The New Year usually inspires goal setting and big ambitions, but for most, taking on yet another commitment is the last thing they should do.

A new study from researchers at VitalSmarts, a leadership training company and home of Getting Things Done® classroom and online training, found that when it comes to managing our time and to-do lists, we're habitually overcommitted and overwhelmed.

The survey of 1,353 people reveals 3 out of 5 have agreed to accomplish more than they can actually do in the time they have available. Another 1 in 5 say they have reached their limit and can't possibly commit to more.

And it turns out, our tendency to overcommit isn't a fluke. In fact, 1 in 3 say they ALWAYS have more tasks in front of them than they can actually get done, and 2 in 3 say they USUALLY find themselves in this same predicament.

So, what constitutes a lot of commitments? According to the study, 60 percent of respondents say they have more than 60 tasks on their weekly to-do list (both work and personal commitments) and 15 percent of those people have more than 100 tasks. When asked to report on their entire life to-do list, 71 percent said they have 120+ tasks on their to-do list and 20 percent of those have 200+ tasks they are trying to accomplish.

According to respondents, the top 5 reasons people attribute for their overgrown to-do lists include:

  1. Desire to be helpful, accommodating, and polite (73 percent)
  2. Tendency to jump in and fix problems, even when they aren't theirs (56 percent)
  3. Ambiguous limits and unclear rules about which tasks to accept or reject (39 percent)
  4. Working with those in authority who make non-negotiable demands (38 percent)
  5. Inability to say "no" or renegotiate commitments (32 percent)

Lead researchers, David MaxfieldNew York Times bestselling author, and Justin Hale, co-creator of Getting Things Done Training, say this over-commitment epidemic is also the result of poorly-designed workflow management systems in a world that runs on the mantra: do more with less.

"Without a system designed to capture and organize incoming tasks and the skills to negotiate commitments, you're bound to find yourself victim of an impossible to-do list," says Maxfield. "Unless and until you take control of this system, you'll continue to frantically spin your wheels and still only make a dent in that ever-growing list of commitments."

And it turns out that an impossible to-do list isn't just exhausting, it also takes a toll on our emotional health. According to the study, people report the following side-effects of their over-commitment habits:

  • Stress: 50 percent are moderately stressed, 35 percent are highly stressed and 9 percent are very highly stressed.
  • Worry and anxiety: 52 percent are worried about letting themselves or others down and 41 percent are unsure of where to start in their efforts to accomplish their tasks.
  • Overwhelm and defeat: 46 percent feel overwhelmed and 20 percent are regretful of agreeing to so much in the first place.

And perhaps most alarming, respondents report that their to-do list prevents them from being really present—meaning when they are with the people and things that matter most, they aren't multitasking or thinking about other tasks. Specifically, 44 percent say they are "really present" only half of the time and 37 percent say they are rarely or never present. Only 1 percent say they are in a position to be always present.

But there is a solution. Maxfield and Hale say that with just a few skills, people can regain control of their to-do list while also reducing stress.

"There are a small number of self-management practices that can literally change a person's life by dramatically improving performance while also reducing stress," says Hale. "When you learn to manage your workload quickly and efficiently, you'll not only take control of your to-do list but also avoid the weight and anxiety that comes with carrying an impossible workload."

Maxfield and Hale share five productivity practices for regaining control of the to-do list in 2019.

  1. Collect everything that owns your attention. Capture all commitments, tasks, ideas, and projects in an external place rather than keeping them in your head. Use just a few "capture tools" you keep with you all the time such as lists, apps, email, etc.
  2. Do a Commitment audit. Capture all of your commitments on one page. Then go down the list and decide which to-dos you will do, which you'll decline, and which you'll renegotiate. There's no way you can do them all in the time given; be realistic about what you can and will do.  
  3. Identify Next Actions. Most people are extra overwhelmed by their lists because they are filled with vague things like "Budget" or "2019 Event." These large projects repulse us rather than motivate us to act. Clarify your to dos down to the very next action; the smallest behavior you'll take to start moving toward closure. Sometimes the key to breaking a habit of procrastination is making the action smaller until you want to do it.  
  4. Do more of the right things by reflecting in the right moments. Rather than diving into your messy inbox first thing, take two minutes to review your calendar and your action lists. This reflection ensures you make the best decisions about how to use your time.
  5. Review weekly. Keep a sacred, non-negotiable meeting with yourself every week to re-sync, get current, and align your daily work and projects with your higher-level priorities.

About VitalSmarts: Named one of the Top 20 Leadership Training Companies, VitalSmarts is home to the award-winning Crucial Conversations®, Crucial Accountability®, Getting Things Done®, and Influencer Training® and New York Times bestselling books of the same titles. VitalSmarts has consulted with more than 300 of the Fortune 500 companies and trained more than 2 million people worldwide. www.vitalsmarts.com