Browsing the archives for the tasks tag.
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A Unexpectedly Brilliant Tool for Organization


In previous posts, I’ve recommended the online task manager Todoist for Getting Things Done-style organization. All the key features are available for free (though I subscribe to get the advanced features, paying $29/year). In March 2013, they introduced a tool called “karma,” a sort of ongoing game or rating based on how well you do at tracking and completing tasks. At the time, I must have thought it sounded to hokey or decided that the idea of having a productivity “score” was lame, because I didn’t start using it until five or six months ago. Since then, I’ve been a little amazed that it actually seems to work: I’m more productive, more focused, and more diligent specifically because of Todoist karma.

How can what basically amounts to a simple counting game help get more work done? By setting reachable goals and inspiring involvement. (For a more thorough consideration of the connection between games and motivation, read A Surprising Source of Insight into Self-Motivation: Video Games.)

Let’s look at how that works. Here’s a screen shot of my karma as of today (click to zoom):

My Todoist karma


See the gray vertical lines, one for the last 7 days and one for the last 4 weeks? Those are my targets. I’m trying to complete at least that many tasks to keep on track, which is to say at least 5 per weekday and at least 25 per week. These are the default settings, which are actually great for me, but you can change them to whatever you want.

If I keep to these targets, my karma keeps going up, and my daily and weekly streaks (shown at the bottom) accumulate. (For more on motivation and winning streaks, see “Harnessing a Winning Streak.”)

As you can see from my streaks, I wasn’t able to keep on top of tasks in the same way as usual over the holidays, so I missed my targets several times up through the New Year, resetting the impressive streaks I had built up before Thanksgiving. Karma does have an important “vacation” feature (you just tell it that you’re on vacation, and it won’t expect you to get much done until you turn vacation back off). It also doesn’t expect you to get anything done on weekends (though you can change it so that you’re “on duty” any days of the week you like).

Todoist karma levels

The rewards to attending to karma are minimal: your graph keeps going up, you build up your streaks, your score improves, and every once in a long while you “level up” to a new karma category. This may not sound like much inducement to get things done, but if you think about it, it’s very similar to a video game, and video games are notoriously addictive: you have a score, levels, goals, specific challenges … it’s not easy, but it’s not impossible … in a word, you’re engaged.

Another thing I like about karma that initially seemed like a drawback is that it mainly just tracks the number of tasks you get done rather than trying to deal with priority or importance or size. This makes it simple to use–pretty much automatic, in fact–but it also rewards breaking big goals down into small tasks, which is an excellent motivational and organizational technique. If you enter “redo flooring in dining room” in as a task, it’s a good bet you’ll never get it done. On the other hand, if you start with tasks like “Find out what kind of wood flooring options are out there” and “Measure dining room and write down dimensions,” then you’ve got a great basis for accomplishing something.

The way karma helps me the most is in setting a number of things to get done. My task list is probably thousands of items long, set up in many different categories with different priorities. To be productive, I have to get at least a few of those things done each day. Often what happens is that I’ll get to evening and have completed, say, three tasks (this is outside of my work task list, which I maintain separately). Being conscious of my Todoist karma, I’m aware that I can do two more to maintain my streaks and increase my score, or give up for the day, lose points and get my streaks reset. It’s nearly always possible to get two small tasks done, however, and so I generally do them, and this keeps my attention on what I have to do and also encourages me to do just a bit more each day. That’s exactly the level of quiet, private encouragement I need.

In short, if you’re in need of an elegant, easy-to-use, effective, and free task management system, you’ll have a hard time doing better than Todoist–and if you use Todoist, you should consider using the karma feature to engage more enthusiastically with all the tasks in your life.

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Randall Munroe Tells You Whether or Not It’s Worth the Time

Strategies and goals

It’s no secret that I think Randall Munroe often presents things through his XKCD comic that are not only well worth knowing, but that pertain specifically to living a better life. His most recent (as of this writing) is an especially practical example.

