The importance of low priorities
Many of us have items on our to-do lists which seem to hang around for weeks, perhaps even months. They never seem quite important enough to prioritise and we ignore them as we glance over our list of tasks. However, paying attention to these items can teach us a lot about our lives and ourselves.
For over a year, I have been using a to-do list system which works well for my lifestyle: each week, I divide tasks according to whether they are a high, medium or low priority. I also include a fourth column titled “future/notes” for anything I need to consider but cannot complete this particular week, such as items which need me to wait until someone else takes action first, for a submissions window to open or when I can budget the time/money. Since I have chronic mental health problems, this system helps me to focus on the most important tasks for each week while providing scope for me to accomplish more when I feel able.
However, in recent months I have become more aware of my “low priority” list and what it tells me about my current situation and state of mind. In fact, some of the tasks I designate as low priority take up more headspace than my top priorities. I was curious as to why this should be the case.
I decided to examine my low priority items, especially those which get left undone for weeks (or longer), attempting to describe and define them. The categories I identified are neither discrete nor exclusive––many items fit into multiple categories and some are difficult to determine––but they help to shed some light on why these tasks are neglected.
These are tasks which seem unimportant, but can potentially build up and become overwhelming. Often, tackling them sooner and/or gradually would avoid the pressure building, meaning they never become an issue. For example, tasks with a deadline several weeks (or longer) away and cleaning/organising my environment are easy to put off, but doing something towards them on a regular basis is the most effective way to complete them. Niggling tasks can also include things which have major consequences if they are left too late or not done at all, such as completing tax returns and booking car MOTs, but don’t seem to matter until the deadline is imminent.
Carpe Diem Tasks
Tasks which might not matter now, but can make a significant difference in future because they mean I can seize opportunities with little extra effort. For example, keeping my CV updated and renewing my passport.
As their name suggests, tiny tasks seem insignificant, often taking little time and effort to complete—which means I can ignore them for a long time. This can be used to my advantage, because ticking off these “easy wins” can help me build momentum, which increases my motivation and helps me feel more optimistic. I try to minimise these tasks by following the two minute rule: if something takes less than two minutes to complete, I do it straight away. Sometimes, I schedule an hour or two for tasks which typically take no longer than 10-15 minutes, aiming to complete as many as possible. Tiny tasks can be difficult to define, but include taking care of small annoyances like sewing on a button or sorting out paperwork to recycle.
These are things I say and think I want to do, but never get around to trying. For example, going to a new gym class or reading a particular book. The only way to deal with wishful tasks is to be honest with myself and decide to either make them a higher priority or accept that I am unlikely to ever find the time and remove them from my to-do list. Often, admitting I’m just not that into a wishful task is a relief.
Difficult tasks are another obvious category: things I’m avoiding because I don’t feel ready to face them. To begin to tackle them, I need to figure out why I don’t feel ready. This can be difficult in itself, because it means confronting challenging issues and is often related to my mental health problems. For example, I might avoid decluttering because I feel overwhelmed by life in general or put off buying tickets for an event because I’m worried my anxiety will make it too difficult to attend. Writing down the pros and cons of doing a difficult task can help me decide whether to make it a higher priority or strike it off my list. This decision is often impacted by the consequences of not doing the task versus the consequences of completing it: letting clutter build up will lead to my environment becoming unbearable, whereas missing out on an event might be disappointing but doesn’t usually have a significant effect on my wellbeing.
These items often feel like obligations, but aren’t important enough for me to prioritise. Although they are less fraught with issues than difficult tasks, I take a similar approach: I weigh up the consequences of never doing them against the benefits of completing them and decide to either get them done within the next few weeks or cross them off my list.
This category is simple: it contains tasks which are, or should be, higher priorities. For me, these tend to be tasks related to my health, wellbeing and self-care. Identifying them reminds me to make time every day for things like exercise, meal prep, relaxation and connecting with friends.
An extension of the difficult tasks category, this involves things I avoid because they bring up difficult thoughts or emotions. They can be difficult to identify, especially as I may assign them to another category instead of recognising them as confronting tasks. For example, I might avoid finishing a book which brings up difficult feelings for me. The key difference between difficult and confronting tasks is the perceived challenge involved: the physical and practical steps of completing confronting tasks usually seem easy. Often, I identify them only after berating myself for procrastinating such a simple task––there comes a point when I realise that if it were so easy, I would have done it sooner and therefore a hidden emotional challenge must be present. I need to decide on a strategy for how to tackle confronting tasks, perhaps talking to a mental health professional if necessary or working on improving my mood and other mental health symptoms.
Considering the tasks together
Low priority tasks may fit into multiple categories, which means I need to consider what the best approach might be. A lot of trial and error is required, but I’m getting better at pinpointing the reasons for my procrastination. Identifying the categories was an exercise in self-awareness and you might find creating your own categories more effective than using mine as a template. Finding what works for you is important, because it can help you understand different aspects of your current situation.
For me, the biggest revelation was how often I relegated self-care tasks to my low priority list. My mental health has been erratic this year and looking at my so-called low priorities made me realise I was neglecting healthcare basics, focusing on my work and studies––which, with horrible irony, were causing a lot of stress and negatively affecting my health. I manage my mental health problems through exercise, nutrition and other self-care strategies, so I was shocked at how far self-care had slid down my priorities. It was a wake-up call and I’m now putting more effort into practicing self-care every day.
Examining categories which frequently intersect or overlap is also revealing. For example, a lot of my carpe diem tasks also tend to be confronting tasks. The most significant was my failure to update my CV for months: I knew I would benefit from keeping it in shape, yet I carried on procrastinating. After a lot of delving into my thought patterns and beliefs, I discovered that I was putting off updating my CV because I was scared. If an interesting job opportunity arose, as long as my CV was an out-of-date mess I had an easy excuse for not applying. It meant I could claim to have no time to update my CV, rather than admitting I was anxious or didn’t think I was good enough to be considered for the position.
Once I accepted that my anxiety was an acceptable reason for not pursuing an opportunity, I got around to updating my CV. Now, if an interesting job prospect arises I can decide whether or not my current mental health symptoms are severe enough to prevent me applying. It’s frustrating when the answer is yes, but being honest with myself is more helpful in the long term and if I do decide to apply, I don’t have the added obstacle of needing to get my CV in order, which makes the process less stressful.
In addition to learning more about myself from tasks which I designate as low priority and subsequently identify as more important, the tasks which I decide to strike off my list are extremely revealing. They help me to clarify my values and priorities, bringing up questions about how I want to conduct my life. Many of these tasks are things I think I “should” do, rather than what I want to do––or even what is relevant and beneficial for me. When several of these tasks get struck off my list at the same time, it’s a reminder to choose my own path instead of forcing myself to act according to other people’s expectations.
Some tasks get crossed out because I’m not ready to complete them. Instead, I have to assess my current mental health and other aspects of my life, which might include my finances, personal relationships and career, before deciding my next steps. Accepting the reality of my present situation can be difficult, but it’s healthier in the long term and stops me from putting too much pressure on myself to achieve certain goals.
Paying attention to the tasks which stay on my low priority list over long periods of time leads to two main outcomes: either I increase their priority and complete them within a month or I decide they are not worth my energy/time/headspace at the present moment. This means my to-do list becomes more streamlined and I’m able to focus on my top priorities. The consequence is a sense of relief and freedom––freedom to choose tasks which are more meaningful, freedom to spend my time on more pleasurable activities and freedom to think about goals and projects which fill me with enthusiasm.