Are you trying to do too much?

Reading time: About 3 minutes

Do you fail to write because you’re always trying to do too much? This is a common problem, and it takes some mindful planning to get around it…

It’s the Tuesday after Labour Day in North America — one of the most hectic days in the annual calendar.

Summer holidays are now officially over. Kids go back to school, for which they need clothes and supplies. But, they’re typically at school for only a couple of hours, which puts extra strain on parents who need to figure out childcare.

Fall activities also usually begin this week — sports like soccer and hockey, clubs like photography, chess and debating, organizations like Scouts and Girl Guides. When I had young kids, the first week after Labour Day was busy enough to make me hyperventilate.

But even if you don’t have kids, “back to school” season seems to infiltrate work as well. Bosses have ambitious plans they want to see executed now that the summer holidays are mostly over. And guess what? Q4 starts Oct. 1, and then it’ll be Christmas before we know it.

Are you starting to hyperventilate as well?

When I was in university, one of my profs called me a “compulsive over-achiever.” That label has stuck with me and not because I was foolish enough to see it as a compliment. I recognized it for the barb that it was and, as I’ve aged, I’ve come to understand the value of doing less and being more relaxed.

I think that’s why I so admire the writing of Oliver Burkeman, author of the life-changing book Four Thousand Weeks. I also subscribe to Burkeman’s newsletter (which, in his new relaxed fashion, appears only sporadically). And a recent post of his suggested an idea I found deeply compelling.

On the topic of reading, he wrote: Treat your to-read pile like a river, not a bucket. Think about that for a second.

Rivers flow past you and you can dip into them, like a fisher, pulling out what you want to sample. Buckets, on the other hand, contain X amount of water, and they demand to be emptied.

As Burkeman phrases it:

“After all, you presumably don’t feel overwhelmed by all the unread books in the British Library — and not because there aren’t an overwhelming number of them, but because it never occurred to you that it might be your job to get through them all.”

There are many signs that we may be trying to do too much:

  • Our calendars are jam-packed
  • We’re always running late
  • We’re exhausted all the time
  • We make unhealthy food choices
  • We get sick a lot
  • We look disheveled
  • We don’t have time to do the things we love
  • We regularly lose files and objects
  • We forget things
  • We can’t sleep
  • We feel jittery
  • We regularly break plans to go out with others
  • We complain all the time

As we move into the fall season, if you feel that your brain might just explode if you don’t stop trying to do too much, here are some suggestions for how to cope:

1-Put your human needs first

When we get busy we tend to ignore the essential trinity of sleep, food and exercise. We spend fewer minutes sleeping, our eating favours junk food and our exercise habit goes right out the window. If you’re trying to do too much, your very first action should be to restore sleep, food and exercise.

These are not annoying time sucks — they are investments that will actually give you back more time, later. Get enough sleep (a minimum of seven hours for most people), eat well (not too many carbs or too much sugar) and get a moderate amount of exercise, and you will feel healthier and you’ll have much more energy. For everything.

2-Learn to say no

It’s hard to say no, but it’s the single most important word in your vocabulary. Productivity expert James Clear argues that saying no is the ultimate productivity hack. As he puts it: “The words ‘yes’ and ‘no’ get used in comparison to each other so often that it feels like they carry equal weight in conversation. In reality, they are not just opposite in meaning, but of entirely different magnitudes in commitment. When you say no, you are only saying no to one option. When you say yes, you are saying no to every other option.”

3-Take on fewer tasks

Many decades ago I remember meeting with a productivity consultant to ask how I could get more done in my (already busy) days. She looked at my schedule and told me that perhaps the problem was I was trying to do too much. The best way to improve my schedule would be to do less, not more. Be very careful before you say yes to anything new. Do you really have the time to do it?  If not, you’re doing everyone a favour by saying no right away. Here are some tips on how to do that.

4-Make your tasks more intrinsically interesting

If you run your life as a massive to-do list, which I’ve been known to do from time to time, you can easily become addicted to the tick mark or the line through. Instead, learn to appreciate the task itself. How does it make you feel? Consider every sense: sight, sound, smell, touch, taste. If you can try to enjoy what you’re doing — even the mindless stuff — then you’ll get more pleasure out of life, and the to-do list won’t seem quite as urgent and oppressive.

5-Schedule more fun for yourself

All writing requires creativity  — even non-fiction.  And to keep your creative well full, you need to spend more time having fun. The time you spend reading novels, having coffee with friends, going for walks, seeing movies and taking holidays will help you become a better, more creative writer. Creativity doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It happens when you take care of yourself.

Stop trying to do too much

If you’re trying to do too much, treat your to-do list like a river rather than a bucket. Dip into it and accomplish what you can. Then let the rest flow by.

It should be obvious by now that your goal is never to drain the river.


My video podcast last week addressed how to say the same thing in different ways. Go here to see the video or read the transcript, and you can also subscribe to my YouTube channel.


Need some help developing a sustainable writing routine? Learn more about my Get It Done program. There is turn-over each month, and priority will go to those who have applied first. You can go directly to the application form and you’ll hear back from me within 24 hours.


Are you often trying to do too much? How do you persuade yourself to dial back? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section, below. And congratulations to Joy West, the winner of this month’s book prize, for a comment on my Aug. 22/23 blog. (Please send me your email address, Joy!) Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Sept. 30/23 will be put in a draw for a digital copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. To leave your own comment, please, scroll down to the section directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!

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