How do I prioritize my to-do list?
November 6, 2010 6:52 PM   Subscribe

Okay. I made the to-do list. I broke the tasks into small, actionable pieces. Now how do I decide which piece to do first?

I am trying to get myself more organized, and I've found a lot of helpful tips on Metafilter, in books like Getting Things Done, and on sites like Lifehacker. Making lists is generally high on the list (heh) of Useful Methods For Getting Stuff Done, so I've been doing that a lot, with some success.

However, I keep running into a problem: once I've got my list, I have great difficulty figuring out what to do first. I look at my dozens of action items in all different areas of my life--classes, multiple research projects, side projects, mundane domestic errands, personal care (e.g. meditation, recreation, exercise), social obligations, conferences, et cetera--and all of them seem equally important and mutually exclusive. If I work on this article, I won't be analyzing my data from that other project. If I do my laundry, I won't be getting started on this problem set. If I read these papers, I won't be making a birthday card for my friend. And then I panic a little and end up not doing any of it, because working on any one task makes me worry about the people I could be disappointing by not working on some other task.

Obviously if I spend enough time thinking about it I can figure out the pros and cons of each item, which things can stand to be done late, which things will take how much time, which things are probably more important in the long term. But I don't think it'll speed things up much if I spend fifteen minutes noodling over every item, and in any case it sounds exceedingly tedious.

So what's a quick-and-dirty way to figure out what task to get started on each time you pick up that list? And how do you put all the other equally-urgent tasks out of your mind while you're doing it?

Note: it seems like the "obvious" answer to this is "Just pick something and get started, it doesn't matter what it is as long as you're getting something done." But that never seems to work for me. I need an algorithm. Even a nonsensical one might help.
posted by fermion to Grab Bag (34 answers total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
The highest priority task is often hard and involves a lot more pressure from myself, so I go for the low-hanging fruit. If something will take less than five minutes, I do that so I can get the Thrill of crossing it off. Or, even better, I do the thing that allows me to do something else at the same time - I do the laundry, because while I wait for it at the laundromat I can also read that research paper. Two-for-one Win!

Once I've crossed off a few low-hanging fruit, it's a lot easier to get to the high priority stuff.

Also, it's never a bad idea to start with something like meditation or exercise, because they can make the whole rest of the day and its tasks go faster and easier, too.
posted by ldthomps at 7:06 PM on November 6, 2010

1) Do any of these affect my money or credit? Do those first.
2) Do any of these critically affect my grades/performance in work or school? Those come next.

Seriously consider that you may just have too much to do. Start cutting items off your list. Be ruthless until you can deal with the amount of things to do. This doesn't have to be a permanent state, but you do need to learn how to productively manage your life. Concentrate on core things and learn how to add back other parts of your life.

When faced with a task you've set for yourself, consider how to do it in an easier fashion. You mentioned making a birthday card. Buy a birthday card in the store when you're doing your errands--that cuts back on the time you would use up making a card. Better yet, buy some blank cards & just jot down a short, meaningful note. That saves you the time of looking at each card in the store to find just the right one.
posted by studioaudience at 7:12 PM on November 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

I will take a big picture approach to answer you:

(1) Doing anything is better than doing nothing. In the absence of knowing exactly which item on a list to do next or which list to start doing things on do anything on any list that seems to have some priority. This will have the dual affect of eliminating list items and also will motivate you when you see things being completed.

(2) Set you list(s) and work from the list - "plan your work and then work your plan". Constant self questioning about 'is this the right thing to do' waste time, motivation and energy. Set a regular times to review your list(s) and only add/remove/re-prioritize at that time. I do this once a week.

(3) Be reasonable with the time requirements for each task: If you ballpark estimate an hour to get XXX done schedule yourself one and a half hours, for example. That way you will be sure to get things done w/o time constraints killing your motivation and any leftover time can be used to get smaller tasks done (I keep a separate list of 5 minute or less items to do when I have extra time) or to just relax. This also helps reduce the motivation killer of being 'too busy' to be organized.

(4) I like the pickle jar approach to day-to-day time management. Look it up on the googles, but this is a theory that states schedule most important items first in your day, then schedule less important things around those items, and then even less important things around those things. the focus is on doing the MOST important items first - these items are from your list(s).
posted by wylde21 at 7:15 PM on November 6, 2010

And how do you put all the other equally-urgent tasks out of your mind while you're doing it?

