‘Ugh’ Tasks: Why Basic Items on Your To-Do List Are Suddenly Insurmountable

Tired exhausted man covering face with hands in front of laptop.
Tired exhausted man covering face with hands in front of laptop.
Photo: Westend61/Getty Images

You’ve had one at some point, maybe even right now: that thing on your to-do list that makes you flinch whenever you look at it. It’s not that the task in itself is so bad — it’s just that you’ve put it off for so long that now you can barely bring yourself to think about it without feeling deep shame. These are “Ugh” tasks, a term adapted from an explanation in the online community LessWrong. While the experience is incredibly common, it can drive people into depressive episodes, or at least give you low-grade dread for weeks or months.

Before we talk about what to do about Ugh tasks, let’s look at how we find ourselves in this strange and dire state.

The first day a task is on your to-do list, you don’t get to it because the short-term reward isn’t great enough to overcome the psychological cost of completing the action. Maybe you feel low on energy that day, or have more urgent priorities. Or perhaps you’re insecure about whether you can do a good job, or the task involves a bit of social awkwardness. Whatever the reason, you delay doing it. No big deal, you think. It’s fine.

Unfortunately, this task is one that only gets more unpleasant over time. Because now you’re going to have to rush and do a shoddy job, prompting the fear everyone will judge you negatively. Or now that it’s so late, you’ll have to do an especially great job to make up for it. Or you’ll be embarrassed about the late delivery regardless of when it happens. Or perhaps you’re simply annoyed with yourself that you haven’t finished it already. Whatever the case, it’s now inevitable that, unless you’re rescued by an unusual burst of motivation or a deadline that makes the costs of further delay intolerable, this is a task you’ll continue putting off.

In the meantime, whenever you think about the task and don’t start it, you feel a pang of guilt, shame, or fear — not enough to get you to start, but certainly enough to make you miserable. Why can’t you do this basic thing? What an embarrassment of a person you are! Now you’re constantly being negatively reinforced for even thinking about the topic. Gradually, you lose sight of the “why” behind the task and any merit that doing it would have had. Rather, your only association becomes the flinching pain you feel whenever you accidentally remember it.

From this, your brain learns that thinking about your Ugh task is a painful experience, and so develops protective mechanisms to keep it from rising to your conscious awareness. (It’s like repeatedly accidentally hitting your head on the lamp above your kitchen table — eventually, your body learns to automatically swerve a different way when you stand up.) For instance, you might stop yourself from opening your inbox, where the dreaded email awaits, or make sure your eyes never slow down long enough to read its loathsome subject line. Or you avoid anyone who might remind you of the task. While this softens the suffering, the Ugh task is always haunting your stream of consciousness.

An important note: Ugh tasks occur more in people with depression, anxiety, ADD, and other mental health and energy issues. If they’re a constant issue for you, tackle those underlying health issues first and foremost.

Unfortunately, there’s no perfect way to escape the mental flytrap of the Ugh task. But there are some things you can do to get out of the cycle:

Label your Ugh tasks

When you feel that flinch and realize that one of your tasks has become an Ugh task, label it as one. You can do this in your head, or even write “Ugh task” next to the item on your to-do list. By doing so, you’re providing yourself with an accurate systemic explanation for what’s going on, rather than letting your mind come up with a misleading individual one, such as, “I’m hopeless and never get things done.”

Take a bird’s eye view

Once you’re able to think about the task calmly and rationally, you may well find that it actually isn’t as important as it has come to feel. The person you imagine to be disgusted by your failure to deliver may not even have noticed the delay, or may only be marginally annoyed. Like you, everyone else has plenty of their own stuff going on, and their own Ugh tasks to deal with.

Hire or ask someone else to do the task

One almost-fun idea is to enlist an Ugh task partner. Basically, you deal with each other’s Ugh tasks. For instance, if you have to write an unpleasant and overdue email, have your partner draft it for you. It will likely be much less unpleasant for them because it won’t be emotionally charged. Another option is to outsource your Ugh tasks. This might mean hiring someone to do your long-overdue taxes or help you declutter your garage.

Drop it

Often, by the time something is an Ugh task, it’s no longer the most productive thing you could be doing anyway, especially relative to the willpower it will now require. So consider deliberately dropping it in favor of something more motivating.

Archive the email. Close the tab on the magazine article you’ve been planning to read for months but never got to. Tell everyone who might be waiting on the task’s completion that it won’t be happening. You might email your colleague: “Thanks for your patience on this. Unfortunately, I don’t see how I’m going to be able to fit it into my schedule just now, is there anyone else who can take it on?”

Learn to recognize tasks that are likely to end up in Ugh territory

Before taking on an optional responsibility, reflect on whether it’s likely to become an Ugh task. The worst offenders are things that are kind of unpleasant to do, get more unpleasant as you delay, and have no clear deadline. If it falls into this category, respectfully decline and be proud that you’ve just saved yourself from future misery.

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