ll say something along the lines of “I’m really feeling overwhelmed with everything that needs to be done.”

Doug will innocently ask, “What needs to be done?” And even though I want to give him an “Are you kidding me???” response, I know that he doesn’t see all the things that I see. He only sees the one post-it note that’s right in front of him.

On Multitasking

The book For Men Only: A Straightforward Guide to the Inner Lives of Women said 79% of women experience multiple thoughts and emotions at the same time. This means I don’t just think about the one thing I’m working on, I’m thinking about what I did earlier, what the kids are doing right now, and the five things I’m going to do next. I’m also replaying an earlier conversation in my head and trying not to let something bad that happened bring down my mood.

The book likens this to a computer with all of the programs —  email, internet, Word documents, Excel, your budgeting software, and your digital photos — open and running at the same time, and it’s difficult to close the windows.

Most men on the other hand (and according to their survey, 21% of women) are more likely to process thoughts and emotions sequentially, focusing on one thing at a time.

It’s just one more way that people are made differently.

How It Can Look in Relationships

We have married friends who told us a story about when they were in college and had gone out on their first date together. The next morning, each one went down to get breakfast in the dining hall of their respective dorms. She sat down with her cereal and thought about all of the details of last night’s date: how much she liked him, did he like her? What might happen next?

But what did he think about when he sat down to eat his bowl of cereal? In his words: “I was just thinking about the cereal.”

Instead of feeling like there is a right way and a wrong way, or maybe that one way is better or more productive than another, I’ve realized how much Doug and I complement each other through our differences. He may be able to focus on one thing better than I can, but I can keep up with all of the small details that he would miss. We’re a team.

That’s not to say I can’t learn something from his way of doing things. I often ask him if he thinks I’m making something more difficult than it should be.

What else can influence our thought processes?

Do any of these thought habits apply to you to make things more complicated?

Perfectionism — When you look at something as if it’s under a microscope, instead of through a wide-angle camera lens. You might notice a little bit of dust in the corner, instead of seeing what would make the most impact to clean up a room.

Idealism — You make plans assuming everything will go the best possible way. You usually expect to do too much due to an unrealistic sense of time and energy. For example, “It only takes me 12 minutes to get to work (assuming all the traffic lights are green and I run to the building.)”

Thoroughness — You have an overwhelming desire not to let something go before you’ve seen it completed. You might have the bulk of it ready, but you’ll tweak and fiddle with it. Do you watch the entire movie (even if it’s lame) because once you’ve started it, you have to finish it? Sometimes it’s best to move on.

Control — When life is a series of regular interruptions and redirections every five minutes (hello, small kids?) , it’s hard to give up your original plans and change course. You might try to add the new work plus keep your original plan too, just so you can have some say in the matter and not feel like your day was lost. The task list keeps getting longer.

Over-planning — Planning is a good thing, but too much leads to procrastinating. That’s why I think getting organized might be a big fat waste of time.

Efficiency — You know the most logical way to do something. You know the right order, and if you do it in batches it saves time. But we often don’t get those big blocks of time, do we? Sometimes you have to sacrifice efficiency for effectiveness. They’re not the same.

What do you think?
About Rachel

I write about practical tips that will help you simplify at home. Connect with me on Pinterest and Twitter.


  1. So true. My family is going on vacation soon. We are a family of 5. My husband asks if I’m excited about our trip. I can’t even answer that because there is so much that needs to be done and so much that is running through my mind. I wish I could be a kid again, or a man, and just say “Yeah, I’m really excited.”

    Lauri V.´s last post…It could be worse

    • Karen (Scotland) says:

      Yeesh, I can agree with that!
      We have four under six (youngest only 12 weeks-ish) and my husband keeps telling me we need a holiday and a week in a caravan would be a nice break for me.
      I just feel myself blinking at him as I can’t say the words in my head…

  2. I haven’t ever met you and it is like you are blogging straight to me! Kind of like when you are listening to a sermon and feel like you are the only one in the room! Keep up the good work, while I get off here and get out my prayer journal, notebook, Bible, highlighter, favorite pen, Bible, hot (used to be) coffee and sit in my favorite chair to do my devotions, oh, wait, there’s a cobweb and a dish in the sink and…………