When I was at my most stressed out, I made a schedule of everything I would be doing that day. Everything. Instead of panicking, I would just think "I'm doing that at 3. I'll worry about it then." I don't use that system every day, but it did help me through a rough time.
posted by studioaudience at 7:15 PM on November 6, 2010 [2 favorites]

I think you have to assign due dates to everything. Then, all things being equal, you do the one that needs to be done the soonest.

If you say that some things don't have a due date, then something's wrong with your list. Everything has a due date, even the mundane stuff like vacuuming or laundry. With laundry, it's the date that you're going to run out of underwear if you don't do it, or the date that you need your red sweater for that big presentation at work, or whatever.

The trick is not to assign a completely arbitrary date that doesn't mean anything. Then you are tempted to ignore the date because you know there are no consequences. Learn to trust in yourself that you set the date for a reason - you need that friend's birthday card done by the day before the party because the glue has to dry - and prioritize accordingly.
posted by cabingirl at 7:17 PM on November 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

I look at my list and ask myself 'What can I do right now?' Related: 'How much time do I have?' 'How much energy do I have?'

The next question is, 'Are any of these most important?'

Followed by assigning numbers and rolling dice. Quite seriously.
posted by ysabet at 7:22 PM on November 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh, also I have two lists for tasks: one called 'NOW' and one called 'STACK'. NOW tasks are my urgent to-do-otherwise-the-sky-will-fall-in. STACK are do-sometime-pretty-soon. Things like chores, social obligations (with the exception of things to do with my marriage), and fun projects very very rarely make it out of STACK. NOW is full of things like work tasks, volunteer work tasks, university assignments, and self-care (me time, for instance).

The sorting happens at task discovery/creation. It's pretty basic, it's pretty dirty, and it's pretty quick.
posted by ysabet at 7:26 PM on November 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

One issue is to find balance between small things that need to be done and right away and making time to work on bigger, more important projects. One of thing that I find helps is to block out time for different types of activities (eg. small clean-up tasks before you breakfast, 2 hours on a big project, mail and bills, lunch etc.) Some task areas need to be fit in only a once week - big grocery trip on Tuesday, small grocery trip plus errands at lunch time Friday. Once you have time reserved for each category, you just do the next thing on the list for that category.
posted by metahawk at 7:36 PM on November 6, 2010

When that happens to me, I use some completely arbitrary and irrelevant metric for deciding what to do first/next. Like I work through my to-do list in alphabetical order (this works better if you used something like Word/Excel to write said to-do list), or go by what is closest at hand right now (this problem set is right next to me so I'll do that first, then I'll tidy up this clutter beside the problem set, then I'll clean the stuff right above it ...). It works surprisingly well for Getting Stuff Done.
posted by Xany at 7:52 PM on November 6, 2010

First, spend time clearly defining your goals.

The key is to put them in writing. Write them down. You have to-do lists (goal strategies) to help you get closer to a greater goal. The greater goal has to be crystal clear and fully defined, first. The week-to-week to-do lists will become more intuitive once your goals have been defined with complete clarity. When you focus more on determining what your goals are, then the to-do lists (goal strategies) will become clearer in relation to achieving the end goal.

Second, you need an awareness or framework to work within.

A seven day 'time frame' is the one many productive people use. That seven day time frame is essentially your 'playing field' for advancing toward your goals. Design your to-do lists around achievable objectives within a seven day time frame. Do not bother writing to-do list that can't be done in the seven days starting on Monday and ending on Sunday. They arent going to get done so why write then down? You just overwhelm yourself. The bite-sized approach is on the right track. Writing every single thing down that needs to be done is counter-productive and confusing. To-do lists are maps for your path. You only need to map out seven days or so in advance since that is the terrain with the most immediacy.
posted by Muirwylde at 7:57 PM on November 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

Now how do I decide which piece to do first?

Don't do it.

You broke the tasks into small actionable pieces so that you could get to work faster with fewer roadblocks in your way.

Prioritization is a HUGE roadblock. The vast majority of people should not be prioritizing on their todo list.

