Is an Unordered Task List Hurting Your Productivity?

What is the best thing to be working on right now?

That can be a pretty tough question for some, especially people with really long do to lists. When my task list gets too long, I usually get overwhelmed if I don’t find a way to sort it and get it under control. In order to rank your tasks, you need some way to tell them apart.

Traditional Ways to Rank

  • Priority – Some people assign a priority number to their tasks and only work on high priority tasks. The trouble with this method is that either too much stuff will be high priority, leading to the same problem as before, or you will let the lesser priority items sit around until they are really urgent. If that is the case, you will always be fire-fighting.
  • First in, First Out – Some people work on older tasks first. This won’t work for many, but can work for people whose work is flexible enough to allow for it. The trouble with this method is that small easy tasks can sit for extended periods of time, when they could be knocked out in an afternoon.
  • Deadline – Some people work on tasks in order of the deadline for the task. This can be good for people whose work is deadline based and fairly uniform. It can cause troubles when some of the work that is important to you doesn’t have a deadline like the rest of your work. These few important projects can just sit for a long time or never get done.

My Sorting Method

Recently, I have been trying out a new sorting method that has been working pretty well for me. It is as follows:

  1. Urgent – If something is due really soon, I need to get it under control. Therefore, I work on that task first. This is not the same as “has a deadline”. Something is only urgent if I am really sprinting to finish it by a deadline. The goal is to avoid having any urgent work at all through good planning.
  2. Leverage – If I can outsource something, I will do that before working on the rest of my non-urgent work.
  3. Almost Finished – Do you have any project stuck at 95% complete? I do. These projects are a priority to get them out of the door.
  4. Short-term Billables – My work consists of both freelance projects and content creation projects. Short-term billables are usually clients asking for updates to work that I did in the past so I need to finish this work in a timely manner.
  5. Quick – Next, I do quick important tasks. This can shorten my to-do list and give me the excitement of crossing off a bunch of tasks. I limit this type of work to one day a week so that it doesn’t overtake my projects.
  6. Projects – This list includes both content creation projects and long-term freelance projects. This is the core of my work.
  7. Other – The bottom of my list has anything that isn’t important or core work for me. This includes projects that I want to do, but just not right now.

Using this Sorting Method

Once I have a list that is sorted by this method, I know that the items on the top of the list are higher priority than ones below it, although this is not a hard and fast rule. I normally try to work down the list, but there are a few exceptions. For example, if I only have 20 minutes of work time, I might just skip straight to the quick tasks, since I know that I won’t have time for the longer tasks higher on the list.

I also try to to make sure that I get to the projects category regularly. If not, I try to figure out what is causing this and remedy it. For example, if I am spending too much time on quick tasks, I will limit the amount of time spent on them.

Your Turn

How to you go about figuring out what tasks to work on at any given time?

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2 responses to this post

  1. Michael

    This looks like a great way to figure out what to do first–I hate it when I have a huge to-do list and I’m not sure where to begin.

    Do you always stick to this ranking, or is there a time when you can skip around?

  2. Hailey Rene

    I don’t always stick exactly to this ranking. But I use it as a general guide. When actually working, I will take into account such things as how long I have to work and what tasks can be done with the supplies I have with me. Also, if I really feel like working on one particular task, I may work on that even if it is not at the very top according to this ranking.

    But overall, I like to stick to this ranking, especially if I am feeling overwhelmed by my task list.

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