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How to Prioritize Your To-Do List

PullingOutHair Do you ever feel overwhelmed? I’m looking over my list of things to do, and checking the calendar to see when I can pull an all-nighter for catching up. As a fan of David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD), I capture all the items that need my attention, using my Palm Tungsten T5 and Outlook with the Jello.Dashboard for buckets.

We list-makers are apt to let the list grow large, but that need not pull us off course. All items on the list need attention, but some items are more important than others. That is the hard part for me—prioritizing the list.

Some things can be done quickly, thereby getting them off the list, but they’re not as important as other items. How do you go about prioritizing?

How to Prioritize

Many years ago, while serving as an Assistant Scoutmaster, we took the Boy Scout troop on a weekend camping trip. Saturday afternoon was scheduled for working on the First Aid merit badge. Mark, the Scoutmaster, prepared 3X5 index cards with accident injuries and symptoms requiring action.

A small group of Scouts took “victim cards” and prepared to be the patients, while the rest of the boys divided into groups to treat the wounded. And that’s when the fun began.

Some Scouts got so caught up in splinting their victim’s broken arm, that they overlooked the wound that was letting the victim bleed to death. Others were treating minor scrapes and bruises, while their patient went into shock. It was a perfect opportunity to discuss priorities: Look at the patient and determine the most life threatening condition and treat that first, then move to the second, third, and so on. In emergency medicine, it’s called triage.

Apply to Your List

Taking this approach to our to-do lists provides clarity. Are you making splints while the really important stuff dies? Are you doing the frivolous just to get something checked off the list?

With GTD, the lists are divided into contexts (places). This filters the list to doing what you can—where you are. If you need to clean the gutters, you have to be at home. If you are waiting at the airport in Austin, the gutters are not a priority, no matter how badly they need cleaning. So you move to the objects that can get done in the airport.

This will be a smaller list that includes making telephone calls, computer work, reading, or just brain-stroming about an up-coming meeting, but even these must be prioritized.

How Important is Checking Off the List?

Many experts advise against doing minor tasks just to check something off. Sometimes I get high-centered on my own list, unable to get anything done because the list is overwhelming. I’m stuck … accomplishing nothing. At this point, I just have to do something to get started. Anything I do is ok, as long as I get to check something off. That’s a good thing if it allows me to refocus my attention back on the important things.

At times, I’d rather do something trivial, than stare at a list and do nothing, or worse—like dodging the whole thing and slipping off to Google Reader to see what someone else is doing.

How do you deal with your oversized to-do list? Tell us in the comments.

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3 thoughts on “How to Prioritize Your To-Do List

  1. […] get me wrong, all the items on the list need attention, but as I’ve written before, setting priorities is not an easy task. Asking the question, “Is this the most important […]

  2. Look, ideally there’s nothing wrong with prioritizing a list but I think practically it’s just way too difficult. I think one of the best ways to GTD, is really just to use a simple To Do List manager…. I also don’t really believe in the whole idea of setting To Do lists in the morning or prior night necessarily… often it’s easier to just add tasks whenever you think of them. For example, if I’m working on a project and realize I also need to add XYZ, I add XYZ to the To Do list for tomorrow. I’d suggest, just because it’s a Daily To Do List manager which I think is the best kind and it’s also simple….. but here’s the thing it doesn’t really matter what you use as long as you’re not getting bogged down in the software rather than actually doing stuff.


  3. Thanks for commenting Venkat. I think simple lists are a great way to keep items needing attention. I have never used zotodo, but have used three or four others that are simple list keepers. Bottom line, use what works.

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