Is it worth the time?

A couple of useful things we can do with this chart:

  • Consider areas in our lives where it might be worth some time thinking about improvements.
  • Consider things we’re doing to make life more efficient that might not be worth the trouble.


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A Cure for Task List Avoidance


Our culture has a love-hate relationship with task lists. Many of us make them, use them for a while, then eventually start avoiding them, trying not to think about how out of date they’re getting and what there might be on them that we really ought to be doing.

Or we try to do without task lists, using sticky notes and flagged e-mails and calendar reminders and stacks of papers that need something done with them and all kinds of other systems, only to find that there are still a lot of tasks we need to keep in our head, which keep spurring anxiety because when we don’t have time to do them right away, we worry we’ll forget about them completely: parking tickets, birthdays, that leak in the basement, finding out what that weird charge on the phone bill was, getting cholesterol checked …

Some background: all about task lists
I won’t go into a complete discussion of why I think the solution to this is a single, well-organized task list with categories, because I’ve already talked about a lot of basic task list issues in other posts, and I don’t want to waste your time with repetitions. If you haven’t read them yet, though, here are some articles from the wayback machine:

Why Task Lists Fail
4 Ways to Make Sure You Get a Task Done
The Eight Things You Can Do With a Piece of Paper
Getting Rid of the Little, Distracting Tasks
My Top 1 Task
Weed Out Task Lists With the 2-Minute Rule
Don’t Use Your Inbox as a To Do List
Useful Book: Getting Things Done
How I’m Keeping My E-mail Inbox Empty

When things start to slide
But even if you’ve followed my recommendations in these articles, do you ever find that your task management begins to slide–that you start falling back on notes or keeping things in your inbox, or you spawn new areas of your task list into which you throw tasks blindly, or you just try to keep everything in your head? Every once in a while this happens to me, so if it doesn’t sound familiar, my hat’s off to you. If it does sound familiar, though, then I may be able to offer an easy way out. All it takes is a little focus and time; it’s very low-stress.

The key is that a complete task management system relies on a certain amount of faith: you have to have faith that you’re actually going to get to at least some of the most important tasks on your list. If you lose confidence, if you start thinking you’re going to miss something on the list, then you may stop putting your more important items on the list, reasoning that it’s better to be a little flexible about what goes on the list than to risk not getting things done. As soon as you do that, you have a reason to avoid your list, because some of your most pressing tasks aren’t even on it, and this snowballs.

Or it can happen the other way around: you feel a little rushed and jot a few tasks on sticky notes or try to just keep them in memory, and then you realize that your list is no longer reliable and you lose confidence in it.

Fixing task list confidence
What’s the fix? Go back to basics, put your faith in your list, get everything on it, and pay attention to your list regularly. The steps are pretty easy:

  1. Whenever you think of something you need to do (or would like to do) that isn’t on the list, put on the list right away. If you can’t always do that, then you need a different system: it doesn’t help to have a task list that you can’t add to in real time.
  2. Keep a very small number of do-these-soonest items set apart. You can do this by assigning priorities, establishing a “very short-term tasks” category, tagging these top items, or any other means that works for you, but you need to be able to identify your top four to eight tasks. Any more than that and you’ll have a hard time doing the next step.
  3. Put the task you want to get done first at the top of the list. Ideally, put the task in order from want-to-get-done-first on down, though it’s really that top task that’s essential.
  4. As you get tasks done, bring more tasks into the “very short-term tasks” set and keep putting the next task you want to get done first at the top of the list.
  5. Don’t put important tasks anywhere else: just on your list. Between adding tasks, looking tasks up, and crossing tasks off, you’ll be forced to
  6. Visit your task list regularly, so that it never starts getting out of date.
  7. Finally, do maintenance on your task list, re-prioritizing and recategorizing as necessary, checking in on your pending items, deleting items that it turns out you don’t have to or want to do after all. This should be don’t-think-about-it work, which you do separately from actually getting your tasks done (except that if you have some very quick tasks, it’s often more efficient to do them then and there, if you have any time at all, than to keep shuffling them around–even if they’re not very high priority). This seventh step is optional: if you maintain a good “very short-term tasks” group and keep choosing one of those tasks to go to the top, the rest of your task list can be a mess–but it being in good order makes keeping the “very short-term tasks” group up to date much easier.

