Prioritization and Getting Things Done

September 7, 2008

After my panel at Office 2.0, and sharing our GTD-based web app with some of the crowd there, the question of prioritization kept coming up.

The discussion usually goes something like “it’s an interesting methodology, but I really need to be able to prioritize all my work, and there’s no way to do that”. In my experience, that’s not true, you’re just framing the idea of prioritization differently than most systems; you’re making priority an explicit decision about what deserves your attention. That judgement happens as part of your daily and weekly reviews.

You start by prioritizing along hard deadlines and framing out your time. Appointments that must happen at a certain time and date go in the calendar, and become commitments that you’ve said are more important than anything else you could work on that week at that time. By making them scheduled items, you’re implicitly saying that you’ll not take any new, incoming work or think about the rest of your to-dos to work on those scheduled items.

Then you pick out what I think of as soft landscape pieces: tasks that need to happen at any time on a given day. By building them into your workload on a given day, you’re saying they also have a high priority and that you value them enough to give them a specific, time-determined commitment, but that they aren’t important enough to promise to block out conversations and calls and emails to get them done.

As a final filter, you review your open projects. You look at the topics and themes that matter to you (Horizons of Focus in Allen’s terminology) and then look at your project list. Move most of that project list to “on hold” status, and leave active the projects that are the most valuable toward achieving your long term goals. Use the landscape pieces in your calendar to figure out how many projects you’ll realistically have time to fit into your schedule. These are your medium priority tasks- you’re making a judgement that they matter enough to commit to working on them, but not enough to make hard and fast promises in your calendar about when you’ll do them. If they were higher priority, you would commit to a given time.

Low priority tasks, in my interpretation, are everything on hold. If I finish everything active, I can move on to them. If I have a small window of time that doesn’t fit my active work, I’ll skim a context list and grab one of those as filler.

Once you’ve made these judgments, you’ll have a pretty short short list of things to do, compared to your overall project list. And when the inevitable flurry of incoming messages and calls and requests starts to arrive, you compare those to your active projects. Is anything coming in higher priority than what you’ve committed to in you hard landscape and thought are medium priority projects? If so, you’ll bump the tasks that don’t have dates and times associated with them and take on the incoming work.

Priorities in this model aren’t about assigning a flag to something to remind yourself that it matters. Instead it’s about making a commitment of your time and focus to a subset of your possible work and letting the rest be stored in your trusted system until you review again and reevaluate those commitments. And leave time for friends and family and real human interaction. If your work-related tasks and household administrative stuff will fill your schedule from the time you wake up to the time you go to sleep, you can skim that active projects list and find the point at which you need to set that aside and go enjoy a relaxed evening with your loved ones.

GTD is a trademark of the David Allen Company. It’s use on this blog has not been reviewed by their company, I’m just another GTD-er sharing my experiences.