Make a rule that you can start on whichever task suits your fancy.

I think you'll find that this gets you going, at which point you've got the momentum to start switching between tasks as the situation dictates.

Reference: Autofocus system, for one:
Go through the page more slowly looking at the items in order until one stands out for you.

This is the heart of the system. Don’t try to prioritise items mentally - this will interfere with the balance between the rational and intuitive parts of your mind. Instead wait for a feeling of release about an item. It’s hard to describe but easy to recognise. You just feel that the item is ready to be done. If you go on down the page, you may find that you feel drawn back to that item. Once you get that feeling about a task all resistance to doing the task vanishes, and it becomes easy to do.
posted by circular at 8:16 PM on November 6, 2010 [14 favorites]

(I should clarify: You should definitely decide which to do first, but artificial methods of prioritizing tasks can tend to make procrastination what I was trying to say)
posted by circular at 8:18 PM on November 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think you have to assign due dates to everything. Then, all things being equal, you do the one that needs to be done the soonest.

This is almost exactly what I was going to say. Whatever is most urgent, in terms of when it needs to be done and how long it will take (i.e., when you really actually legitimately need to start it to get it done when it needs to be done) -- that's what you do first.

One exception: if nothing is urgent because you somehow have an abundance of time, pick the low-hanging fruit, as others have said. It makes you feel good and, because it's easy, it's a non-overwhelming place to start being productive.
posted by J. Wilson at 8:24 PM on November 6, 2010

Do them in the order you wrote them down.

By the way, spending time organizing your tasks is time not spent doing your tasks. It's as much a form of procrastination as playing surfing metafilter or playing minecraft. Stop thinking about doing things, and start doing.
posted by delmoi at 8:30 PM on November 6, 2010

I prioritize Number 1, Number 2, Number 3. That's it. Everything else gets no number. I tend to schedule #1 into my day. The rest of the day, work #2 if possible. If #2 is delayed or in a wait state, work #3. If one of those gets completed, pick a replacement from the list at large and repeat.

The rest are going to wait until either you find yourself in some amazingly perfect coincidental situation that it just makes sense to do it (errands tend to work out this way for me; once I'm going one place, well all the others are right around there—may as well make only one trip) or they become 1, 2, or 3 tomorrow.

Worrying about whether something is priority #7 or 8 or trying to schedule everything explicitly is unnecessary admin headache.
posted by ctmf at 8:40 PM on November 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

I do everything through my to-do software (Things for Mac). I arrange tasks so they appear when they're due and stay in the "next" category when they're not. Errands and tasks appear in "today" when they're due, and the first things I have to do every day are the things on the "today" list. If I finish those tasks, I work my way out on the tasks in the "next" list by order due.

This requires advance planning. For instance:
- When I go to the library, I add a task "Return library books" with a due date of the date the books are due.
- I pay bills on Monday. 30 days in advance of each Monday, my to-do software generates a new "Pay bills" task. I add bills due each week to the Monday "pay bills" task as they arrive.
- I schedule repeating tasks in my to-do software for anything I have to do on a regular basis. "Refill vitamin pills", "Schedule haircut", "Flip/rotate mattress" and so on always appear when they are due.

For me picking which task comes first is a matter of energy level and capability. If I'm sick, I wait until my husband comes home to try to flip the mattress, but I can always refill the vitamin pills myself. I also have a rough order of importance for various areas of my life (work/financial/bills first, health/illness-related second, spouse third, etc.) and if I need to prioritize among tasks due, I use that order to work out which tasks come first.
posted by immlass at 8:43 PM on November 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

Sorry this is so long. If I had more time it would be shorter.

First: Relax. You can get done everything that genuinely needs to get done.

Second: Try not to overthink this stuff. I used to try to write down every. single. thing. I needed to do, and it made me a little crazy. I tended to spend more time fiddling with my lists than actually getting stuff done. Here's what I recommend:

* Routines. I do my laundry every other week, because that's when I run out of work clothes. I don't add it to a list; I just know that the laundry has to be done sometime on the weekend. You don't schedule your shower every day; you just get up and do it.

