You have, probably, read tons of articles claiming that if you want to manage your time and life well, you should do important tasks first.
Here the confusion begins – if I have a really urgent task and a bit important task, should I do the important one first anyway? If I have two important tasks which one is more important? What to do if all my tasks are important? What to do if I have no time to assess the importance? How to assess what is important?
All your questions are answered here.
5 years ago I developed a method how to assess the importance of tasks and have not changed it since that time – how well it is working. And here I will share it with you.
At first, let’s analyze our problem.
We know that there are four kinds of tasks:
- urgent and important
- neither of these
All our self-help stuff claim, that you should do urgent and important first, then important, and then urgent. Sounds very nice until you face the reality.
And in reality, we have lots of tasks that all seem equally important, and the only way how to choose among them is by urgency.
In reality, we have lots of urgent tasks screaming to attract our attention. And sometimes if an urgent task is urgent it should be done right now, no matter how unimportant it is.
And finally, in reality, we do not have time to analyze and prioritize our tasks.
And we end up in doing urgent tasks again…
I tried many methods, but my mind has too many flaws and cannot handle them well.
“Make a list of tasks mark most important tasks with A, less important with B, and least important with C” – they say. OK, I did that. In the end, my 100+ task list has 80 A’s, 20 B’s and a few C’s. So, what should I do next?
“Make a list of tasks and then select the one single most important task by this and this method” – they say. OK, I did that. I spend two hours of overanalyzing my 100+ task list and decided that the single most important task is a phone call that will take 10 minutes to do. Sounds like nonsense.
I understand that these are problems of my mind, not problems of methods. But for my problems I need solutions.
An interesting approach is given by “Getting things done”, the famous book about how to get things done. They say you only need to trust your intuition. That seems great, but if we are here (me – writing this article, and you – reading) haven’t we found that simply trusting the intuition leads nowhere? There is something more.
Introduction to the Principles of Priority
When making a choice on what to do next, feelings and imagination (parts of the intuition process) most often work better than geeky analysis.
This idea will be utilized well in my Principles of Priority. When you are choosing what to do next – you might be asking yourself a question: “What is the most important thing to do?”. But this one is not helpful. “Important” is such a vague term of pure intellect, that it does not make sense in everyday life. Is it important to brush my teeth in the morning, or should I hurry to an important meeting? Is it important to go to eat lunch or should I keep working on that super important presentation I will be giving after one month?
The task itself is not important or unimportant, but results and consequences are. So, what you need to do, is to ask yourself about the consequences of doing or not doing these tasks.
But there are situations, when you have 100+ task list and limited time because all your important tasks are urgent – so you cannot ask yourself 10 questions about each one of them. Things should be dealt with quickly. But sometimes you have only two major alternatives and plenty of time to choose. How to do then?
That means we need a different approach to different situations. I distinguish 3 different model situations and explain each one of them separately:
- There are few options.
- There is a mile-long list of little things.
- There is one task with a question – to do or not to do?
And one last thing:
You have more to do than you can possibly do. You just need to feel good about your choices.
“Getting things done“
Each moment you can do only one task. That means, each moment you are not doing all the other tasks your boss, your teacher, your family are expecting from you. You must be OK with that. That is the way of things.
The Principles of Priority
I will explain each model situation separately, however, in the real world, we seldom have pure model situations. You still need to make a choice which approach to apply.
First: There are few options.
Suppose you have some time to make a choice between some major options. Should you work on your presentation or tidy your room this weekend? Should you do an internship this summer or just travel? Should you do the paperwork today or attend meetings? Should you initiate this project or that one? Should you go to this event or that one? And so on.
Ask yourself five questions.
Those questions are meant not for thinking a lot about each option, but to strike out those options, which do not fit. So, you need to ask one question about all the options, and then go to next questions – again asking them about all the options.
If you haven’t finished all the questions, but you have only one option left – congratulations, you saved yourself some time!
If you finished the questions and still there are several options, start over again, but this time, be more strict.
If at some question you stroke out all the options, skip that question.
- Is this my way?
- Which one of these is a positive step forward?
- Which one of these creates value to others?
- Which one of these will hurt the most to postpone?
- Which one of these will make me happy after 5 years?