    • Scary, Deb, I did that exact thing the other day. No WONDER I never get to Bible study. My kids will remember me scurrying, but not meditating on the Word (my ‘FAVORITE word’ . . . [ahem]), and that makes me sad. :(

  3. Is it bad if all of those thought habits apply? Thanks for the post and some of the reasoning behind making things too complicated. And here is one of our making things more complicated because of looking at the big picture example: need a new dishwasher – if we replace the dishwasher, we should really look at replacing all the appliances because they are all old and almost ready to go and you can get better deals when you replace all of them – if we replace the stove we need to install a gas line because we want to switch to gas – if we have the kitchen guys out here to install a gas line, we should really have them look at moving out peninsula back foot so that we can get in our cupboard – if we move the peninsula out, we should really replace the old cracking linoleum floor – the floor flows into the dining room and entryway, and we really want to expand our entryway so if we are going to replace the flooring, we should really expand that so we don’t have funny flooring lines later…

    Cary´s last post…strawberry recipes

  4. These two posts came at the best time for me! I’m due to have my first baby in a month and a half and my mind is RACING with all of the things I think I need to get done before then. I’d like to think I normally keep a fairly clean and organized house but for some reason, I’m feeling like it’s all or nothing right now – if I don’t get these things done now, I won’t be able to take care of them for a long time. But in the grand scheme of things, does it really matter? Is the baby (or our guests for that matter) really going to notice if I didn’t wipe every baseboard or shine every cupboard? I think I may need to re-examine my priorities!

    Thanks, Rachel!

    Nicole´s last post…whats your organizational personality

    • I just had my first, quite recently, and I found that she slept *so* much at the beginning. They tell you to nap with your baby, but I couldn’t nap that much!
      So maybe you won’t even fall behind.

      Dinah´s last post…17 Months Ago

  5. Men and Women sure think and feel differently but like you said, it can be used to bridge the gap in communication.

    My biggest thing about any task is to break it down and do it, some I procrastinate and avoid it but I am learning to take a break in time to recharge so I am not on constant “to-do-list” bunny.

    Taking time to enjoy with family or alone time is crucial for being productive.

    Zengirl @ Heart and Mind´s last post…Why learning from history is cool – Part 1

  6. I love that last thought about efficiency versus effectiveness. I will waste all kinds of time planning the most efficient way to do something and then run out of time to actually do it.

    I have done meditation off and on for years and lately have been incorporating mindfulness meditation into my regular activities. One day a couple of weeks ago, it finally clicked and I felt like I was walking around with this super heightened sense of focus. If I thought about it, I could still see the big picture (all the various sticky notes), but breath by breath I was focused and aware on every motion I was making. It felt amazing and I’m working hard to maintain it.

    Wendy´s last post…Choclate Decorations

  7. Wow, another post that resonates with so many of us! My word for the kind of thing you’re talking about is “complexify” and I am a master at it! It’s the “while we’re at it, we might as well” and turn even the most simple project/task into an event for the ages. A touch of this makes life more pleasant – things get done, the house and gardens look better, the clothes are clean and generally match, etc, but too much is hard on the psyche and the housemates! I’ve been known to hunt all over for just the right pepper grinder – really, I don’t care that much about pepper or the grinding of it, but I couldn’t stop the search for the be-all grinder. Trying, trying to find the right balance in life is a challenge.

    deb mattin´s last post…The Reluctant Sailor

  8. Sandra Gonzales says:

    I’m reading through the habits that affect thought processes and they seriously all apply to me. No wonder I’m always physically and mentally exhausted. Is there a book out there that can train me to think like a man? I would love to eat my breakfast and only have breakfast on my mind. Instead, I am fast forwarding through what I’ll tackle next after washing the dishes.

    Thanks for this post, it’s something to ponder on (while eating lunch).

  9. I love these last two posts! I am always struggling to overcome the tendency to “complexify” (love that, deb!) so I can actually get things done. I try to follow Flylady’s recommendation of using the 15 minute timer to stay on task and it does help. But I love hearing how others are struggling like I do and how we are all trying to balance the good with the challenging.

