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Summary:

Shhh, don’t tell anyone, but I have a little problem with my task list. About a week ago, I noticed that my task list had this distribution for prioritization: 90 percent “highest,” 4 percent “high,” 1 percent” normal,” and no tasks at all at the “low” and “lowest” priorities.

Shhh, don’t tell anyone, but I have a little problem with my task list.

I use Hiveminder for managing my tasks, and am pretty organized when in comes to creating tasks and getting them done. A big part of why I love Hiveminder and prefer it over other task management systems is because I make heavy use of prioritization…if you define “heavy use of prioritization” as someone who marks everything as urgent.

About a week ago, I noticed that my task list had this distribution for prioritization: 95 percent “highest,” 4 percent “high,” 1 percent “normal,” and no tasks at all at the “low” and “lowest” priorities. Is this because I am so important that everything I do is of the utmost importance? I wish that were so, but no. It’s because I’m not being realistic about my prioritization. That’s my dirty little task management secret.

It was when I wished that I had an option for  an “ultra-high” priority for a task that I realized I really needed to make some changes in how I prioritize my task list. It’s not that I didn’t have a process for task prioritization; it’s just that my process didn’t work.

Before

Here’s the process that I was using up until today:

  • “Highest” priority: Anything that clients pay me to do (this should be the first red flag).
  • “High” priority: Things that are important, but don’t generate direct revenue (blog posts, side projects).
  • “Normal” priority: Something I would like to get around to eventually.

I also noticed that many of my “highest” priority tasks were getting moved to the following day because I had more of them than any one person could possibly complete in a single day. A side effect of this prioritization is that I never knew what task to tackle next, which is why I needed to start a separate “next three things” list. (As an aside, I find the “next three things” list to be pretty useful, so I might keep using it even after I get used to my new task prioritization scheme.)

After

My new way of looking at task prioritization is as follows:

  • “Highest” priority: Anything that absolutely must be completed by the end of the day.
  • “High” priority: Paid client work or projects where people are counting on me for a deliverable that should be completed today if possible.
  • “Normal” priority: Paid client work or projects where people are counting on me for a deliverable.
  • “Low” priority: Non-urgent tasks that don’t generate direct revenue and don’t impact the work of others (personal blog posts, personal side projects)
  • Lowest: Something I would like to get around to eventually.

I’m already struggling with marking tasks as “low” and “lowest” priority, but I will continue to work on it. The real test will be to see whether I can achieve and then maintain a distribution for task priorities that looks more like a nice, smooth bell curve , instead of a pointy hockey stick.

What tips and tricks do you use to prioritize your tasks?

Photo by Flickr user martinroell used under Creative Commons.

  1. Things.

    It’s an app for Mac and iPhone.

    I have tags for ‘billable,’ ‘paid,’ ‘stay alive,’ and ‘avoid overdraft fee.’ I know what they mean, and don’t have to map them to ‘high,’ ‘higher,’ or ‘ridiculously high.’

    The ‘next few things’ (seldom actually 3) are determined and put into the ‘today’ area. ‘Today’ really means ‘the next few things I’ll really get to.’ When they’re done, I choose some more tasks from other lists to add in. Then I start on those.

    I also have a daily recurring task called ‘Give self gold star.’ At the end of the day I decide whether to mark that as done or delete it.

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  2. Thank you for sharing your insights – I have much appreciated it! I have been struggling this year with trying to come up with more effective ways of managing all of the priorities on my plate. I have my task list and I prioritize them A, B, C (Franklin Covey-style) but it seems with the new year, everything appears to be an “A” but in reality that is not the case. I need to get more realistic as you have and change my way of thinking!

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  3. I am a FengOffice fan (www.fengoffice.com). Their workspace concept lets me group and slice through my task list in different ways.

    To set priorities, I place asterisks in front of the task name:
    ****Highest priority task
    ***Next highest
    **Next
    *Lowest

    The asterisks let me move priorities around on the fly. I then sort on task name, group by due date and view by workspace (or groups of workspaces). Perfect.

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  4. [...] My Dirty Little Task Management Secret [...]

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  5. I like the ‘Next 3 things’ list idea. Even though I manage tasks using Outlook & ToodleDo, I recommend to clients that writing a ‘Quick Hit List’ of what they most want to accomplish keeps them focused. Obviously, I’m not suggesting you re-write every detail- just a quick reference to the task.

    I also recommend no more than 3 priority levels (As you indicated, most people don’t use them anyway.) And a ‘Future Ideas’ list for those ‘eventual’ items you referred to. The majority of tasks remain at a ‘Normal’ priority and then if appropriate you can increase or decrease.

    Thanks,Dawn!

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  10. Your “before” methodology, including the “next three things” list, is pretty much what I’m currently doing. I see how the “after” results in a more realistic priority list, but don’t you still have exactly the same volume of stuff to do? And aren’t you doing it in almost the same order? The only distinction I really see is that if you have two paid client projects, you may focus more on the one with the closer deadline. But the bottom line is that you still have to do the “high priority” (however that’s labeled) tasks first, no?

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