Worried it won’t get done? Overwhelmed by the list?
This solution solves two distinct problems: anxiety about not getting tasks done and being overwhelmed by everything on your list.

The anxiety is alleviated by identifying that top task. If it really is the thing you should be doing first, then you don’t have to worry that you’re neglecting something more important. By contrast, if you didn’t have a top task, then you might be tempted to pick off the most inviting or easy-looking tasks, or to avoid your task list altogether because of not wanting to face the worry.

The feeling of being overwhelmed is taken away when you just ask yourself simple questions like “Does this belong in my list of very short-term tasks?” and “Which of this handful of tasks should I do first?” Just like going through e-mail or papers, going through a task list can be especially stressful if you look at it as a whole, because no one can do a whole bunch of things at once (see “How to Multitask, and When Not To“). By simply going through your items in the order you find them, you can make individual decisions that are easier and more pleasant than trying to grapple with a stack of decisions could ever be.

Photo by heymrlady

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ToDoist Is (Was) Down


FINAL  UPDATE: Todoist is back up: time to immediately save my data!

UPDATE: Todoist tweeted and posted about the problem at 1:35 EST: see . They say that their database became corrupted for unknown reasons and that they’re fixing the problem. They also apologized for the outage. I’m no longer worried about having to switch systems, but will take my own advice (below) and start backing up.

In my post “Why Organization Improves Motivation, and Some Organization Tips” from a couple of years back I extol the virtues of Todoist, a free online task tracking system with a modestly upgraded, slightly less free version available as well. Today I’m not so much in an extolling mood. I can open Todoist, and each of the categories shows the proper number next to it showing how many tasks I have in that category, but clicking on the categories themselves opens up a screen with no tasks except for (bizarrely) the completed ones.

I have a work account and a personal account for Todoist, and I’ve tried them both, on different computers and browsers, with the same results, making me think it’s a universal problem. ToDoist Mobile on my smartphone is giving me even more flack, claiming I have no projects (categories) at all.

To my surprise, Google reports that no one has blogged about this, and there appear to be no news articles on the subject. If you’re experiencing this problem, though, I’m here to tell you it’s not just you.

Oh, and did I mention that their support site times out? I can’t even ask what’s going on.

I understand it’s a free service, but it’s still very damaging to have a large amount of critical information disappear on you and to not know whether or when you might ever get it back. Being able to access Todoist on my phone as well as on computers wherever I may be has been terrific, but going forward I may give that up just to get some peace of mind that I won’t lose it all. Losing my task list would set me back enormously and cause problems in many areas of my life.

The moral? Back up your data. In my case, it would have been smart to get into the habit of at least once a week (and preferably more often) entering “view all” in the search box on todoist and saving the resulting page, which lists all current tasks in all categories, but I’ve tended to think of backup as only applying to data on devices I own–bad mistake. If my data does reappear, I’ll certainly get in the habit of doing this. If you’re not in my position, may I please very strongly recommend regularly backing up your task list (and calendar, for that matter)?

And if you are on Todoist, like me, could you comment on whether you’re experiencing the same thing today (Thursday, July 28th) or not?

Update: I should have thought to check the Twitterverse; when I did, I found others experiencing the same problem. Not long ago, @JB66 reported “It’s still mostly down, but if you view Completed Tasks it shows your current tasks as well buried in there.”


