How to figure out which tasks you can ignore

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This week is the one-year anniversary of the week that I became so overwhelmed with my workload that I started to act like a crazy person.

It happened slowly at first. I was taking care of my kids half-time and writing my syndicated column half-time.

Then I added my Boston Globe column, which required reporting. I had no idea how to be a reporter, so I did way more work that I needed to, trying to find my way.

Then I added my blog. I found that I could handle it by getting a little more honest with myself and cutting out all the time-wasters of my life, like phone calls I didn’t want, magazines that added no value, and household chores that we could pay someone to do.

Then my blog traffic doubled and I started publicity for my book and it was no longer an issue of time management. I was totally overwhelmed. That’s when I started to do a few crazy things:

1. I stopped sleeping. For some reason, I was able to go for about three months on three hours of sleep a night and tons of caffeine during the day.

2. I stopped changing clothes regularly. If you know you are not really going to sleep, you don’t bother putting on pajamas. And once you get up after so little sleep, you are too tired to think about a new outfit.

3. I stopped thinking about the future. I had clear plans outlined for my book publicity, but other than that, I had to churn out a column three times a week, and blog posts the other days of the week, and I was thinking only about sixteen hours ahead of myself at any given time.

I think I might have gone on like that for more than three months, but I realized I was not being a good parent. I didn’t sign up for indoor soccer in time. I didn’t know which babysitter was showing up when and often told the kids the wrong thing. And I had no patience for the kids when they did regular kid things, like fill their boots with snow.

So I went to bed. And I changed clothes. And I signed up for soccer. And I even drove my son there and watched him play.

I found the time I needed by deciding which parts of my job to stop doing.

I remember reading that the job of a CEO is to know what to blow off. That makes sense to me. I already had a sense of how to ignore details. I had been practicing that for a while, and though I sometimes got into trouble with it – like when I misquoted my brother -I am mostly good at it. But I had to take things farther.

Here are examples of essential things I ignored in the last year:

1. I ignored search engine optimization for my blog. I stopped looking at how many people came to my blog from Google searches because it’s a very low number and it upsets me.

2. I squandered an invitation from Guy Kawasaki. He offered me the opportunity to write a test on his blog about how to tell if you are a good job hunter. What a great opportunity, right? That was so nice of him. And he even gave me suggestions on how to do it. I never did it.

3. People asked to see videos of me speaking, but since I hadn’t actually launched a speaking career yet, I didn’t have a video. I didn’t make one.

Those three things could easily have been twenty. But what I want you to know is that it was okay. Nothing terrible happened. Maybe Guy Kawasaki would have been my best friend if I had pulled together a test, but he did write about me anyway. And maybe my speaking fee would be $25,000 per speech if I had gone to Hollywood and really outdid myself on a video. But really, I have tons of speaking gigs right now anyway. And my search engine optimization sucks. Still. But I finally have time to deal with SEO now.

I have spent a year learning what I can ignore and what I can’t. And I have learned that I when it comes to work, I can ignore just about anything.

Because what you ignore changes your job, but it doesn’t undermine your job. You define what your job by what you focus on. If we focus on everything, our job is nothing. I dumped things that are essential to some jobs. But just by virtue of the fact that I dumped a task, I declared it nonessential to my job. When you have too much on your plate, and everything seems essential, decide on a job change. Right there.

You don’t need to job hop in order to change jobs. You don’t need permission. You can just change the emphasis on your to do list, and thus decide what you want your job to be about. You will be surprised at how many things are on your list because you decided they were important, and not someone else. Which means, of course, that you can dump them.

And in this way, I redefine my job every day, by how I will spend my time. And I like that. Because I am sleeping well and eating well and being both the mom and the writer I want to be. For the most part. Which is probably all we can ask for.

38 replies
  1. christin
    christin says:

    I am in total agreement with this post. That is a big part of what my job has become now – dumping the things I didn’t like or that didn’t matter to me, finding faster ways to get the “annoying” tasks done (or giving them to someone else) and focusing on the things I WANT my job to be about – I don’t think my job would be what it is if I hadn’t done that. Now, did I know I was doing that? Hell no. But after 5 and a half years, looking back – I see it clearly. That’s exactly what happened, and you’re right – no one freaked out, nothing bad happened, nothing fell through the cracks. And I get to do the things that make me excited about work. Nice how that works out, eh?