    My nightstand is a good barometer of how I am managing things – and right now I have 4 one foot tall stacks of books! Too many interests, not enough time. And I really want to go to the bookstore today, isn’t that crazy?

  10. Thanks for this, Rachel. I have some hard thinking to do about this. One of the things that happens when two women live together is that we both talk and plan and decide things to death. That’s not to say that we’re both the same– R’s big issues are perfectionism and idealism, and not being able to let the perfect picture in her mind go. My issues are more with control and overplanning. There are times when we both need to take a step back, but it can be so hard to realize that in the moment! Anyway, thanks.

    liz´s last post…repainting the stairway was hard

  11. I am definitely a big picture thinker. I see the whole without knowing how to break the whole down into manageable parts. It can be almost crippling when it comes to housework because I totally shut down when I get overwhelmed. Thanks for drawing out some of the parts that are working together in my thought life causing me to make ALL of my to-dos too hard.

    Good stuff, Rachel. Thank you for this.

    (Oh, hey! CONGRATS on your Social Luxe/Blog Luxe blog award nomination! I’m so proud of you!)

    Megan@SortaCrunchy´s last post…how to walk like a supermodel

  12. i “just” had my second baby in february and i’m still trying to find my groove again. i easily get overwhelmed and discouraged because i’m not able to do everything and be everything that i want to be. i’ve set too high of expectations for myself, i can see that, but it seems difficult to change those expectations. i keep trying to remind myself that this is only a season and that the house doesn’t have to be perfect, etc. but it’s difficult because my mind just starts going with “you should, you could”… i really want to slow down and ENJOY this time together with my children while they are young. please keep writing about this… it’s helps to know i’m not alone in addition to giving me the motivation to do differently.

    stacey´s last post…Surviving a Lay-off – My experience – Part 5

  13. This is defiantly me. Sometimes I get so overwhelmed with everything that has to get done that nothing gets done because I don’t’ even know where to begin. Like yesterday, I was cleaning the tub and my husband came in and said “You’re still working on it?!” I agree with the poster who asked if there was a book that could teach her to think like a man. That would make life so much easier and probably more enjoyable.

    Jen C.´s last post…Photo Challenge Days 4-6

  14. wow, yes–ALL of the above!
    i don’t clean the house much b/c if i do, i want to be thorough and i start out with a toothbrush to clean the grout! after all, you cant have a clean house with dirty grout!!!
    so, my trick is to take my glasses off before i start cleaning. if i cant see it, i wont be distracted by it.

    • You know – I never really thought about this!!!! Cleaning the house freaks me out because the job seems sooooo huge. I can never break it down into little pieces I always think about the big job and how overwhelming it seems.

    • Jackie, I love the idea of taking off your glasses!!! I’m certainly not blind without mine, so I could do a fine enough job without them, and then I might actually get MORE done! BRAVA!

      • Today is my first day as a stay at home mom and work on starting a business, after working for the last two and a half years and I was just asking my husband this morning what’s wrong with me. I wanted to fold laundry, but the pile was so overwhelming, I thought I would pull out the clothes to be hung up, that much less to fold, but then I looked at the bed, and realized I couldn’t pile clothes up on it because the sheets need to be washed and the bed wasn’t made, where do I start? He told me to put it all down and come downstairs to have a cup of coffee. Needless to say I am still trying to figure out how to tackle the large pile of laundry, but at least I had quality time with my husband and kids this morning.

  15. Jessicah says:

    I don’t think I really suffer from perfectionism or idealism–in fact I feel like those are almost polar opposites, and people who are excessively one or the other kind of make me crazy. But I completely identify with all the other thought processes you mention.

    I especially like what you have to say about efficiency v. effectiveness. That’s something I’ve been struggling with lately, as I try to adapt to life with a 10 week old baby. I went back to work 2 weeks ago, and trying to balance baby + work + house + husband is making me a little crazy! I’m trying to get better about cleaning or doing laundry in the little bits of time when she naps, instead of waiting till I have 2 or 3 hours to tackle something, because that never happens now. I take her to work with me, so I’m also trying to get better about breaking my job into smaller increments instead of big projects, but it’s going to take a while.

