Friday, August 24, 2018

Alignment - Prioritizing Individual Tasks

A few weeks ago, I mentioned the importance of prioritizing tasks in a general way. Knowing which tasks must be done on (or by) which day is important. So in our day-to-day routines we must prioritize tasks to ensure that the most important ones do not get overlooked or build up and overwhelm us. The good news is that the approach to doing this is rather simple. Let me start with the principle and then I will mention the software I use (which does the same thing with a slightly different approach).

Perhaps the easiest approach is to use the ABC (or 123) method. Whether you use letters or numbers does not matter as the approach is the same. The basic premise is to write down everything you need to do on a given day or in a given time period. You do not need to worry about the order you write them, just record the thoughts as they come. After recording your tasks on paper, prioritize each one by placing an A, a B, or a C next to it. As more items enter your mind, add those to your list and apply a letter as well. You do not need to worry about dates or times, this list is simply to record what needs to be done. (Dates and times are calendar items in a perfect world, but that is a post for the near future.)

Once you have your list and your letters (numbers) by each item, you simply start with the highest priority items (A or 1), and complete all of those. Then you begin working on the next set (B, 2), until those are complete, and, if time and energy allow, you begin working on the last set. This sounds overly simple and it is, but only if it is used. However, most people do not prioritize their tasks or work on the wrong set of priorities first. Let me explain.

Many people may make a to-do list (TTD, Things to Do). But others try to keep track of everything in their head. That may work when your task-list has a couple of items on it, but as your responsibilities grow, your number of tasks will grow and you will soon forget something - and often that something is quite important! So, eventually, most people write down some sort of list. Usually, the initial approach only records the most important items ("I can't forget to do this!"). The problem is that without seeing all our tasks we begin to lose perspective on everything that needs to be done. The problem with writing down everything each day is that we cannot get everything done and therefore using our priority system, we carry forward the items we did not complete - which creates a lot of redundant writing. (This is the value of software which I will cover in another moment.) So, yes, I do advocate recording each task and prioritizing each one as well.

As I mentioned above, once you prioritize you simply begin with your A-level tasks. As your list of tasks grows it is likely you will not get to your C-level tasks on many days. That's ok. That's why they are C-level. You want to do them. You may need to do them. But not today. If they are important enough to do, the C-level tasks will eventually move up to a B or even an A-level task, whether that is tomorrow, next week, next month, etc. But that is why it is important to record every task - to maintain perspective on all that needs to be done. But we have one more problem...we often like to focus on C-level tasks over A-level tasks.

By our own admission, C-level tasks are not as important (remember, we prioritize our own tasks). And many times, they are not as important because they are more "fun" or simple than some of those items that are more important. So, we WANT to do them first. The problem is by doing the C-level tasks first, we spend time that cannot be regained - time that may be very necessary for the A-level tasks we need to accomplish. So, it is not enough to prioritize! We need to be disciplined to focus on our priorities. Covey said, "The key is not to prioritize your schedule, but to schedule your priorities." Assigning tasks a priority is the first part of that statement, being disciplined to work your priorities is one part of the second!

A look at part of a typical
Wednesday. Notice the red
and orange strips on the left.
Those strips represent the
flag colors on the app for the
Now, before I close this post, let me briefly mention the benefit of software. In a world where most of us have a device more handy than we do paper, using an app makes a lot of sense. Furthermore with the app, I can access it anywhere (phone, computer, tablet, work pc, etc.) Thus, I can check which tasks need to be done, add new ones, mark tasks completed, etc. wherever I am rather than wondering "Now, where did I leave that list of things to do?"

I am not promoting any particular software as many apps are very good at helping us manage our tasks. One of the premier products is Omnifocus (for iOS only). Wunderlist is another good tool. But the tool I use is Todoist. It is a free app that is cross-platform. (I use the paid version so I can assign/receive assigned tasks from others.) Todoist has many great features, but related to prioritizing tasks, it uses flags. Todoist has red, orange, yellow, and white (none) flags. So, instead of three options (ABC) it provides four. And because it is software the tasks are easily repeatable at all sorts of intervals (helpful for a task like a weekly blog!), and if an item is not completed, it can easily be moved to another day. Furthermore with color schemes for projects (or filters), I can quickly identify tasks related to my different roles by color. (I use the same colors for each role in my calendar as well.)

Life is full of choices, and being productive means making good choices and setting priorities. These choices and priorities are necessary in all of life, and that includes managing our tasks (so they don't manage us). Whether you use paper, an app, or a hybrid system, taking the time to prioritize, and having the discipline to stick with your priorities will help you become more productive and more effective, and may even help you know when it is time to say, "No" because your plate is too full.

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