* Rely on pressure: As an example, haircuts. I keep my hair pretty short. After about four weeks, it starts to irritate me a little; I'll have to start brushing it more often and pull it back from around my ears. Eventually, it'll irritate me enough that I'll go an get a hair cut. I could set a monthly reminder in my calendar or something, but I'll know I need one when I need one.

* Do use lists where they're needed. Syllabuses, shopping lists, agendas, and checklists have their places. Specifically, I recommend lots of little lists, starting with a Today list.

Lists work best when they're short enough to look at all at once. I remember reading in a psych class that the human brain can only handle something like eight things at once. If your list is twenty items long, it becomes a scary block that's too big to handle. A list of Everything I Ever Want To Do will just stress you out. You want a list of Things I Want to Do Today.

So, in your case, you mention classes and research projects, so I'm going to assume you are a full time student. You look at what is due for classes tomorrow. That goes on today's list. If you have time, maybe work on some of the stuff for the next day. If you have several big year-end projects, pick the one that most needs something done to it, and add one of the sub-tasks for that project to your Today list.

The priorities list generally looks something like this: 1. Health and Safety. 2. Paying work/class work 3. Social stuff 4. Maintenance tasks. You also have to factor in deadlines, and to learn which deadlines are negotiable. And, at some point, you might just pick a task at random.

But eventually you'll have a list of six or eight things to do, which is all you can realistically handle in a day anyways. That list is small enough for your brain to handle all at once. And once you've decided that this is what I'm going commit to doing today, it becomes a lot easier to shut out the clamoring of all that other stuff.
posted by JDHarper at 8:47 PM on November 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

I always pick the most important non-urgent task. I figure the urgent ones (external deadlines, bills to pay, stuff that's going to piss me off until it gets done) will happen no matter what, so I should make a big effort to do the important stuff without deadlines (this used to be my dissertation: now it's papers to write, readings, etc), otherwise it will never get done.

This only works because I am anal about deadlines and will pull an all-nighter rather than missing them. YMMV.

I also don't put routine tasks into my "to do" list, because that makes it overwhelming - stuff like bills, laundry, cooking, exercise etc. I just do those as they come up.

Same with stuff that will take 5 minutes to do. You might as well just do it rather than writing it down.
posted by lollusc at 8:50 PM on November 6, 2010

Best answer: Heh. I know what you mean. I have the same problem.

Here are some approaches that have helped me:

1. What I call the "two out of three" method. During most of my grad school years, there were three general areas in which I had to do tasks that were susceptible to procrastination: research, teaching, and exercise. On any given day, I told myself that I needed to work on two out of the three areas. So, I could either grade papers all day and then go to the gym, but blow off research; or teach class and work on my research, but get no exercise; or go on a hike and do a bunch of research reading in the evening, but forget about teaching. It allowed me to feel like I was letting myself off the hook in one area of my life, which made it easier to accept that I still needed to keep moving in the other two areas.

It also helped break the massive to-do list down into chunks, so rather than looking at the big picture I'd be focused on one area at a time—for example, I could say "OK, I did volunteer trail maintenance this morning, and that counts as exercise, and I don't feel like grading papers tonight, so I guess I have to work on research. What tasks are on the research to-do list?"

Things like laundry and dishes and social obligations just had to squeeze themselves in around the big three.

2. Clustering/containing groups of tasks. This is similar to the "two out of three" method but is more about regulating the distribution of your time across the week when you simply don't have time enough to do as thorough a job as you want with everything. Again, break your task list down into areas such as class work, research projects, "mundane domestic," etc. Then assign them to certain days of the week and adhere to that division as strictly as possible. For example, make Saturday your "mundane domestic" day and try to do a marathon of chores/errands on that day; as much as possible, when something in the "mundane domestic" category comes up during the week, try to defer it until Saturday. Designate Tuesdays for Class A and research project X, Wednesdays for Class B and research project Y, Thursdays for Class C and meditation, etc. On each day, work on the designated category of tasks until you run out of tasks or run out of time. If you run out of tasks, great—put your feet up and watch TV for the rest of the day. If you run out of time, too bad—the next day you HAVE TO shift your focus to the next task-cluster, so you'll just have to make do with the progress you've made on today's tasks. (Obviously you will have to allow the occasional override for major deadlines and such.)

