Here’s the secret to task list prioritization that no one talks about: You have to keep changing it up. Productivity isn’t a constant, we all go through ups and downs. What works for you when you’re focused and motivated might not work when you’re struggling to keep running.
I now have a three-strike system. When I don’t achieve my to-do list’s important items three times with one system, I dump it and start a new one.
Surprisingly, this is the one system that works for me. The change in “how I get things done” often gets me out of a rut and brings me back to the purpose of productivity: actually getting things done.
So what to-do list prioritization systems can you use?
Good Old GTD
Productivity expert David Allen, the inventor of the Getting Things Done system, reckons the most important thing about your to-do list is getting the priorities right:
Allen’s GTD system is a pretty good way to sort your priorities, but it’s not the only way. GTD can take some getting used to, but once you apply its principles to your task list, your productivity will get a boost.
So far, the best app we have seen to put GTD principles in action is GTDNext. It’s purely a web app and so caters to those who work from a desk with their computer, but given that’s how many of us do our jobs, it fits the bill.
Warren Buffett’s 2-List Strategy
One of the world’s richest men, Warren Buffet has his own trick to manage your priorities. In a famous story, he asked his personal airline pilot, Mike Flint, to list 25 things he wanted to do — List A. Then he made him circle the top five among these — List B. Here’s how the conversation went, according to James Clear:
Flint: “Well, the top 5 are my primary focus, but the other 20 come in a close second. They are still important so I’ll work on those intermittently as I see fit. They are not as urgent, but I still plan to give them a dedicated effort.”
Buffett: “No. You’ve got it wrong, Mike. Everything you didn’t circle just became your Avoid-At-All-Cost list. No matter what, these things get no attention from you until you’ve succeeded with your top 5.”
The core of Buffett’s advice is that we spend too much time doing secondary tasks that we justify to ourselves. Eliminate those and you’ll eliminate all the half-done projects in your to-do list.
Most to-do list apps have a mechanism to mark some tasks as priority. For example, if you’re using an app like Any.Do, its planning mode and focus mode can whittle down your tasks to the top-5 list easily.
The Four-Quadrant Eisenhower Matrix
Former US President Dwight D. Eisenhower famously sorted his tasks by importance and urgency, which Stephen Covey (author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People) converted into a four-quadrant technique. This is what it looks like:
So you have to categorize tasks into one of those four quadrants. Quadrant 1 (Q1), Important and Urgent, is what you tackle first. Deal with Q2 (Important, Not Urgent) and Q3 (Urgent, Not Important) as you see fit, but priority among the two goes to Q2 as far as possible. Q4 can be dumped!
If you absolutely had to stop working after doing just one task, which would you do?
It sounds simplistic, but it’s actually a tough question to answer. It is based on the Pareto Principle, which says that 20% of your work often gives 80% of your result, so it’s all about identifying the 20% task. You can use the aforementioned techniques to cut down your list to important items, and then when you have to figure the next thing to do, Cooper’s question can give you the answer.