This is the 3rd of 5 posts in the series Note to self.

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In my last post, I explained why due dates can be so detrimental to productivity and sanity. Most tasks simply don’t need a due date because there’s no logical way to decide precisely when you should do them. There’s also no way to be certain that you can consistently carry out tasks at times designated by your past self. Too much life gets in the way.

The best way to handle tasks with no logical due date is to put them in a priority-based list.

Why priorities beat due dates and boost productivity

  • You aren’t constantly bombarded with alerts. If you have tasks coming due constantly, there’s little chance that you’ll be able execute them at the predesignated time. When you can’t execute tasks, you have to either ignore them or postpone them. The more this happens, the less productive you feel. It can really eat at your sanity too.
  • Priorities ward off procrastination. Assigning due dates to tasks is a way to hide them. Out of sight, out of mind. For some tasks this is okay. For others, it’s a symptom of avoidance. Having a single list for all prioritized tasks lets you see everything that your past self has decided that you need to do. More on this below.
  • Priorities lead to smarter decisions about what should be top priority at any given time. A single list of priorities makes it easier to assess the relative value of each task in the list. You’ll probably decide that some tasks are more important than others. You’ll also decide that some things aren’t worth doing. Don’t feel bad about purging tasks that have no value.
  • Prioritization promotes uni-tasking. If two unrelated tasks come due at the same time, it can temporarily short-circuit your brain. Which one should be done first? What if you can’t do both at the same time? A short-circuited brain usually does a half-ass job, and sometimes it just gives up completely. If you’ve pre-defined priorities, it’s much more obvious what to attack first. And you can do it on your own terms.

How I pull this off

I use Remember the Milk to manage my tasks. RTM lets you assign priorities of 1, 2, or 3 to tasks. As I note above, it’s important to make sure that all of your prioritized tasks are on one central list that you see regularly.

I use a smart list to create a “dashboard” view of all my active tasks. Its name is Active, and it shows me my due tasks first, then sorts by priority.

If you happen to use RTM, and want the criteria I use for my Active list, here it is:

dueBefore:tomorrow or (not priority:none and due:never)

In English, this tells RTM to show me all tasks due today or before and also all tasks with a priority and no due date.

It’s basically a hybrid list of due and prioritized tasks. It ensures that I don’t miss any tasks that (really) are due today, regardless of context. It lets me keep an eye on priority-based tasks, and I can quickly rearrange priorities if I need to.

Most importantly, if I notice that my Active list is getting too big, I know that I need to start limiting additional tasks, get more done, or rethink whether the tasks that have been sitting in Active for a while are really worth my while.

I use due dates as little as possible. Most of the time, my Active list only contains prioritized tasks. When a “due” task appears, I know that it really is due today, and I need to give it special attention. I think this makes due dates much more effective – I’m not conditioned to disregard them.

3 practically efficient tips for effective prioritization

  1. Use priority 1 sparingly. Just like having too many due dates can condition you to ignore them, setting too many priority 1s can diminish the sense of urgency associated with your top-priority tasks.
  2. Ideally, your priority 3 tasks should outnumber your others. I often think of priorities 2 and 3 as the minor leagues. Most tasks should start as priority 3, then get promoted upward. Again, this keeps priority 1 as the most urgent or the most “active.” The others are on deck. Of course, sometimes urgent things come up and go straight to priority 1. That's fine.
  3. If you notice that a task has been priority 3 for a long time, question whether it deserves any priority. In other words, question whether it should even be on your to do list. Deleting is not always a cop out; sometimes it’s simply the result of a clear mind.

I think the three priority levels offered by RTM are just right. If you use a system that offers less than three priority levels, I still recommend keeping most of your prioritized tasks at a level below 1.

Teach me

How are you using priorities in your task system?

You can see the other posts in this series by clicking on tag: note to self.