Prioritizing Tasks: The GTD System’s Top Methods

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Are you looking for the best method for prioritizing tasks? Do you have a lot to do and are unsure about where to start?

Prioritizing tasks can be difficult. You may decide to do things one way, and change your mind, or use a method that doesn’t work for you. Getting Things Done shows how prioritizing tasks can be broken down, so you can can get everything done in a stress-free and efficient way.

Prioritizing Tasks: The Best Methods

In order to prioritize tasks, consider what category of work a task falls into, which we’ll explore in the next model, as well as your six horizons, which we’ll talk about in the following model. These are methods of managing priorities that work together in the GTD system and help you find the best way to prioritize tasks.

The Threefold Model for Evaluating Your Work

Think of everything you have to do in both the personal and professional areas of your life as “work.” How can you work on managing priorities? Given that context, you face three different types of work on any given day: 

  1. Predefined work: This is the actions you’ve already captured, clarified, and organized onto your action lists and calendar. You’ve already deemed these important, so make them a high priority. 
  2. Work that shows up: This is the work that comes up unexpectedly throughout the day—when your boss walks into your office and asks for a few minutes to chat or you get in your car and see the oil change light is on. Prioritize these tasks when they’re more important than your predefined work; otherwise, put them in your in-tray. 
  3. Defining your work: This is the time you spend clarifying and processing everything in your in-tray and organizing it into the appropriate places. Prioritizing tasks is part of this process. 

People often prioritize tasks based on work that shows up by default, just doing what’s in front of them and seemingly urgent. But that approach leaves them feeling behind, not in control, and bothered by every interruption. This isn’t an effective way to manage multiple priorities.

By contrast, if you regularly invest time in defining your work and have an organized system of predefined work, you can make well-informed choices about which task to engage in at any time, and work on prioritizing tasks in a better way. This benefit plays out in a few ways: 

  • When work that shows up is truly urgent and must be addressed immediately, you’re aware of the predefined work that you’re delaying. This puts you in a better position to make specific plans to still get everything done on time, as opposed to feeling frustrated and anxious because you only have a general sense that there are other things you need to be doing. 
  • Having a reliable system for intaking, defining, and organizing work gives you peace of mind that you can put a hold on what you’re doing to deal with the work that shows up and easily come back to it later, or that you can put the work that shows up in your in-tray and know that you’ll get it done on time. 
  • Being aware of the items on your calendar and action list prevents you from overlooking or neglecting items until they “show up” as emergencies when their deadlines arrive. 

The Six-Level Model of Prioritizing Tasks

We’ve talked about frameworks to weigh out the tasks in front of you. It’s also critical that you keep your commitments and work in balance with your bigger-picture goals, values, and responsibilities in order to find the best way to prioritize tasks. If your boss asks you to chair a committee at work, it may seem important until you stop and consider whether devoting your time and energy to that helps you achieve your professional goals. Managing priorities can help you decide.

Think of this model as a six-story building: The ground floor deals with the daily grind while the top floor gives you the best view into the distance. 

  • Ground is current actions 
  • Horizon 1 is current projects
  • Horizon 2 is your roles and responsibilities 
  • Horizon 3 is your short-term (one- to two-year) goals
  • Horizon 4 is your long-term goals
  • Horizon 5 is your life purpose and guiding principles

In order to keep your ground floor in line with your highest horizons, consider this example: 

  • Action (Ground): You have a phone call to make for work. 
  • Project (Horizon 1): The call is about a deal you’re trying to make. 
  • Responsibility (Horizon 2): This deal would increase the company’s sales.
  • Short-term goal (Horizon 3): Making the deal would earn you major points with your boss. 
  • Long-term goal (Horizon 4): This success would likely lead to a promotion. 
  • Life (Horizon 5): A promotion will put you in a position that allows you to have the career and lifestyle you want. 

When you know that your relatively small to-do is helping you move in the direction you ultimately want to go in life, it helps you stay motivated, productive, and stress-free. By contrast, when you feel like you’re spinning your wheels and spending your time prioritizing tasks that don’t benefit you, it is stressful, frustrating, and anxiety-inducing. 

Work From the Bottom Up 

It might seem logical to determine your priorities from the top-down—decide your life purpose, use that to define your goals, create or commit to responsibilities that move you toward those goals, and then identify projects and actions within those responsibilities. However, in practice when you’re managing multiple priorities, it’s more realistic to work from the bottom-up because getting in control of the actions in front of you frees up your mind to think about projects, which leads to higher thinking about your responsibilities, and so on. 

(Shortform note: This is similar to the principle behind psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which states you can’t attend to your higher-level needs—including a sense of belonging and self-esteem—until you’ve met your basic needs for food, water, shelter, and safety.)

Follow these guidelines to work through everything from the bottom-up: 

  • Ground: Keep your action lists complete and current so you’re grounded in the knowledge of your immediate tasks. 
  • Horizon 1: Keep your Projects list complete (review the tips in Chapter 7 for identifying hidden projects). This gives you a snapshot of your workload and helps you make decisions week to week. 
  • Horizon 2: Make a checklist of your various roles (for example, parent, manager, activist, individual) and consider making sublists with your responsibilities associated with each role. You don’t need to review these checklists weekly, but review them regularly and look out for potential projects to improve within your roles and responsibilities
  • Horizons 3-5: While the first few horizons deal with the present, the higher horizons deal with your future, including career planning, business strategy, and life direction. Assessing these horizons will be a more personal, introspective process in which you might as yourself:
    • What are your long-term professional goals, and what current projects work toward those goals? 
    • What are your long-term personal goals, and what current projects work toward those goals? 
    • Are there any major changes (in your company, family, or life in general) that may impact your options or desires in the future? 

Prioritizing tasks doesn’t have to be scary. With the Getting Things Done method, prioritizing tasks is organized and effective, and you can quickly master the best way to prioritize tasks.

Prioritizing Tasks: The GTD System’s Top Methods

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Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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