Johan Broddfelt
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Is your priority list broken?

My priority lists

I have a ton of priority lists. Whenever I get an idea I write it down in one of my lists. I have 2 apps on my phone with multiple lists in each, I use tags in my inbox to categorise ideas I have sent to my self into a few to-do lists. On top of that I have a few bug tracking systems, post-its and notebooks on my desk and some text files on my computer where I write down things to prioritise as well. What does your priority list look like, do you have multiple ones and do you get things done?

The expert’s advice

I have read about how to be more effective and how to manage tasks in the most optimal way. And even though they all sound great I feel that they do not fully solve the entire problem. Here are some rules that the experts say you should follow:

1: Have only one list, otherwise you have to prioritise lists as well.
2: Only one task can be the priority, there is no point in prioritising the entire list. When done, pick the next priority.
3: Ask if it is a short thing you can fix within a few minutes. Then fix it at once without adding it to any list.
4: If you do not have to do it now, then wait. Maybe you never really need to do it.
5: If someone else can do it for you, then let them do it for you.
6: Keep scheduled tasks in a calendar the rest in a list.
7: Make sure you get everything into your list, otherwise you cannot trust it.
8: Getting things on to a list frees your mind to manage tasks instead of remembering them.

Things I agree on

Number 8 is as true and a life saver. I never have to try to remember what I was supposed to do, instead I can focus on how to solve the next task and what task to prioritize next.
To only have one list (1) is partially true. It is good to have one list for each project you are working on. That is why I after writing my notes in different locations always make sure to move the notes into the correct location as soon as possible. (2) is also very true, but if I do work for a customer I do appreciate if they have sorted the tasks in some wished hierarchy. It will remove the decision of what priority to pick next and thus saves quite some time and most important of all, it increases the speed in which the customer get the important parts delivered, making them a happy customer.
I check my mail a few times a day. It is the highest priority after completing a task, because that might influence the next selected priority item. Sometimes though, there are a host of small tasks in the mail that only takes a few minutes which in total become a bit too many minutes if you have a deadline on another project. So, you can not always just go ahead and fix the small items as you red them in your inbox, even if they are quick and easy to fix. There is also another great thing about continuing with tasks in your current project and that is that switching between tasks adds about 15 minutes of waisted time, just to get in to the project again. This is one of the reasons you are more productive from home. You do not get interrupted with questions from your colleges that reset your focus. Which brings us to point (5), if you are working with the project you might as well keep your head in the project and do it anyway. Even if some one else can do it better. Because it also takes time to understand the task at hand and if you give the task to someone else they too have to understand the circumstances surrounding this task before they can get started.
Keeping scheduled tasks in a calendar is a good thing. Another thing that is good to put in a calendar is time to work on tasks from your priority list. If you schedule time for the list, not a specific task, you make sure that you have enough time to get items removed from your list effectively.

My tweaks to the recommendations

Instead of having one list to rule them all, I create as many as I need. But I keep at most one or two lists for each project I'm working on. This gives me the option to schedule time to do work on a project and as I start a project, I open the priority list focused on that specific project. It could be the list of things to buy in the store, while I'm in the store, or the list of tasks on a project when I'm working, or the list of things to do in my apartment when I get home. Then I do only prioritise one item in the list at a time, saving me the administrative work of reorganizing the list multiple times. It does sound like I have to go through the entire list after every project and that this approach should be ineffective. Why not sort the list once and for all and then get going? For starters, new items might be added at any time and then I have to reorganize the list. When I'm done with the first item, I might have learned new things that change the importance of the items in the list and then instead of going through the list once, picking the next priority, I must re-sort the entire list. Which in my mind is too much work.
There is also some prioritisation between the lists. If I have decided to post a video on social media a specific date, then as I get closer to that date, that task in that list will get higher and higher priority so, in order to make sure that item gets done I have already scheduled time for work on that list some days before. But if that list have other items that for the moment are prioritized higher then making a video, like support and bug fixes, I might to schedule more time to work on that list in the near future.

Planner and doer

Working like this gives you another very effective advantage. You can separate the time you focus on planning from the time you focus on execution. Looking at your lists and the task in them, give you a quick overview and you can easily pick out the most important things you need to focus on getting done. Then while working on the actual project, you can focus 100% on the task at hand, knowing that you have the other tasks under control, and you do not run the risk of forgetting any of them. This give you more control over your work, it saves you time and help you manage the stress in your life. Because if you see that you have too much on your plate as "the planner" you can make sure not to make promises that increases your work load more than you can handle.

- priority, todo, focus

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