Don’t Use Your Inbox as a To Do List

Strategies and goals

Let’s say an important e-mail arrives in your inbox, a message you have to reply to at length or do something about. You don’t want to forget about it, but you can’t take care of it right away, so what do you do? Put a star or a flag on it? Re-mark it unread? Put a post-it note up? Just hope for the best?

E-mail inboxes are lousy to do lists. An item in an inbox might have to do with one major task, a bunch of tasks, a task that could be done very quickly (like a one-sentence reply), or no task at all. It’s very hard to prioritize and sort them. Trying to use e-mails as reminders is kind of like trying to use a cat as a rolling pin: you might be able to make it work, but the process is going to be painful and you might not be happy with the results.

Taming my inbox
Almost a year and a half ago, I finally figured out how to keep my e-mail inbox empty. I don’t know if e-mail affects you the same way it does me, but it used to be that I’d go into my e-mail and immediately feel exhausted by the massive list of subjects I’d left lying around in my inbox. I’d look at the newest things, maybe delete some unimportant notices or spam messages, read anything quick and appealing, and mentally designate other messages to follow up on later.

“Later” would sometimes take weeks. Sometimes it would never come at all.

So e-mails languished in my inbox, growing from tens to hundreds to thousands, a huge mishmash of messages from friends I really wanted to hear from, junk mail, reminders of things to do (or that I had already done, or had let slip past), information I needed, and a lot of other noise. Just looking at it was enough to destroy my motivation for doing anything about it. The job always seemed too big until I finally figured out how it could be done early last year: see “How I’m Keeping My E-mail Inbox Empty.” My e-mail box was still empty 10 weeks later, and it’s empty today too, though it’s had periods where ten to twenty messages accumulated for a while when I wasn’t being completely vigilant.

(By the way, for a recommendation on free, Web-based e-mail that lends itself to keeping an empty inbox–GMail is no good for this, I’m afraid–see my post “Free Online E-mail to Help You Keep a Clean Inbox.”)

Neat is good, but functional is better
Even with this e-mail organizational systems, I’ve still had trouble sometimes keeping on top of tasks that show up in my inbox. Some have languished in my Reply/Act folder for much too long, while others have been attended to when they weren’t the highest priority at the moment just to get them out of the way. Since I keep a separate task system, having tasks in e-mail too meant that I had to go back and forth between the two systems and try to decide which one had the most important task at the moment. That’s distracting, demotivating, and a pain in the neck. The best way to get things done is to know the one thing you’re going to do next and focus your energies on it alone. Prioritizing tasks needs to be something you can do once and then be done with, not something you have to reevaluate every time you finish something up and are looking for the next priority.

(For how and why to get organized with a kind of task list that actually works, see “Why Organization Improves Motivation, and Some Organization Tips,” “My Top 1 Task,” “Weed Out Task Lists With the 2-Minute Rule,” “Why Task Lists Fail,” and “Useful Book: Getting Things Done.”)

Making tasks out of e-mails
So what’s the solution? It’s a pretty simple one, actually: when you have an e-mail that needs further action, and when you can’t do that action right away, make a task to remind you to take care of that e-mail (making a note of the e-mail you have on the subject, for reference), then prioritize that task in your task list. If you don’t have a task list, read David Allen’s book Getting Things Done  and start one. It will make your life happier and simpler, believe me.

This approach works regardless of whether you keep an empty inbox like I do.

I know that making tasks for e-mails may feel like extra work, but the amount of effort involved is hardly anything, and keeping everything in your task list means the end of a lot of distraction, annoyance, and potential anxiety from having to remember and review multiple places that each might have things needing to be done. If you prefer not to go to the trouble of keeping a clean inbox, this approach even frees you from having to worry about whether your inbox is empty or not because you no longer have to worry you’ll forget about the important e-mails buried in with all the other stuff.

