Prioritizing a to-do list can be overwhelming—but, with the right system in place, it can become much less stressful. If you’re tired of your to-do list feeling such a heavy lift, try so simplify things and prioritize your tasks with the “Must, should, want” technique.
What is the “must, should, want” technique
This technique was developed by Jay Shirley about a decade ago. The blogger set out to enhance not only people’s productivity, but their daily enjoyability, too. Instead of prioritizing tasks only based on productivity or results, you also incorporate some of what you want to do, too, to round it all out.
Similar to systems like Agile Results, “must, should, want” requires you to spend a little time every morning planning out your day. Setting aside a few dedicated minutes to figuring out the day’s plan is a good way to get in the zone and stay on track, but you have to remember to write down your goals to stay motivated and organized. In your planner (or in the notes app of your phone, if you want), create three columns: must, should, and want. Under “Must,” write down what you must do on a given day, whether it’s a smaller piece of a larger, long-term project or an item that is due in a few hours. “Should” tasks are those you ought to do for the future, but aren’t down to the wire on yet—or those that won’t be earth-shattering if you don’t get them done right away. Finally, “want” tasks are those that you’d simply like to do, whether they have to do with your immediate responsibilities or not.
You complete each list in order. Getting through the things you must and should do leaves room for the things you want to do, and that pending reward can motivate you through the more rigid stuff.
When and how to use the “must, should, want” method
This works well for an overall day plan, incorporating work and responsibilities with after-hours hobbies. But it’s also helpful for specific projects, as it changes every morning. Today’s “should” tasks might be tomorrow’s “must” tasks, so there’s room for variability and a more fluid approach, as long as you stick with the habit of redoing your lists every morning.
It’s also helpful for budgeting. Before you get paid or go shopping, make a list of what you must buy, what you should buy, and what you want to buy. Even seeing it written out like that will help you make better purchasing decisions.
To keep it all doable and manageable, challenge yourself to only put three to four things in every list on a given day. You’ll never get to the “want” column if you have nine “must” activities and seven “should” tasks, which defeats the point of the technique. Be discerning, and if something isn’t a “must,” don’t pressure yourself; make it a “should.” This approach is designed to inject some fun and reduce the stress from your typical to-do list, but it won’t work if you treat every task like an end-of-the-world necessity.