Why You’re Terrible at Setting Priorities (and How to Get All The Things Done Anyway)

No one is perfect. You just have to figure out how to make imperfection work in your favor.

Meg Dowell
4 min readAug 31, 2018

As I’m writing this, I can visibly see, out of the corner of my eye, that there are three specific things I should be working on instead of doing this.

And yet. Here I sit. Still. Typing.

When it comes to priorities, I’m great at putting things in the correct order but terrible at executing such plans accordingly.

I KNOW that writing a blog post to go up next Tuesday is more important than doing laundry that could be done anytime within the next two days. If I were to number my tasks based on importance, the blog post would rank No. 1. Laundry would probably rank No. 427.

Yet laundry may or may not have been the first thing I did after coffee this morning.

Why do I do this to myself?

The answer is, for lack of a better term, complicated. I get overwhelmed when I think too hard about what needs to get done vs. what really, really needs doing within the next two hours.

I am a chronic procrastinator when it comes to Big Tasks. Especially when there are many smaller tasks that also need doing.

If there are other things on my list, I can’t focus on the Big Thing until most if not all of the little things have been dealt with.

Sometimes, this bites me in the tail.

But not always.

I still get a lot done in a typical day. Even if Priority No. 1 doesn’t always end up being one of those things.

I’m not great at prioritizing what’s most important. But in the end, does it matter when things get done — as long as they get done eventually? (Excluding hard deadlines, because if you have those and don’t adhere to them, you lose your job. End of story.)

Are we doing too many things? Or are we just looking at prioritizing the wrong way?

Maybe the reason you’re terrible at prioritizing your tasks is that you have too many tasks. Sometimes, this can be helped. often times, it can’t. And when that’s the case, you often reach a point in your day when you can no longer do tasks that require significant mental energy.

Or, it’s too early in the day to gather the mental energy necessary to do the things you want to do too soon.

You’re not going to be able to plan all your tasks out perfectly every day. Even if you do make that attempt, chances are, something is going to interfere with your plans. In that case, your priorities have to change unexpectedly. An unplanned task gets added to the top of the list.

That’s when you have to put your biggest priorities on hold and tackle the smaller ones. If only because you want to remain as productive as possible (within reason) even if you can’t mentally or physically push yourself to do a more demanding task.

I chose laundry first thing this morning because it was a mindless task I could do, needed to do eventually, and could complete while waking up and completing other equally mindless tasks.

Maybe doing things in their order of importance isn’t always the most effective strategy.

Maybe if there are three Big Things on your list that need doing in the next three days, you should make sure one gets done each day, regardless of what time of day it gets done.

Then, you can fill in the gaps with smaller, less important things, ideally when you’re not awake enough or too worn out to focus on something bigger.

This, of course, doesn’t solve the classic procrastination problem — putting off Task No. 1 until you can’t put it off another minute.

I said doing tasks in priority order isn’t always best. I didn’t say you should put your biggest tasks last. Don’t do that. Don’t be like me.

The truth is, some days, you’re not going to get it all done. The most important thing you needed to do today will have to wait until the next sunrise.

But when your to-do list is weighing you down and you don’t know which task to tackle first, something is always better than nothing. If I didn’t do my laundry today, I’d still have had to do it tomorrow or the next day. It’s done. Now I don’t have to worry about it anymore. Until next week, anyway.

If doing it will soothe your to-do list anxiety, do it.

If crossing even a very small thing off your list will motivate you to do something a little bigger, do it.

If you have the energy for it and know leaving it until tomorrow will give you another reason to put off the more important thing that you’re already putting off today, do it.

The bigger things can wait. Not forever. But for now.

Also, don’t forget the most pressing priority above all others: Rest. Give yourself time every day to unwind. I wouldn’t sacrifice that for the sake of doing something “more important.” Give yourself an hour. Twenty minutes, even. Enough time to just sit, reflect, and breathe.

That’s what I plan on doing after this. Do I have plenty more to accomplish? Always. But I’ll handle it all much better tomorrow if I give myself time to decompress and do something fun.

You can still get it all done. We all can.

Breathe.

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Meg Dowell

Meg Dowell (she/her) has edited hundreds of articles and written thousands more. She offers free resources to writers to help launch and elevate their careers.