How to prioritise your tasks

I follow just one simple rule. This rule comes from the culmination of 3 job changes, more than 5 years of experience in programming, administration, technical assistance and interactions with users and peers. And it goes something like this:

Given similar levels of urgency, first do that task which has the most number of people irritating you.

Feel free to substitute “irritating” with “bothering”, “unhappy with” or “angry with”.

What a young king taught me

Garion was a nice young man, raised as a peasant boy in a farm. He’s polite and modest, had a good sense of what’s right and had great friends. He’s also destined to be the king of an island, protected by powerful friends, and guardian of a precious orb. (find out more from the Belgariad series by David Eddings).

I’m going to skip the part about how he grew from just a simple peasant boy to overlord of the western seas. Now, as a king, he knew it would be very hard to get feedback from his people. Just his title alone scares the living daylights out of the lords and ladies, let alone his people.

So what he did was to have a confidant who’s among his people. I wouldn’t call the confidant a spy, and even if you think it is, I’d advise you not to say it to Garion’s face. He could do a lot of damage even if he’s only mildly irritated.

So, this confidant was a glass blower in town. Every once in a while, Garion would make some excuse about needing to buy some glass ware and go meet this glass blower. Then he’d talk with the glass blower and get some idea of what his people were doing or saying. This way, he’d be able to improve the situation. Coming from a peasant background, Garion really didn’t know how to run a kingdom, so he desperately needed feedback on how his laws and actions affected the common folks.

So, there’s this one time where the glass blower mentioned about a particular tax law which made taxes too high for the commoners and too low for the lords. The people were complaining, but no one dared say anything, even though Garion had repeatedly shown his kindness and fairness.

Garion told the glass blower he’d change the tax law in favour of the commoners immediately. The glass blower was surprised, so he asked his king what’s the reasoning behind it.

“It’s actually based on a selfish motivation.” said Garion. “How many people are affected by the high taxes?”

“About five hundred or so.” replied the glass blower.

“Well then, I’d rather have 5 people hating me than 500.”

How does this apply to me?

Let me give you an example. Suppose you have on your task list, in the following order:

  • Development work
  • An email query that you know is going to take an indefinite but probably long time to check
  • A simple data patching that’s an update statement which takes less than half an hour, including verification

Even though development work came first, you have to put it aside because the other 2 are more urgent. Now, you are already half way through the email query, finally understanding what the user was trying to ask in the first place. Then the data patching request comes in.

This is how I see it. Either way, you’re going to have the user who sent the email query, and the user requesting the data patch waiting for you. There are 2 people “unhappy with” you already. Even though the email query came first, and is slightly more urgent and important than the other one, you should complete the data patching first.

Your goal is to have as few people waiting for you to complete whatever they’re asking for. Can you imagine having 10 people waiting for you? You could have completed 9 very fast requests and have only 1 breathing down your neck. Whatever that long task is, that user is going to wait a long time anyway.

The side effect is that you’re perceived as super efficient by 9 people. 10, if that last user understands the length of time needed for his request. Everyone is happy, and at the end of the day, you still completed 10 requests. The trick is in gauging the urgency level.

Anything involving customers (and thus revenue and thus bottom lines) are top priority. Your users (other than direct customers) are next. Users such as sales personnel, customer support officers, marketing personnel and managers.

And you know what? Development takes the last priority. I’m like an all-in-one, so I handle a lot. Luckily, I’ve taken these constant opportunities-to-learn into my project estimations.

Getting burnt out from an overwhelming number of tasks is not fun. People breathing down your neck is not fun. So how do you prioritise your tasks?

  1. Aaron

    I find that I often waste a tonne of time doing things which aren’t important at all. For example, I’ll waste time just browsing around on forums and reading blogs when I could actually be getting some work done.

    If you have a few tasks to do, but none of them affect anyone other than yourself, use yourself as motivation. “Will I be annoyed at myself if I spend ages on a forum instead of writing a blog post?”

    It’s something which I’m going to start to do.

  2. Vincent Tan

    “use yourself as motivation”
    That is an excellent idea. Knowing someone is going to be annoyed at you keeps you doing tasks that matter, even if that someone is you.

  3. Daniel Costalis

    I read in a book once to use this model for prioritizing:

    [A]Urgent | [B]Not urgent
    [1]Important
    [2]Not Imp.

    Pretty much every task that you have can be put in one of those four boxes… and just take care of them in order: A1,A2,B1,B2.

    I like your way just as much, and I think they can both work together

  4. Vincent Tan

    Yes, your way works too. I belong to the not-so-orderly and intuition-biased type. Organising tasks into one of 4 quadrants is just too much for me…

    You know what, scratch that. Perhaps subconsciously I am using both methods together. The linear-urgency model just seemed more prominent to me.

    Thanks for telling me about the quadrant model!

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