Jul 21, 2022
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There are many things to consider when evaluating what task you should work on next. It’s not always as simple as sorting your tasks by due date and then picking the first off the top of the list. The importance of each of your tasks should be evaluated carefully, as this is likely going to have an outsize impact on how productive you are.
In this article, we’re going to be looking at the importance of importance.
Choosing what to work on next is not always an easy process, but it can have a huge impact on your productivity. Picking the right task, at the right time can mean the difference between making a lot of progress and being stucking in a rut.
Sometimes it’s best to prioritise your tasks by duration. Completing quick tasks can remove a lot of stress, particularly if you are feeling overwhelmed by your overflowing to-do list.
However, duration is not always the characteristic you want to prioritise. For example, finalising a report that will win you a big client before the impending due date is more important than firing off a quick email to your accountant. Prioritising tasks that are quick to complete could mean you didn’t win the new business opportunity.
Similarly, completing tasks with the earliest due date is not always the right approach either. It’s better to save someone from a burning building, even if it means you’ll be late on that task with a tight deadline.
Having a rigid set of rules for choosing the right thing to work on next is clearly not going to work 100% of the time.
The importance of a task can also be thought about as its weight. The weight of a task could be thought of as the weight you feel when you release the burden of finally getting it off your shoulders. If you’re a freelancer, it could mean the amount of money you will be paid when you complete the task. Or if you’re building a product it could mean the amount of value or bump in revenue you will receive from shipping it.
In any case, the weight of the task has a meaning to you. It has a value that makes it valuable to you across some metric. It also enables you to evaluate all of your tasks equally, and make the required trade-offs to decide what is the optimal thing to work on next.
As we’ve just seen, there are many ways to assign the weight of a task. Whilst a good way to think of the weight of a task is the stress or anxiety it’s causing you, quantifying the burden of a task, the figuratively weight you are carrying on your back, is quite difficult.
It’s a lot easier if you can assign something like a monetary value to each of your tasks.
For example, if you’re a freelancer, you are hopefully getting paid for each task or project you complete. So the weight of your might be the amount of money you will be paid for completing it.
Even if each of your tasks don’t have a 1-to-1 direct correlation to a payment, if you are able to assign an hourly rate to your work, you can derive the weight of each task by how much you will be getting paid for completing it.
Or if you get paid per project, could group your tasks by their project and then divide the project fee by the complexity of each task required to complete the project.
Once you have the weight of each of your tasks, you can start to optimise how you pick the right task to work on next by minimising the sum of weighted completion times. This strategy basically means minimising the total amount of oppression of the work you have on your to-do list.
To follow this method, you divide the weight of each of your tasks by its estimated duration. You would then order your tasks by the highest value. This means you would be working on the most important task per unit of time. You can think of this as the density of each of your tasks.
Once you have a good understanding of the density of each of your tasks, there is a simple heuristic to follow. You should only prioritise a task that takes twice as long, if it’s twice as important.
For example, if the weight of the task correlates to how much you are going to get paid when you complete it, you would only prioritise a task that takes twice as long, if you were going to get paid twice as much.