Workers in the Information Age face challenges to effectively collect, organize and execute their tasks. Herding all tasks into a list is half the battle. However, when that has been done and we get to the point of execution the inevitable question comes – which task should I do now? One need not feel the onset of a cold sweat at this prospect. There are many ways to make that selection and in this post we will explore those options.
The age old priority. Basically each task is rated in terms of which have highest priority. For me, I am not a big fan of this option. Priority is a rather nebulous term which changes with the weather. What was a priority this morning can be forgotten when other tasks overtake it during the day. This leads then to constant juggling of task priorities.
This is a more developed form of the priority system from Brian Tracy. In this case we still use a form of prioritization but in this case each priority from A, B, C, D, E has an associated description which helps to arrange the tasks into each of these bins. Since the description of the task is less liable to change this form of prioritization is less likely to need constant reshuffling of priorities. The definitions of these priority classes is as follows,
A: Must do items or there are serious consequences.
B: Should do items with mild consequences.
C: Nice to do items with no consequence.
D: Delegate items. Not critical items for you to be spending you time on.
E: Tasks that should be eliminated and that add no value.
So, on task reception if can be judged against these criteria and arranged into one of the bins, A to E. In then selecting tasks for execution, one first works through the A tasks before moving onto B tasks and so on.
In this case tasks are scheduled for a certain date or time. There are clear advantages in this method,
- It encourages working from a list or calendar entries so should not be blown off course with the addition of new tasks
- It helps to set aside time for the most important tasks.
- It makes you think about how you spend your time and which tasks occupy your work time.
There is clearly a role for task scheduling in many task systems and in general it is good practice to execute tasks from a list.
Context deals with the situation you find yourself in and which tasks it is conducive to. For example there are some tasks that can be only done when you are in front of your computer or at home or even in the car. Each of these are contexts and you can label tasks with these context to break your task list down into these sub areas. So, when you are in one of these contexts, you filter your task list by that area and you can see what can be done in that situation. It is clearly a useful tool for workers on the go or people who cover different areas of their life within a single task management system. Many task management systems allow for this context to be attached to tasks and where not specifically applied other approaches can be utilized such as tagging the task such as the examples below.
This approach is from David Allen’s GTD methodology.
Which task adds greatest value?
If you really apply this question to task selection it can be truly transformative to one’s productivity. It forces a fundamental consideration of what your role and objective is in your organization and when those are known you then select tasks that directly contribute to those. So, it really encourages work on your core competencies and she you spend your time focused solely on delivering the objectives you are paid to do. Remember, productivity is not just about completing activities it is also about completing the right activities! There is no point to clamber up a ladder only to find it is the wrong wall. I wrote another article on this theme and how the concept of Gemba can be applied to task management.
Time, energy available
This is another concept from David Allen and his Getting Things Done methodology. Covering each of these in turn.
Selecting the task based on time available is simple looking at what time you have free at this time and selecting a task which can be done in that time. So, that 5 minutes you have free is just enough time to write that 5 minute email.
Energy available. I would consider it unusual for a person to have consistent focus and productivity over a full work day. Each of us has a best time of the day when we are most effective. That may be first thing in the morning when we are fresh or for those who arrive at the crack of noon if may be the afternoon. So, this selection criteria matches up the tasks that require greatest focus and concentration to the time period in the day when we are most able to deal with it mentally.
When is it needed?
It could be said that the scheduled approach outlined earlier is a subset of this. Asking and answering this question both enables the tasks to be organized properly and also to be executed at the right time. This not only applies to scheduled tasks but also encompasses ad-hoc new tasks and can determine if they must supercede previously scheduled tasks or indeed be added as a scheduled task. It is a powerful question and I have used it as the heart of a simplified Getting Things Done approach.
This is a popular representation of the four categories of tasks using a 2 x 2 matrix as illustrated below. The x-axis and y-axis represent the importance and urgency of the tasks. Each quadrant then represents the nature of the task,
- Important and urgent
- Some examples of this would be dealing with a crisis or rushing to hit a critical deadline.
- Urgent but not important
- Not urgent and not important
- Trivial activities that add nothing to progressing your objectives. For example idle chat or getting that third cup of coffee this morning.
- Important but not urgent
- These are the tasks that really add value to your work and make progress towards completing your objectives.
This concept has been labeled the Eisenhower matrix and also is covered in Covey’s 7-Habits of effective people but under a different title. Irrespective of the naming the principle is the same.
In terms of how it then impacts task selection it is simple. Of the four categories of tasks the one that adds most value is clearly “Important but not urgent”. The tasks that populate this quadrant are named as “Big rocks” by Covey this is where we should be spending the bulk of our time. So, review your task list, label the tasks as one of the four categories and devote the bulk of your time to the important but nor urgent tasks. Of course the question arises, how to spend time on non-urgent tasks when I am constantly firefighting? The response inevitably is by addressing important issues early the urgent firefighting can be avoided. An interesting approach to this topic is from Peter R. Scholtes in “The Leader’s Handbook”. In that book it discusses how systems can be analysed and their weak points found to streamline them, make them more robust and less prone to problems and error.
So there you have it. 8 different ways to how to select what you will be doing at 8:20am on Thursday morning. Which is best? Whichever one suits your work and work style!