  16. Yes, I do make my to do list to hard. I love this post. I mean I really include every little detail and over plan and then work hard to make sure I can check it all off each day, even if that means staying up late and never relaxing. So am I doing the most I can with my time if I am coming up with lists that no normal person with kids can handle? I also can relate to the husband comments. I’ll tell my hubby I have a lot to do and he says do it tomorrow- oh to have that mindset, instead of if it doesn’t get done now it never will. Great post.

    Stacy´s last post…Girl Power in the Park

  17. Jennifer says:

    So I guess men are like the iPhone 3G and women are like the 4G. We can run multiple apps simultaneously. I’m upgrading my iPhone to the 4G as soon as it’s in stock. :)

  18. ummm… I totally love you…

    jill´s last post…On a road

  19. Oh.. This is exactly what I’m (or was) all about – an overdose of perfection, obsessive organizing, thoroughness and yeah, idealism.. Hm.. However, I have been working on this and have become less driven and more easygoing and mindful lately.. And guess what, I’m just as productive:-)

    Prerna´s last post…The Importance of Girl Time and Girl Talk

  20. I have always known that I am a big picture person…but I don’t think I have ever really stopped to recognize that my husband isn’t one! We just a had a new baby (six weeks Friday!! – it goes so fast!) and we have been having trouble connecting lately. I know that to a certain extent that is normal while we navigate all these changes, but it seems that no matter how hard we try to talk things through we end up back at the starting point upset and frustrated with one another. But I think you have hit the nail on the head! He has a big project he’s working on (bathroom reno) and I have suddenly had to become super organized in order to manage a household with two little ones. His single minded focus has been causing him to be a bit scattered when it comes to other things…and I feel like I am doing it all alone. I think I’ll ask him to read this post, and perhaps now we’ll finally be able to chill a bit. I’ll realize that he is focussing on one big thing, and hopefully he’ll understand that I am juggling a lot of balls.

    Great post!!

    Jen´s last post…Owen – 1 Month

  21. This is so true. Rick and I have the same conversations about what needs to be done. It’s easier for him and for me if I just tell him one thing at a time, or a short list, and he will get it done. I, on the other hand, end up thinking too much at one time and just flail around ineffectively.

  22. I wanted you to know that I love your blog, I am a true fan! AND I gave you a Sunshine Award…

    Sofia’s Ideas´s last post…Making Me Blush

  23. Just wanted to tell you I came across a library-style catalog unit at Target selling for $239.99!

    • Okay, I’m LATE, as I’m new to this blog today, but I just went with great excitement to the Target website and found the item on sale for $199.00!

  24. Dorothy says:

    I mutter “There are a lot of right answers” to myself.
    I am not talking about the Truth but ‘everyday’ right answers here, the red one or the orange one, this movie or that etc. To realise how little it matters which of several choices I make has changed my outlook on things this past few years.
    That plus using what I have, which means to me “Go ahead and cut it, write on it, squirt it, don’t save it up for some imaginary better day”. This started when I read a question: “Why are you planting your seeds in yesterdays soil, or tomorrow’s soil?”

  25. Ugh, I can totally relate to all of this. There are SO many things I want to do.. and NEED to do, but there are million other things that relate to those things that keep me from acting. Example: I need to make a scrapbook for my oldest son. Problem: I need to print out pictures. I can’t print out my pictures because my pictures aren’t organized on my external hard drive. My external hard drive is in my bedroom. My bedroom is a mess. I need to clean my bedroom. And I could go ON and ON and ON. . . anyone else ever feel like that!?

  26. I don’t make my To Do List hard. I just make it way too long!

    Condo Blues´s last post…Please Make Lisa Nelsen-Woods the First Salada Green Tea Spokesperson-

  27. I blogged this.

    jill´s last post…How we went to the store

  28. One way that I get really overwhelmed is when I start comparing myself to others. I will feel really proud that I cooked dinner five nights this week, then I’ll read a good food blog and feel discouraged that my meals did not contain enough organic/locally produced food. Or I’ll be satisfied with my own home until I visit a friend whose house is way more organized/beautifully decorated/clean.

    I try to balance all of the things I would like to have time to do 100% with a realistic picture of what I can get done in a day (week, month) and make my priorities of what projects and activities deserve the most attention.

