How to break free from work overload?

Dr Piotr Wozniak, October 1999

New article by Dr. Piotr Wozniak: The true history of spaced repetition

The essence of time management can be captured in one phrase: Organize and execute around priorities

Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

This article presents the concept of a tasklist and how it can be used in time-management and work-related stress-management

Mixed blessings of technology

The pace of the growth of our civilization seems to never leave the exponential phase. The more we invent in the area of life-quality improvement, the more we get overwhelmed with the blessings of technology. The Internet has shaken the experience of communication, yet it added new problems with new acronyms such as Information Fatigue Syndrome (IFS) or Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD). E-mail has revolutionized person-to-person communication on all platforms (business, scientific, personal, etc.), yet many of us just cannot keep up with the regular inflow of dozens of messages even though each e-mail might include an important Thank you, business idea or Long-time-no-see greetings. This article proposes a universal solution to the problem of handling task overload at work and at home


One of the pivotal issues in stress management is the management of work overload. 10% of the population in the industrial world suffers from overstress (clinically known as insufficient supply of messengers from the biogenic amine and endorphin system). Overstress basically results from two factors: (1) work overload and (2) change. As for change, even seemingly pleasant change factors add to the stress load: marriage, vacation, fabulous date, new job, etc. Those who are in overstress should look for stability, as opposed to change. One of the best formulas: make your life regular like clockwork! If it becomes boring... well... at least it is not going to be stressful and damaging to your health. There is a simple way of telling if stress and change are welcome in your life: as long as they are detectably pleasurable, they are not likely to be harmful!

Excessive workload

After the factors of change, the second important source of overstress comes from excessive workload. Work by itself is not harmful. For those who are perceived as workaholics, heavy workload may even be necessary to retain the balance of neurotransmitters in the brain. The harmful factors related to work are: unmet expectations, rapid change, chaotic multitasking, uncertainty, interruptions, etc. Many hours of a well-defined job in full concentration may do more good to your mental state than pure idleness. At the same time even one hour of chaos can wreak havoc on your ability to focus, rest in the night, communicate with your peers, etc. When you get down to work, you subconsciously define a set of expectations for your working day. If these all go to ruin because of factors beyond your control, you end up with unmet expectations and overstress. Here are some examples of factors that ruin your working day expectations:

  • your boss enters your room and sends you into a new mission without considering your position in the current task
  • your employees come every 20 minutes with new questions and you cannot move ahead
  • your mobile phone rings off the hook
  • there is a pile of unresponded correspondence on your desk or an unmanageable collection of e-mails in your inbox
  • bad news strikes and you have to chart emergency plans
  • you are chasing too many hares at the same time and multitasking becomes a chaos
  • your calendar runs out of free space for new assignments or you spend more time shifting tasks from day to day than actually doing anything

If any of these points sound familiar, you definitely have a good feel of what contributes to your work-related stress

There are simple, popular and often effective solutions to most of the above problems:

  • discuss with your boss the inefficiencies related to constant change and propose the rules. Rules are the key to relationships. This refers to your marriage, business contacts and the relationship with your boss or employees
  • establish the rules when you can and cannot be interrupted by your employees
  • turn on your phone only in designated hours or have your secretary impose a heavy filter on the incoming phone calls (my privately favored solution: give up the phone entirely and use e-mail instead)
  • prioritize your e-mail and correspondence. Try not to succumb to urgency and deadlines. Reconcile yourself to the fact that some e-mail will just have to wait for its turn longer than the sender would have expected
  • accept the possibility of a complete turn-about in your work as a result of uncertainties. Learn to stoically plan anew and reprioritize if change is necessary
  • focus and specialize. Doing too many things at the same time is bound to affect the quality. Learn to delegate jobs to others. You cannot do everything or verify everything. At some point, hands-on management will limit your chances for expansion
  • clearly differentiate between tasks that must land in your calendar (e.g. due to deadlines) and tasks that may be relegated to your prioritized to-do list

Using to-do lists to tackle overstress

To-do lists can help you overcome some of the mentioned problems:

  • with a permission from your boss, set up a to-do list prioritized according to his or her own criteria. If you get a new task, let it flow down the list if its valuation cannot top the tasks at the top of the list. Discuss it sincerely with the boss
  • ask your employees to set up to-do lists and handle their requests via a to-do list (see below)
  • prioritize your e-mail using the to-do list metaphor, etc.

