Worried that you’ll never get it all done? The good news: That’s okay

Are you feeling stress about something you know you need to deal with, but you’re not? Would you confess to having a running list of such things that you never seem to get to? Are you perhaps overwhelmed when you realize that the things you’re not dealing with are accumulating at an uncomfortable rate?

If you ever find yourself simply exhausted trying to get it all done – and there’s still not enough time for sleep, family, and other things that contribute to your well-being and ability to perform – I have good news. This could be the start of a profound turning point for you. If you’re constantly under strain as to-do lists lengthen, demands stack up, and deadlines loom or slip by, I hope you’ll consider that there’s a different way to operate.

There’s a way to accept the reality of all the demands on your shoulders, and also to become far more productive and efficient. And at the same time, you can experience more power, freedom, and sense of accomplishment.

Busy, successful people who are fighting stress, overwhelm, and exhaustion often turn to time management tools. These tools can help, but only to a certain extent. Moreover, they don’t do anything to alter that nagging sense of there being a “mountain” of responsibilities and deadlines that never goes away. Every day we spend trying to “get it all done” is a day we spend oriented around survival, all the while hoping for a “one day, someday” when the pressure will somehow dissipate.

Tools will come and go as the inclination towards survival persists. But there’s a certain bankruptcy to survival; it’s difficult to find richness in your life when you’re fixated on what you’ve failed to accomplish. Conversely, there’s such a sweetness to accomplishment. There’s also the reality that in our attempts get things done and move the mountain, we tend to avoid the most difficult tasks in front of us, and instead focus on the more doable things. Sure, I must do my taxes, but first I should really do this laundry… and run to the market… and organize my desk…etc. You get the idea.

It may sound counter-intuitive, but one of the first steps in becoming more efficient and productive involves a critical acknowledgement: You’re never going to get it all done. We’re pretending – probably unconsciously and with the best of intentions – when we think that it’s possible to take care of everything that constitutes the mountain. There is something incredibly liberating about accepting that it’s not humanly possible to always get to everything. With that liberation comes freedom from the madness of being survival-driven and straining to achieve the unachievable. And with this freedom can come a powerful peace of mind.

I’m not talking about giving up. Just the opposite. I’m talking about making a big shift and learning how to become more powerfully productive than ever. The power comes from changing the way you see the mountain, and shifting your relationship to it. More specifically, it comes from taking on what really matters and telling the truth about what you’re not going to get done – at least not now. This can bring you a new focus that leads to new levels of efficiency and accomplishment.

As people make this shift, I have seen them design their lives to cope very successfully with what’s in front of them, and to accomplish things they were never able to before. Their achievements run a broad gamut of work and life challenges, from gaining the capacity to consistently meet daily deadlines to objectives such as giving up smoking, learning another language, and finally attending to personal issues that have gone unaddressed for too long. And while in each instance there was a time management component involved, what they did entailed becoming unrelentingly focused on what mattered to them the most. Rather than get caught up in the easiest “to-dos,” they accepted that certain accessible tasks would have to wait, and set themselves up for success with those more daunting undertakings that related directly to what mattered to them the most.

It’s not quite as simple as it might sound, because shifting your relationship to all of your accumulating accountabilities can be tougher than we expect it to be. As high achievers, we’re so attached to the notion of never letting anything slip. Then of course, as we cling to that notion, all kinds of things slip and get away from us. But if you truly shift your orientation away from the unwritten rule about getting it all done, you can begin to realize a sense of accomplishment and fulfillment that could be missing for you.

By the way, when I say fulfillment, I don’t mean for that to necessarily equate with happiness – these are two different things. If you’re passionate about mountaineering and you’ve made your way up a glorious summit, albeit under treacherous conditions, you’re going to feel mightily fulfilled. But as the wind gusts against your face and the snow comes pounding down on your shoulders and you’re fighting life-threatening circumstances, you’re probably not experiencing happiness. Even so, you’re fulfilled – because you set yourself up for a certain difficult-to-attain success, and you’ve attained it.

I should also stress that changing your orientation to your accumulation of accountabilities is definitely not an intellectual exercise. It takes real practice and there are multiple layers of discipline required. And although it becomes more familiar over time, it never really gets easy. Yet it continually yields results. It begins with that key shift I’ve described, and it can become embedded in your approach to work and life. If you’re keen to know more, please stay tuned for my next post in this productivity blog series on how to experience more power, freedom, and sense of accomplishment.