  2. Dave Atkins
    Dave Atkins says:

    I don’t understand your key point:

    You will be surprised at how many things are on your list because you decided they were important, and not someone else. Which means, of course, that you can dump them.

    I thought the problem was the opposite–so many of the things we obsess about are things that other people decided were important. So we waste time on that instead of focusing on the things we decide are important. If we let other people set our priorities, we have no priority left for ourselves…

  3. Tanya
    Tanya says:

    Actually, you sort of made a speech video. You spoke at the Madison Rotary meeting in June, and Madison City Channel 12 taped it, and continues to broadcast it. For those of you not in Madison to watch it occasionally, you can watch it on their website

    Full disclosure: I work there and have enjoyed watching it many times. It was my introduction to Penelope!

  4. Tanya
    Tanya says:

    Hmmm, that link didn’t work when I tried it after posting. If it doesn’t work for you, try this. Go to Follow the “Programming” heading, then “Special Presentation” part way down the page, and it’s under June, since that’s when it was. Enjoy!

  5. anne jackson
    anne jackson says:

    thank you so so much for this post. i am beginning to declare online bankruptcy – deleting old accounts and spending less time trying to keep it all together so i can focus on writing my book and starting a new job in a few weeks.

  6. Anne Z.
    Anne Z. says:

    Penelope, I so needed this today. Thanks! It almost makes me feel like crying, it’s such a relief. I knew I could ditch some stuff, but it’s good to read it from you instead of just telling myself in my head.

  7. Alfa
    Alfa says:

    Wow you’re too busy to improve your blog’s SEO while most of the time busier SEO’ing than working. Hey what am I talking about, my work is SEO.

    Seriously, I’ve also noticed that there were so many opportunities that I’ve taken for granted in the last few weeks. I call it holiday slump. But I’m working on it right now by reading blogs like yours. :-)

    Oh and if you need some off-page SEO help, you got my email.

  8. tamar
    tamar says:

    I love this post. I love dumping stuff that I am far better without! I love ignoring tasks that add zero to my happiness or to the welfare of one human being. I learned how to be meaner and leaner in my lists and to-do’s and to become a smarter minimalist when I started living my life on two hemispheres (one at a time). The only tasks I added because of this lifestyle were finding the best backpacks (that serve as weekend bags, nice-looking “professional” carrying gear, and laptop-food-books-mystery shlepping sacks).

    I have not commented here in eons, a to-do I refuse to ignore. So, I am wishing you continued success purging the junk of life and shining light on your thoughts so that others might learn, if appropriate to them. And a happy season and new year.


  9. Chrissy - The EA
    Chrissy - The EA says:

    This totally hits home! This time of year, I always feel overwhelmed. Your advice has helped me regain some much needed perspective on what I can stop stressing about and just ignore.

    I am always looking for guidance on how to prioritize more effectively. I write about it a lot on my blog (The Executive Assistant’s Toolbox), mainly because I think it’s one of the most important things you can do to be successful in your career – and keep it from overwhelming you at the same time. Thanks for a wonderful article – I’m so glad to have found another site for career development!

  10. HiTechDad
    HiTechDad says:

    Great post. One thing we do is use a Agile methodology (SCRUM to be exact) which preaches constant revaluation of features (todos) based on impact and cost. I have been trying to apply it to my personal life and it has been working pretty well so far.

    This of corse dovetails nicely with your delegation post. The more you delegate the less impostant stuff you have to pass on!

  11. Roger
    Roger says:

    You don't need to job hop in order to change jobs. You don't need permission. You can just change the emphasis on your to do list, and thus decide what you want your job to be about.

    I find myself disagreeing with about 70% of what you say, Penelope, and comments like this are why I keep reading you anyway. That is a profoundly insightful statement. Great article!

  12. WhichBox
    WhichBox says:

    Nice post. I was struck though by the ending – being both the mom and writer you want to be. I know some of the people who comment hate when you post about you personal life; I have learned a lot from your more personal posts. They’ve been tremendously helpful to me and very insightful on how marriage can be so tough for two professionals. I am wondering what is going on now – there is so clearly an omission of “wife” from this post. Would you share the latest?