Is this my way? – Here you compare your way – your goals and objectives, your roles with the task. If you like hiking and you are invited to drinking party this question shows what is more important to you. If you have a job to do and a colleague asks for help – this will reveal for you – should you or should you not? Is a career your way, or helping others? Remove from the list all options which are not your way.
Which one of these is a positive step forward? – If there are several things which are close to your values, only some of them will let you improve. If you are working with marketing – should you do another PowerPoint presentation or look for new options to present your ideas? If you want to spend time with your family, should you watch TV or learn to paint together? Remove all options which will not allow you to learn anything new or improve.
Which one of these creates value to others? – Now you have several options which let you grow and improve in your way. But which of them will also have benefit to others? If you like driving, should you practice alone in a circuit, or volunteer to drive for some event? If you like programming, should you write another virus, or help your friend to create a web page for his project? I guess you got the idea. Remove all options which bring no benefit to others.
Which one of these will hurt the most to postpone? – Now you have several options which are beneficial to you and society. It is the right time to check which one is urgent. What does it mean “urgent”? It means that consequences of not doing it matter to you very much. Should you go to the toilet and be few minutes late to an event or better be on time? Should you visit the doctor if you feel sick or better keep working on that important project? Which consequences scares you? Remove all options, that you can postpone without serious consequences.
Which one of these will make me happy after 5 years? – This one is difficult to answer because it needs much imagination and empathy. But if you answered all other questions about this option – your imagination must be triggered. Imagine that you did the task, and jump 5 years ahead, imagine yourself then. How do you feel about this task? Is it great that you did it? Do you even remember that you did it? Think about each option and remove those you will not care about after 5 years. Another project in your job or graduation ceremony of your children? Another movie on TV or preparation for final exams?
Now let’s see another model situation.
Second: There is a mile-long list of little things.
Imagine the situation that you have a list of 100+ things and a spare half an hour to do something. Which one to pick? Here 90% of time-management techniques fail. But this situation resembles 95% of choices I personally made.
Now there are only two questions. Run through all the options with these two and do the FIRST task that gets a positive response for both. You can do only one task at one moment, and if you answered well to the two questions it absolutely does not matter which you will do first.
- Is it a positive step forward?
- Would I do it today even if I needed to work at night?
If no task got both positive answers – then choose only one question you like more and repeat. Do the FIRST task that gets the positive answer.
Is it a positive step forward? – The same as in the previous set of questions. Does this improve your life, your skills, your projects or your well being by at least a tiny bit? (Checking a checkbox is not an improvement by itself)
Would I do it today even if I needed to work at night? – The formulation sounds complicated, but once you got the idea behind, it will be easy. Suppose now is 11:00 pm and you are tired and sleepy with a nasty headache. Would you still do this task? If no – then it is not that urgent. If yes – then you can do it right now.
Third: There is one task with a question – to do or not to do?
This is the easiest one. If we have one option and need to decide to do it or not, we cannot compare it to anything until we have more options.
So, the first step is to think about what else could you do?
You have a free weekend and you think whether you should go fishing? What else could you do this weekend?
You have spare USD1000 and you think whether you should buy yourself a new dress? What else could you buy?
You have an old car and think whether you should sell it or not? What else could you do with it? Maybe a sculpture?
Once you have a list of options – you might see at once the obvious answer. But if not – apply the first set of five questions.
I made a beautifully functional spreadsheet for you with the principles of priority working automatically – you can download it here. Take it and it will help you to make choices.
(Works best with Excel)
By the way, there are some more things to have in mind when applying these methods.
Identify options first.
You can make no choice if you don’t know what are the options. Make a list first and then work with that list.
Know your way – goals, objectives, values.
If you know what do you want to do (in life generally or just in that particular area) then you will see what is important to you much more easily.
If intuition speaks – stop all the methods.
What I suggest in this article is mainly to trigger your intuition by asking questions that require some imagination. If intuition already speaks and you just know which one is the thing you need to do – then do it.
For some decisions, you need a thorough analysis.
Especially if money is involved – make a cost-benefit analysis first. You can trust your intuition a bit more after 15 years career in finance.
These principles are compatible with “Getting things done”.
If you need a comprehensive guide how to keep lists of your tasks – I recommend that book. My technique is a supplement if you have trouble in choosing which one to do next.
Feel free to apply these methods yourself, and share with those who might benefit from them.
I am curious to hear how do you prioritize tasks?