Tools for Thought

Thinking beyond productivity

When to Do Low-Priority Tasks

by Andre · 9 Comments

One of the first time management books I read was Alan Laeken’s excellent How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life, which recommended the now-familiar advice of triaging tasks into A, B and C categories. Appropriately, the book had plenty of discussion on the importance of doing A tasks first, and it even occasionally mentioned doing B tasks. But nowhere could I find any discussion on doing C tasks, leading me to infer that the author was arguing that either:

  • The handling of low-priority tasks is self-evident
  • Anything classified as a “C” is not a low-priority task, but a non-priority task that shouldn’t be done at all

I found both explanations problematic. The system that only advocates doing high-impact tasks, aside from being unrealistic, leaves no room for anything else. More importantly, if something isn’t worth doing at all, it shouldn’t be classified or tracked, period.

An alternative triage

I would divide things up, instead, like this:

  • Commitments: Things you track on your calendar, project and action lists
  • Options: Considerations for the future reviewed less regularly (e.g. weekly instead of daily) on your Someday/Maybe list, calendar or tickler file
  • Non-commitments: Things that don’t require any further thinking or tracking

Something is either worth doing, or it’s not. If you decide it’s worth doing, then it’s either a next action or a project. If you’re undecided, then it’s a someday/maybe. If you’ve decided that it’s not worth doing, don’t waste time tracking it.

Notice that having an explicit Someday/Maybe category requires that you make the decision to classify something as “undecided,” which is very different than simply not deciding. Having all of those indecisions in one place to review weekly is more efficient that occasionally thinking about each of 60 consideration as they spring to mind randomly.

A more strategic approach

There’s a Catch-22 to designating tasks a “C,” or by implication, unimportant. If something needs to be done, but is considered unimportant, there’s no incentive to ever do it. Without a positive motivation to do a task, the mind has find a negative motivation sufficiently strong enough to act on. I’ll get fired, my spouse will complain, my utilities will be shut off, I won’t be able to drive on an empty gas task, and so on.

Since the motivation has to be sufficiently strong enough to take action, the tendency is to procrastinate until the crisis point, when a C suddenly turns into an A. That’s not a strategic way to live, and it breeds apathy and anxiety.

The urgent, the important and the necessary

The first order of business is to acknowledge the necessary, not just the urgent or important. Here are some ways to get to small-but-necessary things early before they turn into big things.

Batch your next actions by context. If you’re a GTD user, you’re probably already using context lists to organize your tasks. If all of your phone calls are on your @Calls list, it’s more efficient to complete as many calls on that list in one sitting as possible rather than alternate between phone calls and actions in other contexts. It’s easier to know that you’ve completed all your calls than to wonder which call you should make next. If you must use a prioritized list, make sure it’s congruent with the context you’re in — no errands or home tasks on a list you need to review at work.

Use the Two Minute Rule. If an action would take longer to write down now and reconsider doing later, do it now if it’s worth doing at all. For convenience sake, we settle on the Two Minute Rule as the Do It Now breakpoint, but lengthen or shorten as your workload allows. Don’t clutter your mind or your organizer with “minutiae,” in the literal sense.

Use the Two Action Rule. It’s ideal to work through an action list starting with the highest-priority item, but sometimes your energy level requires an approach with more finesse. The Two Action Rule states:

To regain momentum on a stuck action list, commit to completing a minimum of two actions on it, however small, in quick succession, with a bias toward the oldest items.

The rationale behind the rule being:

Just as two points make a line, completing two tasks, however small, creates a sense of direction and perceived progress. The more quickly you can complete two next actions in a row, the greater the sense of momentum you’ll have that will feed itself into how you carry out the rest of the list.

As always, high-priority tasks are better than low-priority ones, but moving from inaction to action is the highest priority, as long as it’s not indiscriminate action.

Use weekends and “holidays.” If no time ever seems to be a good time to do low-priorty tasks, batch them for the weekend, ideally before doing your weekly review to lighten your lists. If the prospect of doing anything non-recreational on the weekend is an anathema, schedule a specific block of time to handle low-priority tasks.

Use the “rocks and sand” approach. If high-priority tasks are the few “big rocks” that fill the bulk of your day, handle the “sand” of lower-priority tasks in between them. Assuming the big rocks take more energy than sand, cycling between them is a great way to pace yourself. You don’t burn yourself lifting rocks all day, and you don’t lament wasting the day doing nothing more than sweeping sand.

“Reward” yourself with easy or desirable tasks. A common piece of advice is to reward yourself for doing something arduous or onerous by promising yourself a reward at the end, like watching a movie (no joke: I once saw a father bribe his six-year-old daughter into brushing her teeth by promising her ice cream).

You can take the same approach by following up something undesirable to do with something more desirable. If you want to get started exercising, try scheduling it immediately after doing some “real” work, like making a batch of sales calls. That’s similar to the rocks-and-sand approach, but here it’s not a routine; it’s done occasionally, on an as-needed basis.