  13. David B. Bohl
    David B. Bohl says:


    In a world where we’re trying to have it all and do it all, where we’re constantly adding things and craving more things in our lives, it’s an excellent practice to regularly and consciously take inventory of what we can cut from our lives.

    Tina Turner, the Queen of Rock and Roll once said: "If you are unhappy with anything – whatever is bringing you down, get rid of it. Because you'll find that when you are free, your true creativity, your true self comes out."

    I couldn’t agree more.


  14. Dan
    Dan says:

    Great Post! I like the idea of being intentional and controlling your job by what you focus on. This takes one out of the victim mentality and allows one to pursue growth in any position…

  15. Don B.
    Don B. says:

    Good insight. Took you a while to figure out you may have limitations. It is good to have more options that you can do. It is wise to know you can not entertain all options.

  16. Dale
    Dale says:

    This post is insightful.

    Often though we must guard against the tendency to validate our decisions, after we have made them, simply to placate our egos.

    No one wants to see themselves as foolish or to think that they have made a mistake in an important life/work decision. So we “FIND” reasons to prove the validity of our occasionally incorrect decisions. This prevents us from making the headway we otherwise would.

    One way to avoid this is to establish performance measures for objective delivery, when making major decisions.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is be ready to dispassionately analyse any and all decisions you make, particularly about tasks you take on or discard. Don’t be pig-headed and continue a course of action after it has failed to deliver the results you expected, in the reasonable timeframe that you expected it to be delivered.

    Depending upon your goals, some tasks may not or should not be ignored.

    Just my 2 cents worth:)

    P.S. Penny, is there any way that there could be spell check added to this posting mechanism. I feel so silly having to go back and forth to MS Word to spell check stuff. Just something on my Christmas wishlist, along with ripped abs and arms like tree trunks:)

  17. John
    John says:

    Excellent post. This not only applies to individuals but organizations as well. The worn out phrase “Because we’ve always done it this way” comes to mind. We should always be asking ourselves if what we’re doing is the best use of our time and looking for ways to optimize our time.

  18. cindy*staged4more
    cindy*staged4more says:

    Awww I really like this post. It really is the life of a sole business person working for his/hers own company. It’s like that story of stopping and sharpening the saw, sometimes you just have to take time to make sure you are okay, so your business will be too ;)

    Happy holidays,

  19. Russ
    Russ says:

    I feel like choosing which tasks to ignore is the most challenging part because you have to tell yourself it’s okay and that you’re not procrastinating.

  20. Brady Bagwan
    Brady Bagwan says:

    The issue with ignoring tasks that are relatively unimportant is that you can find yourself perpetually ignoring people and things indefinitely. Being unresponsive can be a big negative in managing perceptions. I’ve found that scheduling in a little bit of the lower priority items each day ensures that at least they get some attention eventually. A great alternative, however, is delegation. Using a personal assistant can be extremely beneficial in terms of productivity. I just started a company called Delegate Source based in Denver. While there are quite a few concierge services out there, there are very few who approach lifestyle and household management broadly. It really is simple math. If a professional’s hourly cost is more than the cost of outsourcing personal services, why not achieve a better work/life balance by delegating errands and tasks?

  21. Jo
    Jo says:

    Penelope, I love you. I needed this today, even though it’s old. You always have something fresh, funny and re-orienting!! Thanks!

  22. Nikki May | Copywriting Services
    Nikki May | Copywriting Services says:

    Great piece!

    I really enjoyed reading this and I found it to be refreshing.

    I have been there – €“ being so overwhelmed that I neglected looking after myself.

    The sad part of this is that, when one gets so snowed under and overwhelmed, business suffers – Maybe not right away, but certainly in the future. When you're in this state, you tend to make decisions that are not in the best interests of growing your business.

    I think, to succeed in business, it boils down to: It's not about how much you do, it's about how smart you do it.

    Thanks Penelope.

    Nikki May

  23. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I did a search on this blog for SEO (search engine optimization). I think this is the right post for linking to this NYT article ( ) that I just got done reading. It appears from this article that the trend is decidedly moving from SEO to SMO (social media optimization).

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