What Comes Next? Criteria for Choosing Your Next Task

“The role of leadership is to transform the complex situation into small pieces and prioritize them.” — Carlos Ghosn, Brazilian businessman (Chairman and CEO of Renault, Nissan, and the Renault-Nissan Alliance).

“In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.” — Theodore Roosevelt, 26th President of the United States

What Comes Next?  Criteria for Choosing Your Next Task by Laura Stack #productivity

Just about every productivity expert prescribes a to-do list as part of your time management process, and I’m certainly no exception. In fact, I advocate keeping at least two. First up: the daily High Impact Task or “HIT” list, a short list of everything you must do today. Second, use a Master Task List to track upcoming tasks and items you want to accomplish eventually. Often the master list rolls into the HIT list (as in the Task List in Microsoft Outlook).

Your most crucial and challenging HIT list tasks always take top priority—if not first thing in the morning, then during your daily peak energy periods. Everything else is secondary and can drop off the list as necessary. Most people don’t approach their work this way, however.

Many people never formalize their task-juggling process and just try to remember what to do. If they even bother with a to-do list, they scribble it out just before starting work. Some go down the list line-by-line in the order they wrote it, regardless of priority. But you can’t measure productivity by the number of items scratched off a list, and what if you never get to the big stuff at the bottom of the list? High-impact tasks just keep rolling forward. Others just look at the list and decide what to do based on how they feel at the time. Often they never feel like doing the crucial items and have no energy left when everything else is done.

Instead, adopt the battlefield concept of triage for task management. My father is a retired Colonel in the U.S. military. In wartime, medics assign priorities to injured soldiers as they come in, constantly reshuffling high-priority cases to the top of the list. They certainly don’t see patients in the order they arrive. For NATO nations, triage priorities include:

P1: Not breathing
P2: Bleeding
P3: Broken bones
P4: Burns

P1 and P2 casualties come first, no matter their order of arrival. Only an idiot would let someone suffocate or bleed out because they decided to set a broken finger first. On the workplace battlefield, replace the word “casualties” with “tasks,” but otherwise follow the same procedure to reduce your to-do list to a decent size and reasonable order:

P1: Do this or get fired!
P2: This task has long-term value, but it isn’t urgent.
P3: Take care of this task whenever you can.
P4: This task is personal or trivial or a timewaster.

At the highest leadership levels, P1 and P2 switch places, with long-term strategy becoming more important than anything else:

P1: Strategic goals, priorities, planning, and relationship building.
P2: Operations and tactics, everyday management, and process/system refinement.
P3: “Gotta Minute?” issues like brushfires, email, and most meetings.
P4: Timewasters, including busywork and micromanaging.

Spend most of your time on P1 issues, because they represent the items you can do best and most profitably for the organization. Oversee most P2 items and check in on them regularly. Delegate P3 issues whenever possible, intervening only when you must. Forget the P4s.

Juggling Made Easier

In the workaday world, you can’t choose what to do next based on how you feel or its position on your to-do list—not if you want to prosper. Nor can you afford to check Facebook or buy airlines tickets for your next vacation while you procrastinate on getting started. That way lies disorganization, overwhelm, and poor productivity. To really get things done, school yourself to triage as tasks arrive and pile on the self-discipline—because no one else will do it for you.

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