Immediately after a weekly review. During a weekly review, make note of which next actions are getting a little too familiar. If you’ve seen them on two or more weekly reviews in a row, do them immediately if possible, or at least “debug” them by figuring out if they have unidentified dependencies — actions that have to be taken before the written ones can actually be done.

While you’re doing something else. Do your laundry while listening to a podcast, rehearse questions for a job interview while gardening, build your knowledge of classical music while reading a novel. Create a multitasking checklist of low-concentration actions that can be done competently while attending to another one.

(Photo credit: dickuhne)

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Tags: GTD · Productivity

Comments

  • Sid SavaraNo Gravatar // Oct 27, 2008 at 4:16 pm

    Love this post. I especially like the point about whether you should even do it. One additional thing I would add is – is this truly a task *you* have to do? One of my favorite parts of the Tim Ferris/Derek Sivers interview is where Derek talks about how he felt he was the only person who could answer his email – and he was wrong, he could delegate it and it was just fine.

    I still answer all my own email and all my own comments though, but perhaps if I was running a business – I would hire people to answer incoming business communications that have a consistent process for answering.

  • AndreNo Gravatar // Oct 28, 2008 at 10:59 am

    @Sid: The more leverage your time has (being in a senior position, making a high income), the more crucial delegation becomes. If I had an A-list blog with 100+ comments a day and drawing in a large income, it would be smarter to outsource or otherwise delegate moderating comments in order to focus on more high-impact tasks like content creation.

    My only caveat is that in both Ferriss’ and Sivers’ cases, they began outsourcing after they already had established successful businesses. People tend to overlook the initial “do it yourself” phases outlined in The 4-Hour Workweek and The E-Myth Revisited. Once your business starts getting traction, though, it’s easy to forget that you no longer have to do everything yourself when you have more capital at your disposal. That’s when delegation becomes crucial.

  • SilkeNo Gravatar // Oct 28, 2008 at 7:08 pm

    I love how you bring up the weekly review and the reoccurrence of the low-priority tasks. I often dread doing the weekly review specifically because of them. Prior to processing my notes – my first step in my weekly review – I will actually complete a few of those low-priority tasks. It’s a mind game – a pretty silly one at that. I like your suggestion of doing them immediately following the weekly review.

    It’s exactly those tasks that can add up quickly; some may even turn into higher-priority if not taken care of. I need to use some of your plans of action above to get me more “motivated.”

  • J.J.No Gravatar // Oct 29, 2008 at 2:41 am

    Wasn’t it be better if you include relevant diagrams to describe the “triaging tasks”.

    @Sid: It would be better if you know your motives of outsourcing. For example, you must have a clear instructions on how to delegate tasks to other people/subordinates/virtual assistant. Set you plans and goals well before you start outsourcing your jobs to others.

  • CharlieNo Gravatar // Oct 29, 2008 at 7:34 am

    “Just as two points make a line, completing two tasks, however small, creates a sense of direction and perceived progress. The more quickly you can complete two next actions in a row, the greater the sense of momentum you’ll have that will feed itself into how you carry out the rest of the list.”

    Somehow I missed your earlier post about this, but I love the counsel hear. I’ve been using a similar strategy with my clients – we’ll work on planning just the one thing they need to be working on and loosely sketch the next thing. By loosely, I mean we’ll just place it there so they can see where their work is going.

    I’m still pretty averse to context thinking, to be honest. I used to be all over it, but I noticed how much time I spent in metaproductivity when having more simple lists with well-specified action phrases helped me along just as well if not better.

    I’m interested in your non-commitment category: are these items that should just be purged, or are they just one-off items like “collate and take out the recycle?” Just curious.

  • Marc and Angel Hack LifeNo Gravatar // Oct 29, 2008 at 7:54 am

    Great insight! Low priority tasks always muddle my mind. Thanks for the clarity. ;-)

    Stumbled.

  • AndreNo Gravatar // Oct 29, 2008 at 1:25 pm

    @Silke: Prior to processing my notes – my first step in my weekly review – I will actually complete a few of those low-priority tasks. It’s a mind game – a pretty silly one at that.

    I’m all for silly mind games if they help me get more done or make doing more enjoyable.

    @J.J.: Wasn’t it be better if you include relevant diagrams to describe the “triaging tasks”.

    To be honest, it’s hear for me to visualize the triage categories as in diagram form. I could see them as a table, but not a diagram that would convey more information than a list

    @Charlie: I’m interested in your non-commitment category: are these items that should just be purged, or are they just one-off items like “collate and take out the recycle?”

    I called it a “category,” but that’s literally a misnomer, like referring to zero as a “number.” Non-commitment’s are determined in real time as you process what you’ve captured. Suppose I hear about a book that sounds interesting, and I jot down the title in my notetaker wallet. When I process that item, I take a minute to scan the summary and reviews on Amazon, and decide that it’s not really book I want to read after all, so the loop is closed. I don’t need to put it on my Someday/Maybe list or Books checklist because it’s a non-commitment.

    @Mark and Angel: Thanks for stumbling my unmuddling ;)

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