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How to decide what task to work on first

Productivity Task and Project Management

Most people decide what task to work on first based on the closest deadline. You look at your task list, and you see that the due date for one of your tasks is looming close, so you get on to it. This is probably the most common way of organizing task lists and deciding what task to work on.

Of course, deadlines are a reality of life. Your team, client or boss might hand you a deadline, and you have to follow it. But the problem with working on deadlines is that you drop everything and start churning on the most pressing tasks. You’re probably not putting forward your best work, and not being fully engaged with the work you do. And once that job is done, you move on to check “what’s due next.” Sounds familiar?

There are other ways to decide what task to work on first.

Tagging tasks using a method other than deadline can help you look at your task manager in a different way. Not only will you be able to get more done, but you’ll probably approach your work with more creativity and passion. 

So here are five different ways to decide what task to work on right now.

Time available

If you’ve only got 15 minutes before your next meeting, then you’re only going to be able to knock off quick tasks.

But when your meetings is cancelled, your afternoon that magically opens up. You’ll want to scan your task manager for tasks that require longer periods of uninterrupted work and tackle them at this time.

Adding a time approximation using hashtags to your tasks (#short, #fullday, #hour) can help you figure out what to do, especially if you find yourself with a schedule that varies a lot from day to day.

Importance

The Eisenhower Matrix is a way to visualize tasks on two different dimensions: urgency and importance. This is the basic philosophy behind the Important and Less Important labels.

Often enough we mistake urgent tasks as important ones. When something has to get done by tomorrow, it’s urgent. But it might or might not be important. You’ll need to figure out if each task on your list is actually important.

Tag your task with an importance rating by simply using a hashtag and a number (#1 for most important and #3 for least important). Get in the habit of starting your day with the most important tasks and go from there.

Energy

This is your gas tank for the day. There is plenty to suggest that you should manage your energy, not your time. Time is a finite resource, but energy isn’t – it can be renewed and reestablished. The one thing that you don’t want to do though is to consistently push yourself further and further when your energy well is depleted. That’s a sure recipe for burnout.

So on days where you’ve got a lot of ambitious, creative energy to dive into something big, you’ll only want to see big tasks.

Low energy tasks are better for at the end of the day or when you just don’t feel like moving mountains. We all have those moments – we’re all human.

Try tagging your tasks using an energy rating (#energyHi or #energyLo) and filter them in your task manager depending on how you find your energy levels that day.

Context

GTD practitioners live and breathe task context.

For example, there’s no need to dig through tasks that you can only get done at home when you’re at the office.

So every task on your list gets a context attached to it (#Home, #Office, #Errands, #Web) and you only scan and filter tasks based on your context.

Using context is an easy way to scan your long task lists and eliminate from your view tasks that simply can’t be done where you are.

Collaboration

It’s no secret that a lot of time is wasted in the workplace on meetings and colleague interruptions.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Use your task manager to improve how you collaborate with your team members.

Tag team members with @usertags to quickly and effortlessly assign tasks. And the beauty of it is that you can tag more than one team member on each task.

So you have a meeting with @sarah and @mike? Filter on their usernames to find the tasks that you’re all tagged in, and discuss action steps for these tasks. This way you can have quick, ad-hoc meetings without needing to spend too much preparing the agenda for each of them.

Try applying one of the above filters to your task list and you will start getting some more clarity on how to organize tasks and decide what task to work on.

You might need to combine a few task tagging methods to make things work for you. Or you might find that your type of work lends itself to a specific type of task tagging.

Just remember, don’t use your calendar as a task manager!

How do you decide on what you should be working on? Any tips or tricks you can share?

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  • Ahmad Fauzi A’zali

    This is great! You has just brightening my mind on what to do first.. Thank you very much for the article..

    • Glad you found it helpful. Have a great and productive day!