One inherent quality of to-do lists though is their constant tendency to grow longer beyond the limits of manageability. Only those who do not care about time-management do not know the problem of to-do list overgrowth. All the others have their own solution to handling to-do lists (if your original own solution is not listed here, please let us know). Here are some typical examples:

  • psychologists who specialize in stress management propose: cut the bottom of your to-do list or regularly sift through it and eliminate 50% of items
  • one of the greatest Polish experts on molecular mechanisms of memory, Prof. Lech Kaczmarek, surprised me once with his original solution: I do not keep notes and I do not have an appointment calendar. Whatever I forget, it could not have been important enough. Indeed, natural forgetting mechanisms may act as a good way to thin out the to-do list; however, this solution probably isn't suitable for everyone. Its main shortcoming: problems with stress management. Many of you would probably keep worrying than an important appointment, deadline or promise would not be met (with untold consequences)
  • many people use stick-it notes on their desk and try to get rid of them as soon as possible. This approach will not work for people with dozens of ideas and multiple contacts. Ultimately they will do dozens unimportant things just to make sure their desk is clean of the notes. The trick is to keep a record of all ideas but work only on those that are most likely to be profitable (see later)
  • the use of personal information managers (PIMs) is becoming more and more popular. All ideas can be jotted down or scheduled for execution on a given day. However, with passing time, there is an increasing volume of notes, tasks and appointments, and you may waste an increasing proportion of your time on browsing your to-do lists and rescheduling appointments. You do not need to be a procrastinator to find yourself shifting tasks from day to day again and again (dozens and perhaps even hundred times)! Shifting a task may cumulatively take more time than actually executing it in the first place!

Tasklists solve the problem of excessive workload!

The rational approach to handling to-do lists is this:

  • if the value of the task is less than the value of the time needed for its execution, forget the task
  • if executing a task takes less time than writing it down, execute it or forget it
  • otherwise, write down the task
  • whenever possible avoid tasks that require scheduling or tasks that are limited by deadlines. This is often not possible but it usually makes your life and planning much easier. Avoiding deadlines is often a matter of lifestyle, not necessity. Check if you are not getting overly dependent on or even submissive to others. Learn to say no and avoid promises (except: I will put it on my to-do list and do it when its time comes). Check if (unwanted) promises do not make most of your deadlines!
  • if the task must be executed on a given day or at a given hour, or if the task must be executed before a certain deadline, write it down in your personal information manager in the appropriate time slot
  • if the value of the task does not depend on its timing, put it on a prioritized to-do list
  • prioritize your to-do list by using the value/time criterion or its equivalent. Later in this text I will use the term tasklist: A tasklist is a to-do list prioritized using the value/time criterion

The value/time criterion is universal and should generally be applied to maximizing the efficiency of your actions across the board. After all, whatever your hierarchy of value, you definitely want to generate maximum value per unit time. From an investor's perspective you might ask: Why not use the profit criterion, i.e. Revenue - Cost or equivalent?

Imagine then that you have $100 to invest and you got two tasks: one will make you buy a software package at $100 and resell it at $105. Another one will make you buy a battery at $1 and resell it at $2. Using the profit criterion, you would start from buying the software package. After all that gives you $5 as opposed to $1 in case of batteries. However, with your $100 you can buy 100 batteries and end up with $100 profit. In other words, you cannot use profit as the sorting criterion. You would rather use profit/investment criterion which would put batteries (profit/investment=1) well ahead of the software package where: profit/investment = (revenue-cost)/cost = (105-100)/100 = 0.05. 

You will immediately notice that apart from the cost of batteries you should also include other costs such as the cost of your precious time! You will also notice that the value/time criterion is another way of expressing value/investment criterion (or profit/investment, etc.). Note that these are all simply different interpretations of the same thing: investment efficiency

Are tasklists a tool of stress-management?

If you use tasklists, you do not have to worry about your to-do lists growing beyond a thousand items! Using a rationally prioritized to-do list is another way of admitting: You cannot do everything what others would want you to do! You cannot do everything what you yourself would want to do! Just do your best!