Photo by Darcie


On Mental Paralysis and Choosing Tasks at Random


Gustav at the Fiction-Writing Directorate offers this useful-and-weirdly-entertaining post: “The Phrenologist’s Apprentice: The Directorate Guide to Getting Enough Done,” which John Burridge kindly pointed out in comments to a recent post of mine.

The pitfall of the article above is the danger of getting the wrong things done, as described in the post John replied to (“When Being Productive is Just Another Way to Procrastinate“), but it still makes a fair point. Gustav offers this discussion of the pitfall:

“Absurd!” Frederick cried. “Why, if I picked tasks at random—“

“—With synchronicity,” I corrected.

“With synchronicity,” he continued, “how could I ensure that important tasks would get done?”

“I understand your skepticism,” I said. “But it seems to me that you spend all your time weeping and paralyzed, so nothing is getting done, important or otherwise. Is that not true?”

He nodded, ashamed.

“This way, you will achieve at least a modicum of success. However, I suspect you will be pleasantly surprised at how often this method presents you with precisely the right task. Synchronicity, lad.”

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When Being Productive is Just Another Way to Procrastinate

Strategies and goals

Too many tasks
One of the problems with having a lot of things to do is that the stress of not doing the rest of your tasks can make it hard to focus on any one task. For instance, if I have edits to complete on a writing project and I also need to finish my bimonthly budget (I keep a budget in a spreadsheet to get a better idea of where my money’s about to go), working on either task can be difficult because I worry about needing to complete the other.

This problem gets much worse when there are a lot more than two things that should be done right away. Having recently taken several vacation days to spend time with family members, I’ve come back to my tasks this week facing just this kind of situation.

Fortunately, there’s a solution: if I can get truly involved and engaged in one task (like writing this post, for instance), my focus on that task can prevent other issues from distracting me. This is a very good solution to the problem, but it contains one pitfall: picking the wrong task.

Picking the wrong task
If I have a list of things that need to be done, and if I notice one that particularly catches my interest, start in on that one, get engaged with it, and see it through to completion, that’s great–unless that task isn’t high on my priority list, in which case it’s progress of a kind, but it’s also preventing me from getting my top tasks finished.

An example: if I have edits one a writing piece that are due tomorrow, checks that need to be sent out today, and an upcoming appointment that needs to be rescheduled, it’s all too easy for me to look at my task list and see an item like “Research Google+” (a useful thing to do in terms of keeping abreast of important social computing and Internet promotion developments) and get caught up in that. As useful as the research may be, by the time I’m done it may be too late to reschedule my appointment, I may not get the checks in the mail on time, and/or I might miss my writing deadline. My productivity has actually caused me harm in this case.

The worst thing about this kind of problem is that it uses some of the best motivational tools and therefore feels really good. While I’m doing the not-important task, I may be getting excited and engrossed. I may be highly productive and focused, all while working on a truly useful task. And yet I’m shooting myself in the foot.

Picking the right task
What’s the solution? Turning my attention to the single most important task I have to do and getting engaged with that instead. Does this mean that my enthusiasm and energy that I’ve just started to put into the lower-priority task are lost? Sadly, yes. Our brains are designed to focus on one thing at a time, and changing tasks generally means getting out of our previous mindset and getting into a new one, which is not a trivial (or instantly reversible) process.

Yet the payoffs of taking care of the most important and/or pressing things first are great, and this kind of change is well worth the effort.

How to change focus to a different task
One good way to quickly get interested in a different task is to do it in very small, easily-tackled steps, not forcing anything. The first question to ask ourselves is “What would the single most beneficial task be that I could do right now, all things considered?” If there are so many tasks that it’s difficult to pick just one,  one option is to make a list of the front runners and then pick the top task for the moment from that list–that is, to narrow down the field. It sometimes helps to remind ourselves that we can only really do one thing effectively at a time, so our job is only to focus on the one best choice for the moment.

