How To Tame Your To-Do List and Take Back Your Time

Family Photo copyIt stares at me. From its place on my side table, my to-do list takes on a life of its own and demands I do this and do that, go here and go there as it whips me into a frenetic pace that drains me. Until I decide who’s really in charge, it becomes a relentless dictator that drives my life and my choices. And unfortunately even my joy.

Whether or not you make a written to-do list or carry one in your head, I’m sure you have days or weeks that it gets out of control and begins dictating your time instead of the other way around.

In itself, my to-do list can be liberating. But when I fail to rule what goes on it, it becomes a taskmaster that demands too much, rewards little, and keeps me chained to the insignificant. I find myself racing from one thing to another instead of doing what I truly love and making an impact in what matters most to me. 

The Word says, “Teach us to number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:10).

Life is short. If we establish our priorities as we talked about in 3 Steps to Putting First Things First, then we must also ensure that the snatch of time we have each day lines up with those priorities. If we do, one day we will look back on these moments with satisfaction instead of longing for what could have been.

So how can we tame our to-do list and experience the joy of doing what we love and pursuing what we were created for?

1—Protect the important things by putting them on the calendar first. Is it a date with your husband? A game night with the kids? Time to exercise, or work on that book you have inside you? If it’s really a priority, then your calendar should reflect it and your to-do list should include it.

2—Eliminate everything that doesn’t line up with your priorities. Is a birthday party of a friend’s friend really something you should allot time for simply because you ran into her at the mall and she extended the invitation? Will that really move you closer to where you want to be or will it rob you of time you could be spending more wisely?

3—Keep it short and be realistic. We all have a million things to do, but we can’t do a million things. Effective people know they can do perhaps 5 things and they can do those 5 things well.

There are days I actually believe I can enthusiastically homeschool my children, pay the bills, organize my closets, finally sift through my emails, make business calls for my husband, whip up a gourmet dinner, get 4 loads of laundry finished, and still have the energy to be the perky little wife my husband would love me to be by lights out.

Instead, the fact is, I impatiently hurry the kids through lessons, pay the wrong amount to the electric company (really!), throw a few things out of my closet and plan to get back to it later, press “Delete All” on my emails (except yours of course 🙂 ), get annoyed with the customer who asks me the same question 4 different ways, order pizza, wash some underwear, and collapse into bed unshowered. Busy, yes, but hardly the outcome I wanted.

4—Give yourself permission to say, “No.” If this is hard for you, then practice saying, “Can I let you know tomorrow?” Then consider if the request is really something that lines up with your priorities. If not, craft a kind response and move on. I usually say, “I’m sorry. I appreciate the offer, but I have to honor the commitments I’ve already made.” You cannot make everyone happy, and you are not responsible for trying.

5—Have grace. You’ll get off track. You’ll get irritated at the unsuspecting cable guy who showed up 30 minutes late (and they always do) because your day is now behind schedule, you’ll glare at your husband when he asks if he has clean jeans and say, “Why doesn’t ANYONE else EVER do ANYTHING around here?!” (Of course that’s hypothetical since I’ve never done that). It’s okay. Claim a do-over, a pray-over, and then start over.

So, when you find yourself feeling like there’s no way to get everything done, you’re probably right. It’s a good way to know you need to dial back the insanity of busyness and be more intentional. So, take a deep breath, determine what is really important–what you hope your children will remember about you in 20 years, tame your to-do list and take back your time.

What would taming your to-do list leave you time for today? I’d love for you to leave me a comment telling me what your perfect day looks like.




3 Steps to Putting First Things First

(This article is part 2 of a series. To read part part 1, see Is Your Plate Too Full?)

One day this expert was speaking to a group of business students and, to drive home a point, used an illustration I’m sure those students will never forget. After I share it with you, you’ll never forget it either.

As this man stood in front of the group of high-powered over-achievers he said, “Okay, time for a quiz.” Then he pulled out a one-gallon, wide-mouthed mason jar and set it on a table in front of him. Then he produced about a dozen fist-sized rocks and carefully placed them, one at a time, into the jar.

When the jar was filled to the top and no more rocks would fit inside, he asked, “Is this jar full?” Everyone in the class said, “Yes.” Then he said, “Really?” He reached under the table and pulled out a bucket of gravel. Then he dumped some gravel in and shook the jar causing pieces of gravel to work themselves down into the spaces between the big rocks.

Then he smiled and asked the group once more, “Is the jar full?” By this time the class was onto him. “Probably not,” one of them answered. “Good!” he replied. And he reached under the table and brought out a bucket of sand. He started dumping the sand in and it went into all the spaces left between the rocks and the gravel. Once more he asked the question, “Is this jar full?”

“No!” the class shouted. Once again he said, “Good!” Then he grabbed a pitcher of water and began to pour it in until the jar was filled to the brim. Then he looked up at the class and asked, “What is the point of this illustration?”

