Post written by Marlon Ribunal.
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[Author's Note: This is the Part I of a two-part series on "How To Effectively Manage Your Priorities"]

If you are familiar with productive systems like GTD, Pomodoro, Zen to Done, and many others, chances are you know that one of the hardest aspects of such systems is how to effectively set priorities so you can maximize your effort and resources. But how do you really prioritize? Aside from systematically listing items in your todo list and setting schedules or milestones, what else do you think is a better way to set your priorities?

If you are like most people, the technique that you adopted is probably setting priorities by date or the First-In-First-Out method. This is the least effective way of setting priorities because it is difficult to assess the value of the tasks on a glimpse as they come into your incoming tray or inbox. You might end up having the wrong priorities with the First-In-First-Out method.

Another popular method is prioritizing according to time-sensitivity of the tasks. Generally, this makes sense because those tasks that need to be done first call for the highest priority. In other words, you need to prioritize the tasks that need to be accomplished according to schedule. The problem with this method is it’s quite easy to let other aspects of our work fall through the cracks because our tendency is to primarily focus on the pressure of time or the deadline.

Some other methods we’ve seen used in productivity systems are sorting the tasks by alphabet, random selection (which is not really a prioritizing method), setting priorities per the value of the project or client, and many other ineffective methods.

The truth is, there is no perfect method of prioritizing tasks. And if you’re answer to the question “How do you really prioritize?” is “It depends”, you are right. Even the definition we ascribe to what Priority really is is relative to the type of our job and way of accomplishing our goals . It depends because we have different ways of weighing the values we put on our tasks.

Although there is no perfect method of setting priorities, we can do one thing that can surely bring that method to the next level – this is categorizing the tasks according to the level of concern we put on them.

Urgent Tasks

These tasks are the ones that will put us on the line if we don’t do them immediately. These are the tasks than can cause us our job if not done on a certain date or the ones that can put our company in jeopardy or cause it to suffer loss of profits. If you know that the consequences at stake are similar to the situations we just described, then the tasks should be listed under your “Urgent Tasks” category. All kinds of workers have their own “urgent” stuff that they need to accomplish according to certain needs.

These tasks are easy to identify because we know from the fact that they are needed almost immediately. Our attention are demanded upon them with high importance. Their need for completion is usually communicated to us clearly with particular parameters. You certainly know if a task is urgent when the consequence of not doing it on time can have adverse effect on your job security.

Important Tasks

These tasks may not be as urgent as what we’ve described above but are equally valuable in terms of the goals we’re trying to achieve. Usually the tasks under this category are the ones with set schedule or deadline. An example of this might be a file that you received from your boss on a Monday morning which requires your response by Friday afternoon. Although you are not expected to accomplish what you have to do on that file immediately, you need to consider what does it take to finish the job so you can meet that Friday deadline. There might be an extensive research requirements on it or you probably need to collaborate with a team from a distant location.

Like the urgent tasks, the important tasks are also easy to identify because you have a good idea of the consequences or implications of their accomplishment or the failure thereof. The demand for attention for the important tasks  may not be as instantaneous as the urgent tasks but their value are equally put on the same level. Most of our daily tasks are under this category.

Can Wait Tasks

These tasks are the ones that are not needed to be done immediately and don’t have a deadline set for their completion. Usually these are the tasks that will not have immediate value until a certain period of time – like a review or assessment of software or system upgrade. The impact of these tasks is not  a present concern to anybody in the company. Any pending tasks – waiting for resources or other person to act upon it – are the usual items in this category.

There are lots of tasks we can put under the Can Wait category. Most of them are supporting tasks that don’t have direct impact to our projects or area of responsibilities. Or, these are the tasks that we know we won’t be bugged for by our boss or supervisor within a week or two from their start date.

These are the three general categories that we can use to identify the level of concern we need to put on a particular task. Obviously, the ones that we put on top of our priority are the Urgent Tasks. We can only move to the Important Tasks after we’ve settled all the urgent ones. In the final part of this series, let’s see how we can implement this method – categorizing according to the level of concern – in our productivity system.

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