SyneRyder - journal

Prioritizing Tasks

10th December 2002, 10:27am


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When I was called for a job interview some years ago, one of the questions they asked me was "How do you prioritize your tasks?" Being young & brash I replied: "With my new Palm Pilot!" It lightened the atmosphere and made the interview easier, but didn't answer the question. Not surprisingly, I didn't get the job - although not getting the job was one of the best things to happen to me.

Nowadays I'm much more aware of the techniques I use to prioritize tasks, and I thought it might be a good idea to formalize them. My technique relies on the PalmOS based ToDo Plus program by Hands High Software, but my technique isn't quite as straight-forward as "Buy Palm, install ToDo Plus, live happily ever after." Close, but not quite.

The Five Priority Levels

The Palm's built-in ToDo program has 5 priority levels that you can assign to a task (numbered 1 to 5, with 1 being the highest priority). At the time the number seemed arbitrary, and I thought I should prioritize according to the urgency of a task. (Is it urgent, or super-urgent?). However, this system didn't work for me, and left many tasks uncompleted. Usually the tasks I did complete would be small and inconsequential, so I didn't feel productive either.

Instead, I came across a new system of prioritization, which I think originally comes from Franklin Covey (but I am not certain). It also fits in perfectly with Palm's 5 priority levels. I have assigned meanings to each of the priorities:

  1. Personally important and urgent
  2. Personally important, but not urgent
  3. Urgent, but not important to me personally
  4. Not urgent and not important
  5. Ideas, "one-day's" and maybes

Therefore, my philosophy is to complete tasks that are important to me and give me satisfaction before those tasks which are irrelevant or just keep on coming.

Items that are "personally important" are those that lead towards my long-term personal goals. Anything that helps the success of my software business is personally important, so tasks that involve writing code for a new product would have priority 1 or 2. Going out with a close friend and having a drink together can also be personally important (being happy and having close personal relationships is also a personal goal of mine).

Urgent tasks are generally defined by whether a task has a deadline or not. Chores like taking out the garbage have priority 3 - I'd prefer not to have to do it, but if I don't do it on time I'll have a problem. There is room for flexibility in this definition - if the deadline for a task is a long way off (several months) I may not mark it as urgent. If a task is due in just a couple of weeks, it becomes urgent.

"One-day's" are things I might like to do one day in the future - ideas I get that don't yet fit into my life plan, aren't urgent, and won't break my heart if I never get around to them. Rather than forgetting the idea immediately, I still note it down in case it becomes more relevant in future.

In practice, the priorities work out like this:

  1. Cool Stuff - I want to do this, and do it as soon as I can!
  2. Important - This is something I want to do, but I can take my time with it.
  3. Chores - I don't want to do this, but it's urgent.
  4. Whatever - Maybe I'll do this when I've got some free time.
  5. Hmmm... - I wonder if I should do this one day?

Priority 3 is the "worst", because that's the stuff you don't want to do but which has to be done anyway. At least with Priority 4 you can keep putting it off ad-infinitum!

I believe I derived this technique after reading the web article Create A Franklin Planner To-Do List by Charles Olson, which in turn is based on ideas from the book 7 Habits Of Highly Effective People, by Stephen Covey.

The Tie-Breaker

In the job interview, they pressed me on my exact prioritization style. "What would you do if you had two equally important jobs due on the same day, and only time to complete one? Would you choose one, if so which one? Would you do a bit of both?"

My approach to this is non-standard: many people would choose to work on both tasks so both clients can see that progress has been made. However, I believe it is more important to complete a few tasks than to begin (and never finish) many tasks. Hence, I would choose just one task, and run with it to completion.

Another reason for not working on two tasks at once, is because it can delay both tasks. Joel Spolsky has a great management article called "Human Task Switches Considered Harmful" which explains this. Humans can only remember so much at once, so it takes them extra time to refocus on the new activity when switching tasks. They have to get up to speed with the latest progress on the task, what needs to be done, and any other important information. When a human repeatedly switches tasks, that's a lot of extra time. Therefore, the two tasks can be completed in less time by focusing on each exclusively until completion.

So now we've got that cleared up... how would I choose the task? If the tasks are assigned by clients, the first thing to do is talk to each client. Perhaps priorities and deadlines have changed, perhaps one task is now less important than the other. At the very least, each client must be notified of the problem. To borrow from Joseph Reagle's Work Style:

I work to meet my commitments, if I can't I will say so as soon as I know. Not being able to do something is fine, just say so. Then one can re-prioritize, re-negotiate, or re-assign that commitment. Letting something go to completion date and fail is bad; it could've been discussed but now all dependencies are thrown off.

If the clients believe their tasks are equally important, I would choose the task that requires the least time and effort to complete. If both tasks require equal time, I choose the task that most interests me. Motivation & personal interest can help speed the completion of a task, and it is more important to me to work on tasks I enjoy.

Avoiding Depression & Cluttered Headspace

So now you've got yourself a Palm, installed ToDo Plus, and have listed and prioritized all your tasks. Now, do you feel even worse than before? A common problem of To-Do lists is that when you see just how many tasks you have to do, it's easy to be overwhelmed by it all. My To-Do list currently has 188 items - if I had to look at that list every day, I know I'd feel crushed very quickly.

One way to make your To-Do list more manageable is to filter your list, and only focus on what's relevant at a given time. Ever notice how you feel more relaxed when your desk is clear - even if you've just taken everything off your desk and put it in a drawer? You can do the same thing using ToDo Plus - it comes with built-in filters than can restrict the list to items due today, tomorrow, next week, and even those that are overdue. I spend a lot of my ToDo time in the Due filter, listing everything due today and anything that is overdue. Instead of 188 items, I now only have 10 items to look at (usually only 5 or 6, sometimes none at all). It makes me feel it's more manageable, and hence I find I'm more productive.

Another way to stop that crushed feeling is to learn to say No - stop taking "opportunities" people give to you that don't inspire you. If there's anything I learnt from Harriet Rubin's book Soloing, it's that rule. Making a Won't-Do list is also a good idea, listing things that you've been asked to do, but which don't fit in with your values or life plan.