Why priority labels don’t work (and a better way to prioritise your tasks)

Why priority labels don’t work (and a better way to prioritise your tasks) [PMP #210]

A lot of task management tools give you the option to assign a high, medium or low priority status to a task. Personally, I find this pointless and I’ve never liked assigning a priority to a task. And here’s why…

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Paul Minors · PMP #210: Why priority labels don’t work (and a better way to prioritise your tasks)
Using priority labels like high/med/low is too vague. There's a better way to prioritise your work!Click To Tweet

The problem with priorities

The problem with assigning priority is that simply saying a task is high, medium or low priority is too vague. What does “high priority” actually mean? How urgent or important does a task need to be in order for it to be high priority instead of medium priority? Or how unimportant do tasks need to be to be low priority? Should we even spend time on tasks that are low priority?

If you can define what constitutes a high priority task means to you, that’s a good start. But the truth is, most people don't do this. Most people use their judgement to decide what’s high vs. low priority and this is very subjective. We often label a new idea as high priority because it’s new and exciting and we’re motivated to get the work done now, so we label the task as high priority.

And if you work in a team, assigning priority is even harder. What’s high priority for you may be low priority to someone else. People don't usually think about what’s best for the team.

A previous client of mine who managed priority really well created very clear definitions for what constitutes a high priority task. She told her team:

“If we receive a customer support ticket that impacts the businesses cash flow, or if it’s related to a customers booking, then it’s high priority. Everything else is medium or low.”

This is an example of priority done well; where it’s clearly defined and communicated to the team.

Another issue that’s created when you use a high/medium/low priority system is that you only ever work on high or medium priority tasks. The low priority stuff never gets done. Obviously, you cared enough to put the task on your to-do list but because it’s lower priority than the other stuff, it never gets accomplished.

How else should you prioritise your work?

As you can see, I’m not a big fan of using a high/medium/low priority system. This doesn't mean I don’t prioritise my work. I just think there’s a better way.

When I identify a new task that needs to be completed, rather than assigning a priority label, I assign a due date. In fact, every task in my Asana account has a due date on it. Not all of these are what I would call a “strict deadline” i.e. something that has to be done by a specific date. Most of them are what I consider to be “flexible deadlines”. i.e. tasks that I’d like to do before a certain date, but if I don’t and I have to change the due date later, that’s fine.

By assigning a due date to a task, you are still prioritising the work. But instead of using a subject high/medium/low label, you’re using the date to create a sense of urgency. High priority work can be assigned for today or this week and medium or low priority tasks can be budgeted for later. And if you can block out time on your calendar for this work, you can even budget how long you need to do the work and plan exactly when you’re going to work on each task.

So, why is this better?

  • You’re much more likely to get through all of your tasks. Rather than ignoring the low-priority tasks, you can simply assign a due date for a week or two from now and the task re-appears on your to-do list at the appropriate time. You can then do the task if needed or postpone if for later if it’s not urgent. But because the task keeps reappearing, you are reminded again and again to do the work until you finally get it done or decide no to do the task and delete it from your to-do list.
  • You have an actual plan to do your work. When you assign due dates to your tasks, you naturally put them into an order in which they need to be completed. So rather than looking at a list of tasks with high/medium/low labels on them you now have a plan of what to do and by when.
  • You’re forced to make tradeoffs between tasks. Another issue with a high/medium/low priority system is there is no limit to how many tasks you can make high priority. And when everything is high priority, nothing is. Whereas when you use a due date to assign priority, there’s a limit to how much you can do in a day so you’re forced to make tradeoffs. If you want to squeeze something else in today, you have to bump another task to tomorrow or later.


How do you decide what the due date should be?

When you add a new task to your to-do list, you can ask yourself a few questions to determine what the due date should be?

  1. Is this time-sensitive? If the task has to be completed before a certain date, you can set the due date accordingly (ideally leaving yourself some buffer time). e.g. if I need to complete some work for a client, I often want to have this done before my next appointment with them.
  2. If it’s not time-sensitive, when would you LIKE to complete the task by? A lot of my tasks don't have these strict deadlines. So for this work, I think about when would I like to have it done by. This is more of a personal preference.
  3. What order do I need to complete these tasks in? If you are scheduling tasks for a project, it helps to think about the order in which things need to be done by. i.e. tasks that have to be completed so the next one in the sequence can be started (dependencies)
  4. When would I like to be reminded about this? If you have tasks that fall into the “someday/maybe” category e.g. an idea of something you’d like to do but haven't thought about fully yet, you can assign a due date establishing when you’d like to be reminded by.

The golden rule is this » Don’t create a task without assigning some kind of due date.

Doing this means every task is treated equally and appears at the top of your to-do list eventually. This doesn't mean you’ll necessarily do the work, but it does mean the task gets re-evaluated instead of being forgotten about.

What if your priorities change?

When prioritising your work using due dates, it’s easy to make changes to your plan if needed.

Let’s say you had a plan to do ‘ABC task’ today but an urgent issue has come up which you need to prioritise. You can simply update the due date on ‘ABC task’ and bump it to tomorrow or later in the week when there’s time (again, doing this on your calendar using my time blocking method makes this really quick and easy to do).

I do this all the time. As I said, because everything has a due date, sometimes I look at my to-do list and I see some lower priority tasks that are due today but I have other important work to get done. I can simply re-schedule these tasks for later, or if I’ve bumped the task a few times and no longer feel it’s important or worth doing, I can remove it from my task list completely. This means your to-do list gets pruned over time instead of a load of low priority stuff collecting at the bottom of your list.

Writing this post, I’m well aware that a lot of tools have a high/medium/low priority system and it’s almost an expected feature within a task management system. And like I said, this can work if you define your priorities well.

But in my experience, using due dates to define priority is a very effective way to work and is less subjective.

If you have any questions or feedback, please leave me a comment below!