With that top task chosen, there are a couple of ways to proceed easily, depending on the kind of task. If it’s something that requires a series of known steps, then it can work very well to just ask ourselves “What’s the next small step I would take if I wanted to get this task done now?” Whether it’s taking out a file, looking up a phone number, getting the shovel out of the garage, or opening a document in a word processing program, choosing the smallest possible task makes getting started on that task fairly easy. From there the process can be repeated until we feel engaged and have some momentum.

The other way to proceed, which is helpful for tasks that don’t readily break down into easy steps, is to ask “What would it look like if I were working constructively on this?” Imagining ourselves working on the task activates a lot of the same mental processes we use to actually do the task. Getting focused on the task in this way makes it much easier to get started.

Look to the top
Regardless of how we involve ourselves in our top tasks, the key takeaway is that focusing on something low-priority can sap energy, time, focus, and success away from the things that really need to get done, leading to a sense of working hard and still always being behind. Mastering the habit of looking to our top priorities first will nip this kind of constructive procrastination in the bud.

Photo by dsevilla


Weed Out Task Lists With the 2-Minute Rule

Strategies and goals

I have a huge task list. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since the list is well-organized and useful (see “Why Organization Improves Motivation, and Some Organization Tips“), and a lot of the tasks on it are a handy but optional. I do my best to push items that are important and need to be done soon to categories and statuses that keep me focused on those (see “My Top 1 Task“), which seems to work pretty well for me.

Still, the sheer number of items sometimes gets to me. To clear up a lot of them at once, I apply a version of the 2-minute rule, learned from David Allen (see “Useful Book: Getting Things Done“). The two minute rule is If you can get something done in 2 minutes, don’t put it on your task list: instead, just do it.

Part of the logic behind this idea is that keeping an item on your task list requires time and attention from you: you need to review your task list periodically, keep items prioritized, and so on. With a good organizational sytem (like Allen’s), this isn’t difficult, but it becomes easier the fewer items you have to manage. So tasks that can be completed in 2 minutes tend to “pay for themselves” if you do them up front rather than spending the time writing them down maintaining them until some point in the future.

Two minutes doesn’t sound like much, but there are a lot of useful things that can be done in that time, including firing off a reminder e-mail, making a telephone call to check a single fact, finding an item or paper that isn’t too hard to locate, asking someone one question, and so on.

And it doesn’t have to be a 2 minute limit, as long as it’s a short period of time: it could be 5 minutes or even 15 minutes, though probably not longer than that.

To use the 2-minute rule on items that have already made their way onto your list (for instance, because you added them before you heard of the 2-minute rule, or because it wasn’t possible to do them at the times you first thought of them), you can either get in the habit of searching for 2-minute items whenever you have a few minutes free, or better yet, go through your task list and mark any 2-minute items you already have. In my case, I have two separate tags I use: “5 minutes or less” and “15 minutes or less.” You can then jump to a quick-to-do item whenever time allows, or block out an hour or two and mow down dozens of them.

And interestingly, marking quick tasks in your task list, if it’s done in an efficient task management system (like ToDoist or a paper system)  only takes a few minutes.

Photo by Јerry

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How to Have a Good Day: 6 More Ways to Make the Most of a Morning

Strategies and goals

In a previous article, “How to Have a Good Day: The Night Before,“ I talked about ways to help make a day go well through preparation. In my last article, “How to Have a Good Day: 4 Ways to Make the Most of a Morning,” I continued the discussion by talking about things that can be done in the morning to help improve the rest of the day. This third article offers more strategies to improve a day by handling the morning well.