One eager beaver raised his hand and said, “The point is, no matter how full your schedule is, if you try really hard, you can always fit some more things into it!”

“No,” the speaker replied, “that’s not the point. The truth this illustration teaches us is: If you don’t put the big rocks in first, you’ll never get them in at all.”

GodI read that illustration many years ago by leadership expert Stephen Covey and I go back to it when my life seems too full of urgent things leaving no room for the important things.

It reminds me to do the big things first before my “jar” gets filled up by all the little things that won’t mean much in 20 years.

When I find myself frustrated by my lack of time for those most important things, here’s how I get back on track to Putting First Things First:

  1. Decide it! I determine my “big rocks”. We can’t prioritize our time if we aren’t clear on what is most important to us. For me, my list includes :
    • Pursuit of God
    • Good Health
    • Pursuit of a strong marriage
    • Pursuit of a healthy family
    • Personal growth
    • Projects
  2. Write it! I keep a journal of my “big rocks” and revisit and change them periodically. Within each category, I list specifics. Under a healthy family, I write, “have a weekly game night”. Under personal growth, I list books I want to read and classes I want to take. Once I know my priorities, my calendar comes out and I take off things that don’t line up with them to make room for things that do. Then I tackle my to-do list and make it more manageable.
  3. Guard it! I learn to let non-essential things go. The phone will always ring, the emails will always beckon. The closets will never quite be as organized as I may like. I carve out some time for these, but then don’t let them bleed over into more important areas.


So this is where I am, putting first things first. My next step is taming my to-do list to make room for my priorities on my daily schedule.

How about you? What are your “big rocks”? Do you need to make room for some of them today? I hope you’ll scroll down and leave me a comment.




Is Your Plate Too Full?

It was only Monday morning. I woke up an hour before the alarm, and my brain was already racing through my mental to-do list. Going back to sleep wasn’t going to happen, so I slipped out of bed and began to tackle the day.

hand-565588_1920By the time the kids got up, I was already in high gear and wondering how I’d ever get it all done. A quick assessment allowed me to cross a few things off and move a few others to another day. But those days were already crammed and I was afraid I’d end up not getting to it altogether, so worry began to press in. There are bills to pay, appointments to make, lessons to teach, calls to make, and…

The intrusive voice: “Mommy! Did you hear me?…”

Really? Can’t they see how busy I am? “WHAT?” I snap.

“I just didn’t know if you wanted me to make you eggs,” came the convicting sweetness of my 11-year-old.

UGH!!! Guilt is now heaped on top of busy-ness and worry, and I feel like poop. So I soften outwardly and crumble inwardly. “No thank you Honey.”

I grab the phone to make what should be a 3 minute call that turns into 30 and by the time I’m off my heart is racing, my brain is full, and my emotions are about to leap off the sanity edge.

And it’s only 8:30. I grab another cup of coffee and plunge further toward disaster.

Have you played out this same scenario with different characters? If so, then let me tell you, it doesn’t have to be this way. These moments are our little reminders to reassess our priorities, re-evaluate our schedules, and re-tweak (or as in my case—overhaul) our to-do list.1

I wish I could say I did all that on Monday, but Tuesday and Wednesday were near repeats before the ah-ha moment kicked in. By then, I was in panic-mode. I went to bed exhausted, frustrated, overwhelmed, and irritated with everything and everyone.

So I had a desperate, late night cry session with the Lord over my too long to-do list. I was plagued by my inconsistent involvement in the girls’ schooling and by my not being “in the moment” with my family. I asked God how in the world to accomplish it all. After all, there is just one of me.

Can’t anyone understand that? I can’t do it all!

And there it was: Truth in five words.

I can’t do it all.

And thankfully I don’t have to.

And in that moment of clarity was the scripture, “What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? (Mark 8:36) My children are intricately linked to my soul and I knew the Lord was telling me I was tending too heavily to the wrong areas while neglecting the one I know is to be my focus–my family.

What the Lord convicted me of is this: I can work tirelessly in many arenas and even achieve “success” through them, but unless it is what He has purposed, it will have little value and come at a cost.

You see, when you gorge yourself from a plate that is too full, you lose the ability to truly taste anything and you have two choices. You can stuff yourself until you’re too bloated to enjoy any of it (and likely end up vomiting a big mess). Or you can choose a few things to savor more fully.

So, if awareness is the first step, what’s next? For me, it’s getting a clearer picture of my priorities. I haven’t done that yet, but I hope you’ll check out 3 Steps To Putting First Things First and together we’ll learn how to take a few good items off our plates to fully enjoy the best.

I’d love to hear about how you manage all that’s on your plate. Please comment below some strategies you use or if, like me, you struggle to reign in your to-do list.