How to Keep Life from Crowding Out Your Task List

If you want to get ahead, don’t fall behind.

by Colter Reed
2:07 read (647 words)
Don't lose your most important tasks to your most immediate ones.
by Colter Reed
2:07 read (647 words)
Don't lose your most important tasks to your most immediate ones.

Without any organization, your task list is just a jumbled pile of aspirations.

The simplest thing you can do is to list them in priority order: what are you going to work on first? Second? Last?

If your day goes smoothly and you make it all the way through your list, the Ivy Lee method was all you needed. Most of the time, our day is more complex. Tasks run long, resources run short, and we realize that we can’t do everything we wanted to.

Unfortunately, a simple prioritized list doesn’t help us adapt quickly to the changing needs of the day. Was this task at the top of the list because it’s the most important? Or because we were going to knock it out early? Was there just nothing else I could do before 9:00 a.m.?

A common way to distinguish what’s important from what’s simply first is to assign each task an A, B, or C category. Your A tasks will reshape your reality. Your C tasks are optional—no commitment.

Every day, you have a lot to do. Probably more than you have time for.

So you select your three (or fewer) A tasks for the day.

Now what?

Most of your tasks are going to be B tasks. When most people think of a task list, they think of the B tasks—you expect to get them done today, but nothing’s necessarily holding your feet to the fire.

If you’re not careful, the steady influx of B tasks will overrun your schedule, starving your A tasks of the time and attention they should have. Here are three ways to keep them in check:

  1. Be realistic in what you can accomplish. Many of your B tasks will be gravel, but gravel adds up. If you regularly run out of time to get through everything on your list, try cutting your B tasks in half. Once you’ve completed every task on your list for a few days, start letting yourself schedule more.
  2. Schedule blocks of time for B tasks. Schedule one or two blocks of time during the week to knock out B tasks. One will probably be at a time when you can do high-energy tasks (even B tasks can need our A game). See how many of your B tasks you can knock out in that 3–4 hour window, then turn your attention back to your A tasks—and the people around you.
  3. Clarify the importance and urgency. Because B tasks often come from others, we often assign them a higher importance and urgency than they really have. Taking five seconds to clarify a deadline can mean the difference between a comfortable B task next week and an imaginary fire drill that wrecks your afternoon.

These tasks are the bread and butter of life. Take dog to vet. Pick up prescription. Order new iPad. Most B tasks aren’t going to change your life, but they’re the stuff your life is made of.

Your A tasks are the most important tasks you’ll get done today, but they might not be the first. You may be better off tackling a few of your B tasks first. This lets you build some momentum for the day and clear the deck.

One final note on B tasks: the consequences of not doing them can be more significant than the reward for doing them. They may not help you get ahead, but doing them will keep you from falling behind.

B tasks may seem more casual because nothing is holding your feet to the fire, but they still have deadlines. If you put off these tasks too long, they escalate and develop into a crisis or a lost opportunity. Nothing will eat up more of your time than putting out fires that never should have started in the first place.

Question: When do you do your B tasks? Share your thoughts in the comments, on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook.