What is the "first in, first out" productivity method?

Jun 09, 2022

Table of contents:

  1. How does “first in, first out” work?
  2. What are the benefits of “first in, first out”?
  3. What are the drawbacks of “first in, first out”?
  4. When should you use “first in, first out”?
  5. When should you avoid “first, in first out”?

Having a methodology for completing tasks doesn’t need to be complicated. The most important thing is that the method achieves your desired goal.

Using a productivity methodology can simplify the process of getting stuff done because it can reduce the decision fatigue inherent in picking what to do work on next.

Probably the easiest productivity method to begin with is “first in, first out”. In this article we’re going to take a look at how it works, the benefits, drawbacks, and when you should use this method.

How does “first in, first out” work?

The “first in, first out” methodology originates from the world of lean manufacturing where items would flow through a production line, such as a car manufacturing plant.

Items enter into the system and are processed in that order. You always work on tasks in the order in which they arrive into the system, no matter the priority, how long each will take to complete, or when the task is due.

You also never jump tasks up the queue if the task has a higher priority, and you don’t insert tasks into specific parts of the queue, even if it would make sense to do so.

What are the benefits of “first in, first out”?

The main benefit of “first in, first out” is that there is very little cognitive overhead of the method because it’s so simple. You always know what you need to work on next, because the decision has already been made for you.

This method is also very predictable in terms of when a task will be completed, if you know how long each task will take, because you already know the order in which the tasks will be completed.

“First in, first out” is particularly beneficial if all of your tasks are homogenous or have the same or similar priority and due date, and when the dependencies of the tasks flow in the right direction.

What are the drawbacks of “first in, first out”?

When using the “first in, first out” method, you’re going to face problems if your tasks are very different from each other. For example, if certain tasks are required to be completed urgently as a priority, those tasks will not be given priority in a “first in, first out” system, and will have to wait their turn based upon when they entered the system.

Tasks are also not completed by their expected duration. This could be a problem if a task will take dramatically longer than the average task. It might not make sense to complete this type of task before many shorter duration tasks.

When should you use “first in, first out”?

If you are going to process your task list by “first in, first out”, you really need to understand when it would be a good fit, otherwise you might be choosing a method that is not going to achieve your objective.

“First in, first out” only really works for homogeneous tasks that all have the same, or similar priority, and duration. It works particularly well when all of the tasks are easily predictable. That’s why “first in, first out” works so well in a manufacturing setting.

However, with that being said, “first in, first out” could also be effective in other situations. For example if you are very stressed about the things you need to do, and the thought of organising your work is making you even more stressed, “first in, first out” could be a good solution.

As the method is so simple, it’s not going to cause you more stress, but it will give you a very simple methodology for working through the things you need to do, despite it not being the very best, most optimised approach.

Sometimes it’s better to just make any type of progress on your task list, and forget about choosing the most efficient method.

When should you avoid “first, in first out”?

“First in, first out” is not really going to work for you if your tasks are very different from each other, or if certain tasks have high priority deadlines that can’t be missed.

Furthermore, if your tasks have dramatically different durations and complexity, you will likely find that “first in, first out” is too simple for your use-case.

“First in, first out” also does not really work when you are required to collaborate or work synchronously with other people as you will need to make exceptions to the rule in order to fit into other people’s schedules.

And finally, if you want to optimise which tasks you choose based upon your energy or mental state, this methodology is not going to allow you to do that.

Philip Brown


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