What Task Should I Do First?

As we go through our day, attend meetings, and have conversations with colleagues, we collect tasks that we need to accomplish. Most people can easily find 30-50 items on their ‘to-do list’ at any one time.  This can cause a feeling that you will never get everything done.  But rather than throw up your hands, there are some steps you can follow to ascertain the importance of each item and which items need your immediate attention.

In order to decide what task to take on first, you need to have a list.  I’m always surprised by the number of people who don’t have a single list to work from.  Little slips of paper on your desk and post-it notes will never provide you with an opportunity to be working on the right things at the right time.

Once you have a list, there are many ways in which you can prioritize your items.

Most people react to a long list by determining which task has the soonest deadline.  That is fine, but it may not give you the preparation time you need to finish the project in time to meet the deadline.  If all you are doing is looking to see what needs to be done immediately, you may not be giving yourself enough time to do the task well.  This is like the college student who does last-minute cramming for an exam, while they would probably have done better had they taken the time to review their notes over a more extended period.  And of course, the ‘urgency’ filter doesn’t take into consideration those items that are important but don’t have hard deadlines.

Some people like to ‘snack’ on their to-do list.  If they have 20 minutes before they have their next phone call, they may look for those things they can do quickly.  While this is a good approach to clearing the deck of quick tasks, you still might find yourself rushing.  And, if a task only takes a few minutes to complete, why didn’t you do it right away so that it never got to your ‘to-do’ list.

Similarly, some people view their task list based on how much energy they have.  When you start your day, you usually have more energy than you might have for the tasks you face thirty minutes before you need to leave your office.  It is true that low energy tasks are best saved for those times when we have hit the wall.

Probably the most common filter that people use is to ascertain the importance of the item.  There are various ways to judge ‘importance.’  For example, some suggest using the Eisenhower Matrix to review tasks based on the dimensions of urgency and importance. This methodology pushes items that are both important and timely to the top of your list.  This method helps when we mistake urgent tasks and important ones.

David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” philosophy views tasks through contexts. Flagging items that can only be done in front of a computer are separated from those that can be done only at home.  This is helpful, especially as your list gets longer.  But because the line between work life and home life has been blurring, the context may not be as useful to those who work more independently.

Another popular method is to classify each item with letters (A, B, C, D, E).  “A” items are those that you feel must be done first, while “E” items could be done at some point in the future. As Allen’s GTD methodology might call it, these are ‘someday maybe’ items.

Because many of the tasks we do have overlaps, you can look for similar items on your list that can be done simultaneously.  While multitasking doesn’t work for most people, grouping tasks will often push a project forward.

The practice that I have followed is based on GTD but has been refined because of the way I tend to work best.

Rather than using the Eisenhower Matrix or the ABCDE method, I separate my tasks by context or work location (at the office, at home, on the phone, at the mall).

I consider how much time it will take me to complete a task.  There is a vast difference between an item I know will only take 30 minutes to complete and a 3-hour project.

Then each day, I reassess my priorities.  An item that was very important yesterday could be replaced by another item today.

The key for me is to know at the beginning of each workday, what items are essential for me to complete.  That clarity always makes me more productive.

Once you have established your priorities, you need to allow time to do them.   Because digital meeting requests often exceed the number of hours in your workday, you may need to carve out actual work times on your calendar.  While I don’t recommend putting every task on your calendar, if you are facing a deadline or need time to work on a project, you may want to book it just as you would a meeting.  Not only will this help you set aside the appropriate amount of time, but it will also prevent colleagues from over-scheduling you.

Finally, make sure your ‘to-do’ list is readily available to you so that you can continually add to it or review it as you set your priorities.     A paper planner, a notebook, or a piece of paper are favored by many.  Unfortunately, paper can easily be lost or destroyed.  Personally, I favor a digital solution.  I use Nirvana HQ, which allows me to classify tasks as I input them.  It lets me email tasks directly to my list, and because the data is stored in the cloud, my lists and projects are available to me on multiple devices.  There are similar programs that can be used.  They include (and this is not an exhaustive list), Asana, Todoist, Omnifocus Google Tasks, Nozbe, and Remember The Milk.  Whichever tool you choose, it should be easy to use so that the keeping your list doesn’t become a chore onto its own.

No matter which system you use, you need to come up with a system that works best for you and the way you work.  But it is crucial to have a system that you can rely on, and you will want to use without having it require too much of your attention to maintain.

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