  • Do one constructive thing early on. Accomplishing something worthwhile, even if it’s a small thing, tends to give a boost in self-confidence and optimism, especially if it’s a task that has been lingering or that has more impact that something its size normally would.
  • Keep an eye out for broken ideas. “Broken ideas” or “cognitive distortions” are patterns of thinking that do more harm than good; you can read about them here. By reminding ourselves to be aware of our own thoughts and being vigilant for broken ideas, we can head off emotional problems and distractions.
  • Be prepared to face trouble. Any day can potentially bring trouble: unexpected expenses, illness, things breaking, people not coming through, and so on. Since trouble can’t be eradicated from our lives, it helps to be of a mind to face it. When we’re distracted, unprepared, or in a bad mood, it’s often difficult to steel ourselves to tackle problems that arise, and instead we may tend to avoid, make bad compromises, give up, or struggle unnecessarily. Reminding ourselves to do our best to take problems in stride will help lower stress and increase our ability to fix issues that come up.
  • Meditate. It’s true, meditation takes time, and it’s not easy, at least at first. But meditation has proven itself valuable again and again in studies and human experience in terms of aiding focus, lowering stress, and increasing happiness–which makes it a very useful practice for first thing in the morning. For more on this, see my article “Strengthen Willpower Through Meditation.” Yoga can have similar benefits in the morning, and even beginners can benefit through use of tools like yoga DVDs.
  • Exercise early. Exercise ups metabolism, improves mood, and increases immediate physical well-being (even if you’re a little sore from the workout). It also starts the day off with a constructive accomplishment, which as we’ve already discussed, has its own good impacts.
  • Use music to your advantage. If you’re the kind of person who enjoys adding music to other activities rather than being distracted by it, you can take advantage of music’s ability to make a noticeable impact on mood and emotions. Memories and associations, rhythms, the act of singing along (if you’re inclined), and other aspects of music give it a direct line to the parts of our brains that regulate emotions. For more on this, see “How and Why Music Changes Mood.”

Photo by Roshnii

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Principles for Prioritizing, Part III: Feelings and Finding the Top

Strategies and goals

This is the third article in a short series on prioritizing. The first article in the series, “Principles for Prioritizing, Part I: Moving Targets,” includes links to other articles on the site about organizing and prioritizing and is followed by “Principles for Prioritizing, Part II: Unimportant Tasks.”

3. How important something feels isn’t always a good indication of how important it is
To gauge how important something really is, it helps to put it in the context of what you really want in life. What are your key priorities? Going by gut feeling can sometimes lead us in the wrong direction because a task may be appealing or exciting or seem important because we’re wrapped up in it, when in fact it isn’t as important as other, less dramatic tasks. Try to judge the importance of an item from a distance, when you’re not deeply wrapped up in the task itself, by thinking about what effect it is likely to have in your life.

To get out of an obsession with a particular task that isn’t really a priority, allow your attention to focus on something else for at least a few minutes: have a conversation with a friend about a subject of mutual interest, or do a small task that’s unrelated to the one you’ve been involved in. These few minutes allow your brain to reorganize so that it’s not focused on that one possibly unimportant task, and let your physiology reset so that you’re not swept up in the biochemical side of emotion. In this state of mind, you can consider that appealing task in the context of all your other priorities.

4. The most important goal of prioritization is to find your top few tasks–especially your top one task
If you have a 200-item task list, it’s not particularly important to get all of your items prioritized so that, for instance, items 183 and 184 are in the proper order. Realistically, you may never get to items 183 and 184, and even if you do, circumstances are likely to change by the time you get there. The most effective way to prioritize is to care just about the top few tasks for the moment, so that you know what to start doing immediately and have one or two things queued up after you finish that first item. Doing this allows you to do what a task list is meant to help you do: focus on the one thing that it would benefit you most to be doing right now.

Finding those top few tasks may mean skimming over all 200 (or 20, or 2,000) items in your task list, but when skimming, the only thing to be thinking about is “what here would it be really good for me to tackle very soon?” The tasks that meet this criterion can then be sorted through with the question “Which of these would be most beneficial to do right now?”

That list of “very soon” things should never be more than a half dozen items long unless they’re very small items if you want to make good use of your searching. Anything more than that, and priorities are likely to change before you get to all of the items. Prioritize for the moment.

Photo by Chris JL

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