The steps outlined below are not new to most people, many of us perform these steps subconsciously, but it is interesting to see these steps in text to distill what is involved in prioritizing a list of tasks.
The following list assumes an “action items,” not a “to-do” list. The difference being that an action list contains items of single step (“send email to blah”, “take out garbage”, “fill in time sheet”), whereas a to-do lists typically contain items of desired goal and often involve multiple steps (“clean basement”, “Develop finance application”), defined by GTD as projects. For more information, read David Allen’s book on Getting Things Done.
So, what is it we do subconsciously when making a priority decision? The following steps usually factor into the thought process:
Context – Context is most important, if you’re not near a computer or phone, there’s no way to respond to email. GTD breaks all action items into context categories (@Office, @Home, @Computer, @Call etc). The principle being that you can ignore a large percentage of your action item list if you are not in the desired context – why bother with what’s at home when you’re in the office?
Time Available – This factor is inherent in most of us, depending on how much time you have available before your next “scheduled” appointment will depend on what tasks you pick up. Let’s say you have a meeting in 60 minutes, it is unlikely that you’ll tackle a large job before the start of this meeting. Your calendar is important for knowing how much time you have between appointments, and your action item list contains one step tasks, which are easy to determine the time required to complete.
Energy – Until I read David Allen’s book I hadn’t given this factor a lot of consideration. What type of task do you take on at the scrag end of the day, or last thing on a Friday afternoon before a weekend? Your ability to crank out a task determines your success, so if you’ve been in wall to wall meetings all day and are toast, then the last hour of the day is a great time to clean your desk. Once again, your action items list will contain many one step tasks, including mundane tasks that may never reach a to-do list. Even when working on small insignificant tasks, you can go home at the end of the day with a satisfaction that you’ve crossed off entries in your action items list.
Biggest Pay Off – This is usually what most people think of as prioritizing – working on the tasks that are biggest and give you the best pay off. Assuming you have met all the factors listed above then it is best to pick an action item that gives you the best reward for the time spent. In a corporate office environment, this is likely working on a task for your best client (or worst if they’ve been sucking a lot of your time of late), at home maybe it’s the one job that gives you most pleasure, or impresses your loved ones the most.
No matter how trivial the list above, what I am trying to highlight in this blog post is that a good deal of tasks on action lists are irrelevant at any one time because their configuration does not match that of the current situation. Once you determine those tasks that match the current situation, you can quickly prioritize them without becoming overwhelmed or clouded by problems preventing task completion.