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It’s no secret that running a business can be stressful. While getting your startup off the ground, you might also be working a day job and taking care of your family. Juggling obligations can be overwhelming, especially when you have to keep it all going day in and day out. After a while, you might feel like there are so many things to tackle that you don’t even know where to begin.

Three lists and lots of microsteps—that’s how you can take back control, according to Charlene Walters, Vice Provost and Dean of the Strayer Digital Entrepreneurship MBA. By organizing your to-dos into lists and breaking them down into manageable steps, you can stop feeling immobilized by stress and start becoming more productive.

  1. List #1: Your Biggest Stressors

    Make a list of the top 5 to 10 things that are stressing you out. Next, rate each on a scale of 1 to 10. “This will give you a clear picture of what’s causing you to feel most overwhelmed,” says Walters. Don’t limit it to work-related stressors either. Maybe you’re dealing with a big life event (like a divorce or a health crisis). Write them all down.

    The purpose of this list isn’t to immediately solve any problems. It’s simply to get the stressors out of your head and onto paper, where you can see them clearly. You’ll start tackling them and other tasks with the next couple of lists.

  2. List #2: Your Master Checklist

    Walters recommends creating a master checklist of everything you need and want to accomplish over the next 3 to 6 months. Some of these items may coincide with List #1—that’s fine. And again, don’t limit this list to professional stuff. Maybe you have a goal of getting back to the gym or spending more time with the kids. Write it all down.

    Some items on your list might have multiple parts. For instance, a goal of “launch my email newsletter in two months” might be broken down into compiling a mailing list, writing the first newsletter, and designing a template. List out all the small steps included in each large task.

    If your master checklist is extremely long, that’s normal. You’ve got a lot on your plate, and it’s important to break things into bite-sized pieces.

  3. List #3: Daily Action Steps

    Every day, choose 3 to 5 tasks from your master checklist to complete. Put these items in order of priority, and tackle them one by one. “If you’re not sure how to prioritize, look at everything in terms of the time and energy it’s going to take,” Walters says. “Do you have the resources to get it done today?” Walters recommends going for the easy wins first, especially when you’re just starting to use lists. Taking care of mundane, simple tasks first helps you get back in motion and on the path to productivity.

    At the end of each week, review your Master Checklist. Mark off the things you’ve accomplished and start planning what you’ll do next week.

    Some people prefer to make a list of weekly action step instead of a daily list. That works, too. The point is to break your master tasks into microsteps that feel manageable. Over time, these lists can help you feel more on top of your to-dos, and keep stress at arm’s length.

    More stress-busting tips from Charlene Walters:

    • When a task hits your inbox, ask yourself if you can handle it in under five minutes. If so, do it right away. You’ll have one less item to add to your checklists.
    • Forget perfection. Sometimes, you might avoid a certain task because you don’t feel ready enough, rested enough, or smart enough to do it yet. Don’t let perfectionism stand in your way! Do each task to the best of your ability, and keep going.
    • Reward yourself. When you finish tasks, celebrate your productivity. The reward can be as simple as a Netflix show over your lunchbreak, or a trip to the gym at the end of the day. These rewards will help to keep you motivated, balanced, and eager to tackle your next task.
  4. Learn to say no.

    Once you take control of your schedule, you’ll need to protect it. Sometimes, that means saying no to things you’d really like to do. For example, if a friend invites you to a BBQ on Saturday afternoon, you might have to say, “Sorry—that’s my startup work time.” Maybe you're asked to submit a last-minute project, but the deadline interferes with your family dinner, so you have to delay it. Saying no can be tough, but it’s crucial if you want to avoid burnout.

    These are just a few ways to start reclaiming your work-life balance and keep burnout at bay. Try these, and come up with your own strategies to stay strong for the long haul. Remember that building a business is a marathon, not a sprint.

Related post: 4 Ways for Entrepreneurs to Avoid Burnout

Charlene Walters is a professor in the Strayer Digital Entrepreneurship MBA program, which empowers students to create and launch innovative ideas online.


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