For many, the tasklist concept will not be appealing because of their simple lack of ability to accurately estimate the following: the value of one's time, the duration of tasks, the value generated by the successful completion of a task, etc. Without accurate valuation, tasklists will turn into quasi-randomly sorted to-do lists. In such cases, application of a tasklist might still be recommended due to the following:

  1. the sorting order will partly reduce the stress related to the need of browsing an unmanageable list of things to do
  2. the ability to assess the value of tasks and their duration develops gradually with time and the benefits coming from the use of a tasklist will grow with every passing day

Those who do apply tasklists experience the following advantages:

  1. end of worry about not doing important things! If they are not done, even if they seem important, they are not done because of a simple impossibility!
  2. end of worry about others asking you why you do not do what they asked you do to! Present your tasklist and your valuations. As an act of courtesy, you can even increase the valuation of a task in question. If this won't push the task to the top, you will just no do it! Period!
  3. easiness of revaluation and reprioritizing. If things change, find a task on a list, change its valuation or timing and sort the list anew

Tasklists are an excellent stress-management tool! If you disagree or simply believe tasklists are a waste of time, drop me a line. I will gladly comment upon your opinion or even add your comments to the bottom of this web page.

What tasklist manager can you use?

Regrettably, I cannot recommend any PIM that would make it possible to sort to-do lists using the value/time criterion. I do not know one! If you do, please let me know [since publishing this article many of you recommended: Above&Beyond, which is said to provide best priority handling]

However, the good news is that ... our speed-learning software SuperMemo makes it easy to prioritize tasklists and sort them using the value/time criteria!
The reason for which tasklists have crept into SuperMemo is that they are a foundation concept for implementing the so-called reading lists. A reading list is a tasklist in which each task is an article to read. SuperMemo 99 for Windows uses reading lists to make it possible for students to easily convert knowledge available in electronic articles into knowledge that can effectively be remembered. Tasklist management is an underlying concept for reading list management, and appears to be a valuable implementation side effect that will help you use SuperMemo for handling your tasklist! In other words, you can now use SuperMemo in time-management and stress-management!

I have used tasklists for nearly a decade, and find the implementation introduced to SuperMemo an excellent boost to the program's functionality. I could only wish similar mechanisms were added to Microsoft's Outlook and other applications of this type. Although I consider MS Outlook 2000 a very good application, the availability of three priority levels on the list of tasks renders this option entirely useless from my perspective!

Add + Forget + Execute

With tasklists in SuperMemo, you never have to worry that you will miss an important idea or that storing the idea in your PIM will excessively burden your attention and waste your precious time (browsing, shifting, etc.). Tasklists help you take the only rational and psychologically sound approach to handling to-do lists: Add, forget and execute.

Add: You can add as many tasks as you wish without adding to your mental burden or chipping away at your time
Forget: Upon adding a task, you can forget about its existence without worrying that it would never come back (if only it is important enough)
Execute: Execute tasks on your tasklist starting with those of the highest priority. You can execute only a single task in a given time slot, keep the remaining thousand tasks untouched on the list, and still be sure that you have done your best!

To simplify your valuations, you might opt for designating the same amount of time to each of your tasklists per day (or at least per week). For example, you should set on spending no more than 90 minutes on e-mail, 70 minutes on your reading list, 40 minutes on your minor tasks tasklist, etc. This will help you find the right proportions between various areas of your activity and adjust them in case long-term results do not meet you expectations in a given field

Tasklist examples

If, for example, you would like to regularly expand your encyclopedic knowledge about facts you encounter in the news, on the net or in conversation with other people, you might create a tasklist that looks as presented below. You might then spend 10-20 minutes of your day with a CD-ROM encyclopedia looking individual entries up and importing them to your reading list. Creating such a tasklist as below would help you avoid rushing through individual entries without sufficient in-depth analysis while still being sure that you start off from most important positions. Task is the name of the entry or concept you want to understand better. Value is the dollar value you put on getting the new knowledge. Time is the time it will take to locate and read the entry in your encyclopedia or on the Internet (or other sources). Priority tells you how much value are you generating per hour of your knowledge hunt:

Task Value [$] Time [hours] Priority [$/hour]
Task Value [$] Time [hours] Priority [$/hour]
Descartes 7 0.1 70
Newton 13 0.2 65
History of computers 30 0.5 60
Saddam Hussein 12 0.2 60
Tahiti 6 0.1 60
Prophet Muhammad 5.9 0.1 59
Logical positivists 5.7 0.1 57
History of education 85 1.5 56.66
B. F. Skinner 11 0.2 55
PLO 10 0.2 50
Franciscans 5 0.1 50
Mikhail Gorbachev 10 0.2 50
Quantum Mechanics 30 0.7 42.86
Reign of Terror 8 0.2 40
spina bifida 3.9 0.1 39
Orthodox Christianity 3.6 0.1 36
Tschaikovsky 3.5 0.1 35
Idi Amin 3.4 0.1 34

If you would like to rationalize your spending, you might create a shopping list based on the expected daily savings in your time. Item is the item to buy. Savings is your expected daily time you would save as a result of purchasing the item. For example, if you subscribe to Scientific Discoveries channel you might end up spending 20 minutes per day on watching Science News and get back 28 minutes through your enhanced knowledge, which would result in a net gain of 8 minutes (those estimations might be highly subjective but ... they provide a rational underpinnings of your shopping list). Price is the price of a given product. Priority tells you how many minutes per day you would actually save per dollar of your spending.

