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Burnt-Out and Struggling to Prioritize Tasks?

There are a range of things to consider when engaging in task prioritization.

Key points

  • Understanding how to prioritise tasks and manage time are important psychological and cognitive skills.
  • These tasks require us to exercise a range of executive capacities.
  • It is helpful to consider opportunity costs, the sunk costs fallacy and our essential values system when evaluating the importance of tasks.
Photo by Ben White on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

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.

It is helpful to recognise that we cannot do everything and by stretching our energy too thin, we often neglect to provide adequate attention and time to those things which are most important.

4. Consider your values and determine which optional tasks are most values-aligned

When faced with an array of choices, it can be difficult to know what to choose. Trying to make decisions based on alignment with our values can be a beneficial framework to utilise. It is helpful to consider the values we hold most closely and to consider which optional tasks might be most aligned with our closest values. For instance, if we strongly value community—we might wish to continue making time for socialising with our closest friends.

5. Learning to say no

This is a difficult task for many people and often requires practice, and permission-giving to oneself.

It can be helpful to develop and practice a range of scripts for this, such as “I would love to help but I am not taking on any new commitments right now. Can you check back in with me in six months?”

6. Remember that no decision is permanent

People often struggle with saying no due to a worry that they will miss out on opportunities. It can be helpful to remember that there are few opportunities which are truly unique and most decisions can be amended.


Patterson, E. S., Ebright, P. R., & Saleem, J. J. (2011). Investigating stacking: How do registered nurses prioritize their activities in real-time?. International Journal of Industrial Ergonomics, 41(4), 389-393.

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