Task Sorting



Looking at your entire task list can be overwhelming, and it's hard to decide what to do out of a list of dozens. It's therefore helpful to implement some sort of task sorting: sort out or subdivide your task list by some method, and only look at the ones that apply right now.
There are a variety of options for sorting your task list, with advantages and disadvantages to each, so I'll list them out and let you select what's best for you.

By Urgency (Due Date)
This is one of the most common task sorting methods, and so almost any electronic task tracker will do it. In this method, you simply list all your tasks, starting with the one that must be done soonest, and ending with those that aren't due for a while, or have no particular due date.

The advantage of it (obviously) is that it tells you, quickly and easily, which of your tasks are the most urgent. There are some things that have to be done on a particular day, or by a particular time, and they need to be scheduled in first.

The major disadvantage (and therefore one of the most common time-management problems) is that it takes no account of the importance of the task. It is this failing, more than anything else, that causes a student to work on a 10-point worksheet due tomorrow rather than a 100-point term paper due next week, or a journalist to re-rewrite a news article rather than writing a couple of pages on the novel she's always wanted to publish.

Recommendation: If you choose the urgency method of task sorting, break down major projects into smaller steps with their own deadlines, rather than writing "term paper" due on the last day of class. Be sure to assign every task a due date -- an artificial one if necessary -- so that dreams like writing a novel or travelling to Rome actually get seen. And even so, make sure you review farther down the list than just Things Due This Week, and make sure important things get their time scheduled (See Important vs Urgent and The 50-30-20 rule for more information on assigning importance)

By Importance
This task-sorting method is far less commonly used, and sadly neglected. Comparably to sorting by urgency, you simply establish the importance of each task, and put the most important ones at the top. Some people prefer to sort the entire list, and make sure that each item is more important than the item beneath it and less important than the item above; others prefer simply to make broad categories (commonly designated A (important), B (middling-important), and C (low importance), but label them however you'd like) and leave them unsorted within the categories.

The advantage of this method (obviously) is that it keeps you focused on the most important things, and it's a good way to break yourself of the habit of putting urgency ahead of importance (See Important vs Urgent for more information on why this is a good habit to break)

The major disadvantage (and the most common reason people drop this method) is that it takes no account of how urgent things are. It will put writing your novel at the top of the list and taking out the trash at the bottom -- and it is undeniably true that writing your novel is more important than taking out the trash -- but the trash still has to get taken out each week, by 7AM on Friday. And this sorting method will not help you to remember it.

Recommendation: If you find that you're regularly spending all day putting out fires and never get anything "real" done, then sort your task list by importance and try to do things in the order they're on the list. Once you're in the habit of putting important things first, switch to another method of task sorting.

By Project
This is a common task-sorting method for managers and entrepreneurs -- anyone who has to manage many different projects. Under this method, you would put all of your gardening tasks together, all of your press-release tasks together, all of your Physics 101 tasks together, and so on.

The advantage of this method is that when you want to work on your gardening, you have all of the tasks for it easily available, allowing you to just schedule time for "Gardening" without having to worry about the individual tasks.

The major disadvantage is that some tasks don't fall under project headings -- "Take out Trash" is a good example. And so you're tempted not to write it on the task list…which puts you right back where you started: forgetting things you're supposed to do and wishing you could remember them.

Recommendation: This is a good task sorting method if you use Time Striping, but be sure to keep a "Non-project tasks" list for all the miscellany.

By Context
This is probably the second-most-common task-sorting method, because it's used by Getting Things Done, the most popular Time Management System. A "context" is a set of circumstances that will affect which tasks you can do. My task list, for example, is sorted into

  • "@laptop" (tasks for which I need my laptop, like editing documents on it),
  • "@internet" (tasks for which I need the internet, like managing this site),
  • "@home" (Tasks that can only be done at home, like gardening or cleaning out the basement), and
  • "@errands" (tasks that I should do when I'm already in the car driving around town, like picking up a new toothbrush).
Depending on your situation you might want an "@phone" for people you need to call, an "@office" list for things that can't be done away from your desk, and so on.

The advantage of this task-sorting method is that you don't waste time finding the perfect balance of urgency and importance… only to discover that you can't actually do the task you selected because you have to be somewhere else, or have some other tool. It also generally keeps your lists short enough that you can glance down the whole list and quickly determine what the most important/urgent task is, so that those things still get taken into account even though you're not sorting on them.

The disadvantage is that you do have to keep flipping back and forth between lists to be sure you've got the most important and urgent stuff taken care of.

Recommendation: This is the task-sorting method I use because (a) it allows me to spend less time deciding what to do, and more time doing, and (b) it does a good job of reminding me to do all of my internet stuff while I have wifi, or all of my errands while I'm out and about. Each day when I make my current to-do list, I look at all the context lists, so that the most important tasks for each context get added to the list.

Hybrid
One of the major advantages of electronic task trackers is that they can re-sort your list any time you want. Using Outlook or Remember The Milk, you can enter due date, importance, and context, and then sort by whichever is most useful to you at the moment. This is especially helpful in implementing The 50-30-20 rule, since you can sort by importance when doing your 50%, and urgency when doing your 20%.

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