3. Budgeting time, and/or trusting that what is on the list will get done. Pick a task to start with (use a randomized method if you really can't decide at all), decide on a reasonable time frame that will allow you to do an adequate job on that task while still leaving time for other tasks, make a note of it, and start on the task at hand knowing that at _____ o'clock you are going to stop and turn your attention to the next thing. Taking this approach lets me quiet down the part of my mind that says "but I also need to do laundry! and mail a package! and email my boss!" If those distractions come up, I can tell myself firmly, "Yes, but I will think about that at [time]. Right now I am [doing task]."
posted by Orinda at 8:59 PM on November 6, 2010 [3 favorites]

1. Number each item in your to-do list, starting from the top or wherever.

2. Get a many-sided die (comic book / gaming shops should have a d20 for 1-20 or a pair of d10's that would make a 1-100 roll easy for you).

3. Roll die/dice. Or you could write a small perl script or something to select an appropriate random number.

4. Do the task of the corresponding number. If the die roll represents a number that is higher than the number of tasks on your list, re-roll or use the remainder after dividing or whatever.

5. (bonus) Come up with a system where you can make a "saving throw" if you really feel like you don't want to do that particular task immediately.

I need to do this myself, actually. I just haven't been able to make myself do it yet. I was actually going to do it with cards or something.
posted by marble at 9:04 PM on November 6, 2010

I do the most distasteful/hardest/ickiest one first. The one that requires guts, strong stomach, most courage--calling landlord, cleaning clogged toilet, whatever. With that out of the way, I feel virtuous or even a little cocky, and the rest of the list is easy-peasy.
posted by Ideefixe at 10:31 PM on November 6, 2010 [2 favorites]

I take the opposite approach from Ideefixe's.

For me, doing anything at all seems to prime the pump. It's always easier for me to get down to the rest of it once I get started; the problem is getting started in the first place. So if I'm fighting horrible procrastination mode, I pick the absolutely easiest task -- anything I know I can happily do right now.

Any tiny part of the task you do, however inconsequential it seems, is something you won't have to deal with later.
posted by tangerine at 12:00 AM on November 7, 2010

It doesn't matter how you prioritize. Things on your immediate todo list should all be, well, immediate. If they aren't, they should be on a different list. You're stressing about this too much and that's counter-productive. Between blocks of larger work, take 20 minutes and knock 5 things off. Do that a couple times a day and you're done with that list. Does the order really matter then?

At first I was scared that if I didn't do something NOW, even if it was something I should be doing at the end of the week, it wouldn't get done. It takes some time to realize that if you actually follow a workflow like this, you'll just do the stuff that needs to be done at the end of the week at the end of the week. If you trust yourself to follow the system (and its a huge leap, no getting around it), it suddenly becomes very easy to punt a 5-minute todo back a few days.

You'll prioritize naturally anyway. You'll look at your list and say "this has been on my mind, it'll make me feel better to do it now." So do it, and feel better. If you know it's all going to get done, you can make those sorts of arbitrary decisions, and you don't have to feel guilty about them, like somehow you're avoiding what Really Needs To Be Done, because the system should have accounted for that. If it hasn't, then you need to sit down, think about why it didn't, and fix your process to make it account for it.
posted by devilsbrigade at 12:07 AM on November 7, 2010

I break things down into which are time sensitive and which aren't. If I need to get something done but am feeling overwhelmed, I pick something easy like taking out the trash or washing dishes to give me a boost from getting something accomplished. It's also quicker for me not to break things down until after trying something and getting bogged down.
posted by stray thoughts at 12:48 AM on November 7, 2010

Response by poster: A great many good ideas here--some of them mutually exclusive, but then it may be beneficial to use different approaches in different circumstances. I particularly like the idea of breaking the list into manageable, less-intimidating sub-lists, clumping tasks together and assigning each category to a specific day, and making the choice in an intuitive fashion (I do tend to overthink things.) Rolling dice might be good too; it'd give me something to do with all these extra d20s.

Assigning due dates seems like it could be useful, but it might be tricky/time-consuming for longer-term projects, and I've found in the past that I am not very good at sticking to self-set due dates. Still, I could give it a shot.

