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Burnt-Out and Struggling to Prioritize Tasks?


Jan. 30, 2022 Psychology Today

It’s been a while between blog posts. Sometimes life occurs and other tasks are paramount.

One of the key psychological competencies in our hyper-connected and busy lives involves understanding how to prioritise tasks and how to manage time. These sound like simple skills, but they require some complex executive functioning abilities, including the capacity to forecast the future, evaluate various options, consider the consequences of actions (or inactions) and plan the use of our resources. Psychologically, a few things stop us from engaging in appropriate task prioritisation—an incapacity or discomfort with saying no, the sunk costs fallacy (i.e., a tendency to follow through on an endeavour if we have already invested resources into it, whether or not the current costs outweigh the benefits), a lack of understanding of opportunity costs (the opportunities we give up once we decide to commit to a course of action) and internal or societal pressure.

In my psychotherapy practice, I have noticed that clients are increasingly struggling with burnout and difficulties with task prioritization. Some of this is an inevitable result of two years of pandemic-living and utter exhaustion at the demands life has placed on us all, with a concurrently reduced capacity to engage in pleasurable activities, such as socialising or vacations. Many people have struggled to adjust their commitments to account for the tiredness they are feeling, or reduced energy levels. Strong emotions, such as the fear, anger and worry we have felt over the pandemic also utilise cognitive resources and thus impact our capacity to bring full attention to tasks. There has been a sense that life must continue as usual—though of course, nothing has been as usual. When working with clients who are experiencing burnout, I encourage them to consider carefully the tasks and commitments they have and to determine whether any of these can be reduced or temporarily amended, to allow themselves more time to invest in themselves and in rest. This process has a few steps.

1. List the tasks and the different roles you inhabit


Sometimes we might feel like we do not do much, but writing down our various commitments can help us notice the smaller tasks (such as walking the dog, or taking the children to school) which might add up to a substantial amount of time. It is important to notice roles and tasks within the personal and professional realms, as well as those we might choose to do for ourselves (e.g., exercise).

2. Notice the costs of each task

Opportunity costs involve recognition of the range of resources tasks might absorb, including finances, time, energy and social capital. Each task, no matter how small, has a cost.

3. Determine which tasks are essential

It is important to be pragmatic and to notice that there are a range of tasks which must be completed, including fulfilling the basic requirements of our work roles and primary caregiving tasks, such as feeding our children or walking our dogs. There are other tasks which might however be optional, including extra projects or promotions at work, or optional extras such as extra-curricular activities for children.

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