How do you decide which tasks to tackle first on your to-do list? If you're choosing based on priority alone, your system is probably breaking down on a regular basis, according to father of GTD David Allen. Here's how to set up your list so "priority" isn't just something else on your list to ignore.
Title photo by R/DV/RS.
Why Hard-Coding Priority Doesn't Work
Priorities change too often to be set in stone when you add a new item to your to-do list, and inflexible priorities don't take the human element into account. But you have to arrange your to-dos in some kind of order, right?
In an interview with GTD Times, productivity guru David Allen explains that we should all stop organising our to-do lists strictly by priority. He doesn't say you should throw the concept of priority out the window entirely, just that the way we think about it breaks down entirely too easily. Here's why:
• Organising your to-dos by priority "codes" like "A, B, C" or "High, Medium, Low" creates an inflexible system that can't adapt. • A "red" priority item at 8am can easily become a "green" priority item at noon — setting the priority as soon as you add an item ignores the fact that priorities change, sometimes within hours. • Assigning priorities or flags to to-dos strictly by deadline or when you get the work completely ignores the times of day when you're most productive. • Setting priority based entirely on deadline ignores the time required to do the work.
The crux of Allen's argument is that your priorities at 4pm are bound to be different than they were at 8am, so why should your to-do list be set in stone at 8am? If at the end of the day you're tired and want to go home, no red flag will make you ready to tackle your next big project, so why can't your to-do list reflect the times of day when you do your best work? Sure, you can move your priorities around over the course of the day, but that forces you to spend time managing your to-do list — one of the cardinal sins of productivity. You don't want to waste time organising work rather than doing work. Photo remixed from doglikehorse.
Redefine 'Priority' to Include More Variables
So what's the solution? Change the way you think about "priority". Make sure that when you organise your list, you don't just do it in terms of what you were assigned first and when it needs to be done. Instead, arrange your to-dos based on your daily schedule and your peak productivity times, in addition to when they need to be completed. Allen puts it this way:
The four criteria that you will use to decide what to do are (in order of precedence):
• Context (what can I do where I am?) • Time (when do I have to do something else?) • Energy (how wasted/fresh am I?) • Priority (what has the highest payoff for me if I do it?)
So, for example, you get an email from your boss at 10am to look into a server problem. The server is across the country, and poking around now will disrupt the people using it. Your boss says it's important, but you know that the server is only in use every week. So now you have to decide when you're going to look at the issue. Photo by FuzzBones.
You can't do the work now, but if you're most productive in the evenings, you might want to tackle it later in the day, after everyone's logged off. The highest payoff for you would be to get the work done quickly, but if the server is only in use every week, you can probably schedule the work for tomorrow when you can work freely and you're energised. Had you just added the item to your to-do list with an "A" priority because it's urgent, it would sit next to all of the other "A" items and force you to re-prioritise every time you look at your to-dos. Allen's method takes more thought, but it results in a more concrete plan.
How do you prioritise your to-dos? What things do you take into account? Share your tips in the comments below.