Any more ideas about how to keep large, important, and/or unpleasant tasks from nibbling at the corners of my brain while I'm working through other parts of the list?
posted by fermion at 1:25 AM on November 7, 2010

First, everything has to be on the list. This way you don't have to think about those tasks and there's no "nibbling."

Second, at some point you have to stop organizing. Then go through the list, and find the first task you get to that you can do right now. Do it. Go back to the top, and iterate.
posted by r_nebblesworthII at 6:31 AM on November 7, 2010

Have you considered breaking up your long-term projects? Read two articles, write five pages, whatever -- rather than read all 25 articles and write all 50 pages that might go into the final thing. If you've assigned yourself a concrete portion of the whole thing, the whole thing is less likely to keep weighing on the back of your mind.
posted by J. Wilson at 7:20 AM on November 7, 2010

Seriously, this book changed my life. Bill Clinton said without it he would not be where he is today. And so did a cab driver I once rode with. You might find it useful; it's *specifically* about the particular problem you're having:
posted by PersonAndSalt at 7:48 AM on November 7, 2010

Any more ideas about how to keep large, important, and/or unpleasant tasks from nibbling at the corners of my brain while I'm working through other parts of the list?

I think this depends on why they're nibbling at your brain.

If they are urgent tasks that you should really be seeing to right away but are avoiding out of distaste or confusion, then you need to deal with that distaste and/or confusion so you can make headway on stuff that really matters instead of fiddling around with soothingly inconsequential busywork. In that sort of circumstance (nagging item is more urgent and important than what I'm currently doing, i.e. I am procrastinating), it helps me to step back and look at my stuckness from the outside. Often I discover that I'm hung up on some circular, chicken-and-egg problem where it's unclear which step should come first, and I see that it doesn't really matter which comes first. I make a quick decision (quick because it's low-stakes), and get moving. Or, I discover that I'm simply anxious or uncomfortable about the task, and I realize that all I need to do is exert some self-discipline and get on with it, right away.

On the other hand, if the items nibbling at your brain are not urgent, and if they are in fact already on track and on time or even simply unimportant, then the problem might be that you don't trust your system or your schedule. Getting over that discomfort is going to require time. You have to let the system earn your trust, and it will never get the chance to do that if you keep second-guessing and micromanaging it. Learn to soothe your anxieties. Breathe deeply. Strive to be meditative, if not to actually meditate. Calm down, and stick with the plan.
posted by jon1270 at 8:06 AM on November 7, 2010

I forget where I read this, but there's this idea that when you know what you need to do but don't know where to start, there's probably some really annoying task you just want to put off forever. That's the frog, and you just need to start by eating the frog.

So that's what I do. And if it's something I find UTTERLY annoying, and I can get away with just working on "the frog" 15 minutes a day, that's what I do. Spend 15 minutes working on the most annoying thing, and then you're free to work on the more interesting things.
posted by mostly vowels at 8:44 AM on November 7, 2010

I've found in the past that I am not very good at sticking to self-set due dates.

My key for this is to set due dates that are actually meaningful. If the project is due on x date, the last item gets a due date of that, and then the intervening steps get dates further back as applicable. For instance, project Spo has three tasks, A, B, and C. A will take one day, B will take 3 days, and C will take two days.

C is due on the project due date.
B is due two days before the project due date.
A is due five days before the project due date.

That means the deadlines are real, so I'm less likely to blow them off.
posted by immlass at 11:34 AM on November 7, 2010

When I have a list of smallish medium-importance tasks (usually housework type stuff) I will number the list, and then use a random number generator ( to pick a number. I then do that task, take a short break, and pick another number. After a few times it's enough to break the inertia and I just work through the rest of the items in any order.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 1:27 PM on November 7, 2010

I think Mostly Vowels is thinking of the advice offered in this book, which I came here to recommend. I was like you - got myself more organised but had trouble prioritising. Eat That Frog is a super quick read, but it helped me a lot, more than I expected from a book with such a cute title. :-)
posted by pootler at 12:30 PM on November 8, 2010

I just recently created a list of housecleaning tasks and wrote a script that randomly picks three of them and e-mails them to my boyfriend and I each night. Wouldn't work for deadline-dependent tasks, but for the sorts of tasks that are ongoing and tedious like cleaning, it (so far) works like a charm.
posted by telophase at 1:41 PM on November 8, 2010

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