  29. Elizabeth B says:

    I just e-mailed the link for this entry to my husband, because ye gods, it’s like you’re me. Thank you.

  30. Hey Rachel! That cereal story sure sounds familiar! :-)
    Love your insight!

  31. Amen!

    I am guilty of all of the above. Sometimes I need a little help letting go.
    And It’s great having a husband who can stay focused, we compliment each other well in so many ways.

  32. I always make my to-do lists with an extra fine black sharpie and I write on a yellow legal pad. It is very odd but everything on that list manages to get done, whether I am setting out to tackle each line item or not it gets done. I read somewhere that the brain processes yellow much better when reading but who knows it works!

  33. Yep, yep, and yep… it’s like you were peeking into my house when you wrote all this…

    I’ve been trying to simplify – recently I made the realization that if I think a job is too big, I’ll never do it since I don’t get large uninterrupted time to complete it. Now I’m trying to find the small parts and do small things in order to accomplish a large goal.

    Take my shower. To clean the entire shower takes too long. So I broke it up into 3 parts; the floor, the walls & the door. By themselves, it only takes an extra 5-ish minutes, and I can spare 5 minutes right before I jump in the shower… While it doesn’t all get done on the same day, it all gets done.

    Lori K´s last post…The answer- no

  34. Here’s what’s awful: my husband thinks like this too! Two perfectionist over-thinkers living in the same house. Our poor kids…

  35. You are obviously following me around. So how DO I clean the kitchen without having to make sure the toothpicks are laying straight inside the box? (mind you, while the rest of the kitchen is a disaster area)

  36. i would go even further than ‘making things complicated’. you see, although i’m always doing something, although i have a million ideas and projects i can imagine doing, i don’t have a to do list. never have.

    what i mean is, i don’t know what other women are doing to need to do lists. like how complicated their lives are, before considering how complicated their to do lusts are. make sense?

    i sometimes think i must be forgetting something, to not feel an urgency to have So Much To Do. lol

    Mon´s last post…mama records- toilet learning

  37. This is a great post! I was wondering why I wasn’t getting things done on my To-Do List. haha

    Seriously, I do have trouble getting the big picture down into doable parts. And, I like to procrastinate thinking I will do it ‘perfectly’ some day. Those large chunks of time just don’t come as often as I’d like. I have been working this summer on doing things in ‘smaller portions’ and have gotten quite a bit more done! But, I do need to adjust the way I ‘do’ my To-Do List to fit this new way of tackling projects. Any ideas on that?


    Amy´s last post…The Submissive Wife 1

  38. My mind races so much at bedtime that I can’t sleep thinking about all the things that need to be done the next day or this week. I started keeping a steno notebook on the nightstand with a pen. Anytime that I remember something that I need to do, I write it down. (I also keep a small notebook in my purse) This really helps me to relax and sleep better. The next day, I take that paper and rewrite the to do list in the order of importance. I start with number one and scratch off all of the items as I do them.
    This keeps me organized, I never “forget” to do things and when I see it on paper it helps me to focus. I always get things accomplished faster now that I have started this process. Plus the benefits of sleeping better are endless.

  39. so, so grateful for you- sharing your heart, speaking right to mine.

  40. LOL!! it’s like you reached directly inside my life with this paragraph:

    “Sometimes when Doug and I talk together, I’ll say something along the lines of “I’m really feeling overwhelmed with everything that needs to be done.”

    Doug will innocently ask, “What needs to be done?” And even though I want to give him an “Are you kidding me???” response, I know that he doesn’t see all the things that I see. He only sees the one post-it note that’s right in front of him.”

  41. This blog is just wonderful! So many practical ideas, so elegantly written. Thank you.

  42. Guilty. I almost didn’t leave a comment because I’d planned on telling you all the tasks I’m currently working on…

    Just yesterday I was thinking of choosing just one thing to begin and to complete before I start another. But that would require one of my long to-do lists, otherwise how could I choose one thing?

    And that to-do list would already exist, neatly in a notepad and in snippets in various other places, on bits of paper, in an attempt to get the things on it to stop circling my mind.

    from, Over-planner