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Thomas De Moor for X-Team

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How to Prioritize Tasks

Want to become a more productive individual? Learn how to prioritize tasks. Complex Notion setups, knowledge databases, and time management techniques don't matter if you're always working on the wrong tasks. In fact, most productivity advice doesn't apply if you don't know how to prioritize.

Prioritization may seem hard on the surface. Everyone has tasks every day. Some small, some big, some habitual, some one-offs, some with deadlines, some without, some you love, some you hate, some that are important, some that aren't. Dear Task Lord, please help me, is this impossible?

It's not. Just as with most fundamental productivity principles, you can learn how to prioritize tasks. This article is a list of ideas and tools that will make prioritization second nature.

Gotta Catch 'Em All

Before you do anything else, create a big list of all your tasks. If you want to prioritize work tasks, list them all. If you want to prioritize tasks related to a particular project, list them all. If you want to prioritize tasks for, well, everything, then list them all. One after the other, as they pop into your mind.

Don't leave anything out, no matter how small. You want to get into the habit of writing a task down once you think of it, so you can look at your tasks and trust that you've listed all of them.

If you don't do this, you'll have a list of tasks and a few stragglers that you were supposed to remember. These stragglers take up way too much cognitive space and can easily stress you out. Just write them all down, please.

However, be just a little critical. Write front-end of portfolio website is not a task, but a project with potentially dozens of tasks. A task is a single, doable piece of work. When you think of something that you know is a project, split it down into tasks as best you can. You won't get all the tasks, but that's fine. Any task you think of in the future, just add it to the list.

The only context to add at this point is a deadline. If your task has a specific deadline that you can easily recall, like Vaccinate the cat 23 January every year, feel free to write that down. If your task has a recurring deadline, as all habitual tasks have, write that down too.

A Monster of a List

You will now have a list that's somewhere between uncomfortably long and infinite. Time to categorize. Group the tasks that fit together. This can be done with a hashtag or task folder or however you prefer, as long as it's useful and extremely easy to remember and maintain.

Some tasks will fit together because they fit in different areas of your life, like work tasks versus home tasks. Other tasks will fit together because they can be done at the same time and don't rely on each other, like phase 1 vs phase 2 vs phase 3 tasks of a project.

Give some thought to how you can best organize your tasks, but please keep this simple. To some of you, it will be tempting to create groups of tasks that are too small. It's better to err on the side of big categories, like #work and #life. Over time, if you find a category is too large, you can narrow it down. But start big.

We're categorizing all these tasks because it's silly to try and prioritize tasks from totally different areas of your life. When you're at work, you don't need tasks that have nothing to do with work. When you're working on one project, you don't need the tasks of another project. Stick to the tasks of one category and stay focused.

Enter the Matrix

Now it's time to prioritize the tasks in each respective category. For this, we summon the Eisenhower Matrix, named after the 34th president of the United States. The matrix is divided between unimportant vs important and not urgent vs urgent. Place your tasks on this priority matrix.

How to Prioritize Tasks

At this point, you may get stuck. You may have a category where a large number of tasks go into the important and urgent square of the matrix. This is where you need another trick: give each important task a number between zero and ten, with zero being the least important, and ten being the most important.

It's hard to understand the importance of a task on its own. It's much easier to understand its importance when comparing it with tasks of a similar category. For example, Review colleague's code and Find bug that breaks app can both be important tasks, but one is more important than the other. This will help you prioritize.

Take Action

Now that your tasks are placed on the matrix, it's time to follow the 4D principle : do, decide, delegate, delete.

  • Do the tasks that are urgent and important.
  • Decide when you will do the tasks that are not urgent, but important (plan).
  • Delegate the tasks that are urgent, but unimportant.
  • Delete or eliminate the tasks that are not urgent and unimportant.

A few caveats here. First, you may not be able to delegate tasks, in which case you should also plan them according to their urgency. Try to batch these unimportant tasks and do as many as you can in one go. Not only will it be supremely satisfying to tick them off, but you will be able to focus better on your more important tasks.

Second, try hard to eliminate not urgent, unimportant tasks. Understand your goals for each of your categories and think whether you really need those tasks to get to your goal. Chances are you can eliminate more tasks than you thought at first. If you can't, batch these as much as possible too.

Third, please make time for your non-urgent, but important tasks. These are often the crucial tasks that move you forward in life. You cannot neglect them. If you're only ever working on urgent, important tasks, you're constantly focusing on your immediate future and not your long-term future.

A Few More Things

This may have been a lot. Bookmark it, save it, reference it. As you practice, you'll find adjustments here and there that work better for you, but this is much of what you need to learn how to prioritize tasks. To finish off, here are a few other tidbits to keep in mind as you work:

  • Keep an inbox where you add new tasks. Review this inbox frequently.
  • Don't overoptimize. Keep your system as simple as possible.
  • Be realistic. You can't do everything in a day.
  • Don't multitask.

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