You can’t do everything

So many small business owners that I chat with are desperately busy.  Their work backlog is massive.  If they listed everything they had to do and worked out how long it would take them, it would immediately be obvious they will never ever clear their to-do list.  This is their reality, and it is probably yours too.  However many 70-hour weeks you decide to work, there will always be a list of things to do.

The facts are that you can’t expect to do everything on your to-do list.  Once you come to terms with this, your stress levels will fall.  It is surprisingly difficult for a lot of small business owners to accept this reality as they continue to work flat-out towards burn-out and stress-related illnesses.

If you can’t do everything, which things do you focus on?  We all know the answer – the high priority tasks.  It is far better to focus on those key tasks you must complete rather than waste time agonising over the fact you aren’t making any progress on tasks lower down on your to-do list.

There are many techniques for sorting out your massive to-do list.  Three good examples are those promoted by Brian Tracy, David Allen and Stephen Covey.  They all provide strategies to help you to process your to-do list in the most time-efficient way.

They all boil down to a 3-step process of (i) capturing all your tasks in a single place, (ii) reviewing them and (iii) prioritising them.  After that, you simply start working on your top-priority task and progress it as far as you can before moving onto your next priority task.

Stuff at the bottom of your to-do list is never going to be addressed.  This is something you just have to accept.  Most people need to drop these low-priority tasks from their to-do lists otherwise their minds gets cluttered up with stuff that will never get actioned.  David Allen suggests creating a secondary to-do list which he calls your “Someday / Maybe” list.  Brian Tracy suggests you either delegate these tasks or simply dump them.  Stephen Covey categorises them as not important and not urgent.  He also suggests you ignore them.

The upshot is you need to get these low-priority to-do items out of your conscious mind.  There is no point worrying about them.  If they are important enough, they will rise up your priority list.  If not, why waste any time thinking about them?

Once you have come to terms with this, it is much easier to focus on what is really important.

Many people have the same problem with emails.  They are swamped with emails every day, far too many to be able to read and action.  You should apply a similar approach to emails as you do with your to-do list.  Step one is to remove any mental expectations you have that you will eventually read everything in your email Inbox.  You won’t.

Simply deal with the most important emails and shunt everything else out of your Inbox into a “Someday, Sometime” holding folder.  This stops your Inbox from being cluttered up with old emails waiting to be read.

In the past, I’ve set up a new holding folder each month and deleted holding folders older than 6 months.  The old folders were deleted without any review of their contents.  I can’t recall any occasions where this strategy backfired and I was caught out deleting something that was ultimately important.


  1. Capture your to-do list in one place.  Pull together all your scraps of paper and everything you have in your head into a single list.
  2. Prioritise your list and aim to work on the most important tasks.  Shunt the lower priority tasks onto a Someday, Sometime list.
  3. Keep your “centralised” to-do list up to date.  Once it is written down, there is no risk of something being forgotten.
  4. Repeat the same process on your emails.
Posted in Time Management