How many times have you had plenty of tasks on your to-do list, but weren’t sure where to start? Say you arbitrarily start on one, how do you know that one takes priority over the others? What if something comes up and delays the task you are working on, or you get information that expedites another?
If your stress level went up after reading those questions, you are not alone.
Figuring out what to do when is something everyone struggles with. Here is a guide to figure it out.
There are essentially four distinct aspects you have to take into account when assigning a task priority. Each aspect will help you categorize where the task falls on the importance versus timeliness spectrum. Many of you may be familiar with this graphic called the Eisenhower Matrix, which is an excellent method, to begin with.
This chart alone will filter all the unnecessary tasks out of your life, but in the event that you are left with multiple tasks that are both important and urgent, these are the steps to follow.
The first thing we have to admit to ourselves is that we cannot work on more than one task at a time; it is more effective to focus our attention on one task. A great technique to time box exactly how long you can focus on the task without interruptions or getting distracted, once you can quantify this, you can do a mini reflection on it and mentally note possible improvements and optimizations for the next time we do it. This mental feedback loop is impossible to carry out while your attention is divided amongst multiple tasks.
The first question we need to ask ourselves is “Do other tasks depend on the successful completion of this one?”. The importance of this task increases with the number of tasks dependent on it. For example, if you wanted to sell lemonade, buying lemons would be the most important task because not completing this it prevents you from actually making the lemonade. There is also something to be said about the end goal. If your goal is to sell lemonade later this week, then it is probably more prudent to create eye-catching hand-drawn signs to place around the neighborhood than it is to buy ice.
Once you have identified which tasks must happen before others, you will need to dive in on what we call auxiliary dependencies. These can be people, information or resources. Ask yourself “Who or what does my success depend on?” To illustrate this point I want you to imagine you are 10 years old again. In order to get lemons, you need your parents to drive you to the grocery store and presumably help you pay for them. To a certain extent, the success of the lemonade stand is dependent on your parents’ schedule. This would be an auxiliary dependency because there are ways to get around this blocker such as walking to the store or asking another trusted adult.
Once you have done this, identify the tasks that are completely self-contained. These are things you can start right now. A prime example of this is creating signs to place around the neighborhood with that coloring set that you got a year ago but never opened. Essentially what I am getting at is that you should not stop working on tasks in this category unless an auxiliary dependency becomes available.
The last and frankly most important consideration to take into account is timing. I’m not just referring to the time it takes to accomplish a task, I am referring to the time it takes for the results to reach maturity. If you want to have your lemonade stand on Saturday morning, you must begin your marketing campaign (signs and word of mouth) by at least Tuesday because it requires a few days to get the message across to your audience.
In summary, determining task priority is a skill to learn. Following this system will make it easier to separate important items from the unimportant ones.
- After using the Eisenhower Decision Matrix, create a shortlist of tasks.
- Rank tasks based on importance.
- After ranking these tasks and completing all the “Urgent” tasks (i.e Tasks that must be completed by EOD) do the following:
a. Remove or address external dependencies
b. If held up by a dependency, start completing tasks by ranked importance.
c. Once a dependency becomes available, switch to that — assuming it is more important than what you are working on or is constrained by time.
If you follow this checklist when you outline your tasks for the day it should make switching between tasks effortless and eventually, this process will become second nature. I would love to hear if this method has worked for you, let me know by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or sending me a DM on Instagram @ranjitmarathay.