Item Savings [min] Price [$] Priority [min/$]
Item Savings [min] Price [$] Priority [min/$]
SuperMemo 99 10 29.5 0.339
Scientific Discoveries channel 8 38 0.211
Subscription to PC World 5 40 0.125
Electric shaver 2.5 43 0.058
CD-ROM Dictionary 5 99 0.051
Water filter 15 325 0.046
WinCE computer 21 500 0.042
Electric balance 1.5 39 0.038
New in-line skates 1.2 200 0.006

If you are shopping for your favorite music compact discs at, you could rank the music and see how much value you get per dollar:

Artist and Title Song rankings value [$] Price [$] Value/Price [$/$]
Artist and Title Song rankings value [$] Price [$] Value/Price [$/$]
Zapp - Zapp 44 16 2,75
Bar-Kays - Money talks 38 14 2.714
Tower Of Power - We Came To Play 32 15 2.133
The Birth of Cool Funk 19 9 2.111
LTD - Togetherness 25 14 1.786
Fatback - Fattest of Fatback 21 12 1.75
Brass Construction - Get up to get down 22 13 1.692
Graham Central Station - Ain't no bout-a-doubt it 22 13 1.692
Was not Was - Dad, I'm in jail 31 19 1.632

Most of all, you will want to create tasklists for scheduling your daily tasks, tasks for your employees, tasks that make up your projects, etc.

For example, the implementation list for SuperMemo is over 2000 tasks long. Most of the ideas come from users of SuperMemo but only a small proportion can actually be put into effect due to the limitations of the implementation cycle in terms of resources, time, deadlines, etc. The implementation cycle begins with selecting key features of the new version (e.g. reading lists in SuperMemo 99). Once these are designed and skeletally implemented, further implementation proceeds strictly along the implementation tasklist. Gradually, the 2000-long list of items is being shortened by adding new features to SuperMemo or by moving tasks to the next release (which is a separate tasklist). Once SuperMemo enters beta-testing, all features that are not labeled as bugs are moved to the next version's tasklist. Finally, once all bugs are processed, the current version's tasklist becomes empty, and a new version of SuperMemo is ready for release. The tasklist for the next version includes all new beta-tester and customer propositions as well as the long list of tasks inherited from and not implemented in the previous version.

An important example of a tasklist is a tasklist with tasks for your employee (each employee should have his or her own tasklist in your collection). The value of the task can naturally be measured in dollars (or other currency). Selecting the time field is more tricky though. If you value your time highly, you might tend to record only your own time needed to explain the task and supervise its execution or inspect the results. However, this will give preference to highly valued tasks that need little of your attention but may otherwise be long-drawn and wasteful. This will tend to act as a way of getting rid of an employee by giving him or her arduous jobs that may last for hours or days. It will cost you little except for being wasteful in terms of the employee's time. Naturally, you cannot use the time of your employee as the time attribute of the task because the expenditure of your time is unlikely to be negligible. The only rational solution is to combine the times you and your employee will need to execute the task. Obviously you will want to multiply your time by an appropriate value to express the likely case of your caring more about your own time than about the time of your employee. A 10-fold difference in valuation would not be surprising. It is the privilege of a boss to feel important. A more convenient solution would be to convert your time to dollars and your employee's time to dollars and simply add the two dollar numbers.

The number of applications of tasklists is endless. You can list things to find on the net, gardening chores, your wife's requests for things to fix in the house, letters to write, books to buy, and many more. You can even keep your own pop-charts as a tasklist (ignoring the time field). Once you develop the ability to quickly evaluate your time and the value of things in your life, you may find tasklists indispensable. With tasklists you will always live in comfort of doing things optimally: at work and privately at home

If you have an interesting example of a tasklist, please let me know

You can use SuperMemo 99 for Windows to keep a number of tasklists. For more information see: Tasklist Manager

This is how tasklists look in SuperMemo 99:

To find out more about the science of stress management see: The Medical Basis of Stress, Depression, Anxiety, Sleep Problems, and Drug Use

See also: Tasklist FAQ