Prioritizing Your To-Do List

Lynette, make me a dentist appointment, cut my grass, dust the blinds, finish writing my article about online dating profiles, take my daughter to the zoo, make dinner, stain the deck, read this book for work and give me the high-level notes, go to this meeting, go to that meeting, go to all my meetings, buy my wife flowers, start a load of laundry, and get my car’s oil changed. Thanks!

This is what I would tell Lynette (my imaginary personal assistant) if she existed. She doesn’t exist. There is no Lynette. Which means . . . I’m on my own with all these tasks. And, Lynette or not, they need to get done.

If you’ve got a pulse, you’ve got a to-do List. You might not have it all written down, but you do have responsibilities that need to get done. If you try to do everything at once, you will fail. If you pick and choose the easiest things on the list, important stuff is going to fall through the cracks. What you need to do is prioritize . . . or hire Lynette.

But with tons of tasks and no Lynette, how do you prioritize your to-do List?

I’m glad you asked! Here are eight simple steps that will help all of your to-dos get to-done.

1. Write It Down

The first step to prioritizing your to-do list is to actually create your to-do list. Try not to let your list rattle around in your head. Write every task—big or small—down. There are a few reasons why you want to do this: 1) You’re less likely to forget a task if it’s written down; 2) Your success becomes measurable (i.e., you can track what you’ve done and what you need to do); and 3) Any shared list (say, with a spouse) makes it easier for things to get assigned and finished, without miscommunication.

One of the Herbert Family mottos is “If it’s written down, it’s gettin’ done.”

2. Assign Importance

Now that everything is written down, you can start assigning importance. Knowing the importance of a task will ultimately help you determine if you need to get it done today, tomorrow, next week, next month, or never. This is another reason why writing down your list is so crucial. Something might seem important, that is, until you compare it to other things on your list.

Assigning importance is all about consequences. With any item on your list, ask yourself, “What’s the worst thing that will happen if this doesn’t get done?”

Only you can determine what is important and what isn’t, but I recommend that you write a number between 1 and 4 next to every item on your list, 1 for the highest importance (like studying for tomorrow’s test), and 4 for the lowest (like dusting the blinds).

3. Assign Urgency

Importance is not the only thing that drives prioritization. You could have ten hugely important tasks, but none of them “due” for another year. This is called urgency. Obviously, if something needs to get done today, it gets bumped up higher than something that seems far more important but isn’t due for a bit.

Your to-do list is a living, breathing document. It will—and should—change over time.

For example, if you are choosing between cutting the grass and preparing for your big interview in two weeks, cutting the grass—which is not nearly as “important”—will be prioritized higher than preparing for the interview. If the interview is tomorrow, on the other hand, you could live with raking some grass clippings.

Now, with your list handy, put a star next to anything that is super urgent (due today or in the next couple days), put a dot or circle next to anything that is kind of urgent (due within a week or two), and leave the rest blank (due in months or there’s no clear due date at all).

Feel free to come up with your own numbering or symbol system, but the important thing is to have a quick visual reference of what is important and what is urgent. You can now prioritize your tasks (i.e., put them in order from highest priority to lowest priority) based on importance and urgency.

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4. Plan Your Attack

Now that you have your list written down, you know what’s most important, and you know what’s most urgent—now that you have your list prioritized—you can start planning your attack for the day or the week. In other words, you can start gettin’ stuff done.

I recommend you plan your week (both for home and for work) on Sunday evening or Monday morning, and then you plan your attack for each day of the week in the morning. A daily plan is a to-do list within a to-do list. A daily plan is putting a stake in the ground and claiming, “I will get these done today!”

When something has been on your list for a really, really long time, it’s usually a pretty good sign that it’s not important. It’s not urgent.

It’s important to be realistic here, and not too ambitious (or, conversely, too conservative). If you were to just look at your list of 45 bajillion things to do, you could easily get overwhelmed and paralyzed. Being overly ambitious leads to procrastination. But if you pick just four or five things per day, you can start whittling away.

Which brings us to our next point . . .

5. Make Progress

Most of the advice I’ve read about prioritizing your to-do list boils down to this: “Find the most important and urgent things on your list, and do those first.” These would probably be the 1★, 2★, and 1● items on your list.

I disagree with this advice. If it were that simple, you wouldn’t be reading this now.

Instead of picking today’s three most important or urgent tasks, I suggest that you pick one high priority task, two medium priority tasks, and three with lower priorities (unless deadlines dictate otherwise).

There will always be something “important” and “urgent” waiting to get done. But if you’re only doing the most important and urgent things, the little stuff will never get done. These smaller tasks will start to pile up.

Further, just focusing on the “important stuff” can lead to stalemates. Some bigger tasks might take weeks or months to accomplish. It’s important to still be crossing things off the list during this time. Nothing feels better than crossing off a completed task.

6. Tasks within Tasks

Another way to help you progress through your list is by creating tasks within tasks. With your larger tasks, it’s a good idea to break them into smaller tasks whenever possible. Each of these tasks can then have their own importance and urgency assigned to them.

For example, my wife really, really wants me to dust the blinds. Instead of creating a huge, daunting task (like “dust the blinds”), you break the task down into smaller tasks (like “dust the kitchen window blinds”). These subtasks can then be broken down even more if need be (like “dust a single slat of the kitchen window blinds”).

7. Be Flexible

When something has been on your list for a really, really long time, it’s usually a pretty good sign that it’s not important, it’s not urgent, and it can be removed from your list. That’s okay. Your to-do list is a living, breathing document. It will—and should—change over time. Tasks will move up and down in priority, new tasks will arise, and some tasks will need to be dropped completely.

8. Prioritizing “Non-Tasks”

Being fully present with your family. Reading a good book. Spending time in silence. Exercising. If these things aren’t written on your to-do list, they will rarely get done. The reason you might not make time for these types of “non-tasks” is because of the illusion of non-urgency (because you know they’re important). But I assure you, you do have a deadline—even if you have no idea what that deadline is. Kids grow up, life takes unexpected turns. You have deadlines.

Try to do at least one “non-task” every day (which means writing it down, assigning importance and urgency, making time for it, and then crossing it off your daily plan of attack).

Using the above tips myself, I really blasted through my to-do list today. Lynette would be proud.

And now that I’ve finished writing this article, I can move on to the next important, urgent, awesome task on my to-do list. Let’s see . . . that would be . . .

Either write my next article, “What To Do When Your Priorities Don’t Align with Your Spouse’s” (Or: “How Finally Dusting the Blinds Saved My Marriage”) . . . or watch cat videos on YouTube.

YouTube it is!

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