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« How to use Beeminder to monitor all your work | Main | for keeping your goals going »

How do we tell how important a task is?

I made the paradoxical point in my last few articles that urgency is superior to importance as a method for prioritizing, but that the urgency we give to a task is dependent on the importance that task has for us.

I also make the point that this is not a direct relationship. Something is not more urgent simply because it’s more important. Urgency is importance translated into a time scale that is appropriate for the task.

We’ve looked at how to allocate tasks their place on the urgent/not-urgent scale. Now it’s time to look at what importance is and how we can tell how important a particular task or project is.

The first point to make is the obvious one that what is important to one person may not be at all important to someone else and vice versa. There may of course be considerable overlap between people, particularly in matters of politics, environment and religion, but basically each person has their own individual set of interests, preferences and matters of concern.

So we are not trying to discover some abstract quality of “importance” that belongs inalienably to a task or project. What we are trying to discover is how important it is to us.

Faced with a question like “Which is more important, buying a new car or extending the house?”, how do we decide?

We can try all sorts of ways of quantifying this, but I would suggest that the simplest way is in terms of timescale, i.e.

“How long are we prepared to put up with the old car?”

“How long are we prepared to put up with the house the way it is?”

That will give you the answer of which to do first. And if the answer to either question is “Indefinitely”, then you can simply cross that project off your list.

This can be applied to all sorts of situations:

“How long do I want to stay in this job?”

“Should I call Aunt May sooner or later?

“When do I aim  to get my next promotion?”

“When is the right time to start this report?”

“How much longer am I going to wait until I can play the guitar reasonably well?”

“How much longer am I going to put up with this not working properly?”

“When am I going to stop having a backlog of email?”

If the answer to any of these questions is “indefinitely”, “never” or “I don’t know yet”, then you can remove the project from your list for now.

Once you’ve made a commitment to a project it ceases to be a matter of importance because a commitment implies that you have committed yourself to doing the work involved. It then becomes a matter of relative urgency appropriate to the work. For example learning to play the guitar requires a daily effort. That tells you how urgent each practice session is. Calling Aunt May on the other hand is a single task (or possibly a weekly or monthly one) and that is a different degree of urgency. Both the guitar and calling Aunt May may only be appropriate at certain times of day, so they have a higher degree of urgency during those time and none at all at others.

It may seem odd to you that both the degree of importance and the degree of urgency should be expressed in terms of time for prioritizing purposes. But that is what prioritizing is all about: the order in which tasks are done.

Reader Comments (7)

Hm - I'm not sure where all of this is going, but an assumption of rational process would - to my mind - be an incorrect assumption. There are so many variables that would influence the above questions i.e. fear, passion, that I would be suspect of my own answers & choices. Or perhaps this is a character flaw, and one that might improve with your Final System. I'm open!
January 30, 2012 at 21:04 | Registered Commenteravrum
I've been pondering these ideas some more, and re-reading these articles on "urgency".

You write: << If the answer to any of these questions is “indefinitely”, “never” or “I don’t know yet”, then you can remove the project from your list for now. >>

I was struck by the inclusion of "I don't know yet". This seems to run counter to what you wrote in the comments on your other post:

Seraphim: << If you are using your list as a "catch-all", then you might have many "someday/maybe" items on your list. The implied action for all such items is "Evaluate this item and determine what it actually is, and whether you are committed to doing it." With this understanding, you can still sort by urgency, even with a list that contains the same kinds of random items that a typical AF1 list might contain. >>

Mark: << Yes, I usually put a question mark after that sort of item, e.g. "Sail round world?" to show that the task is actually to decide whether or not to do it. Once I've made the decision the task is deleted if the answer is "No" and is re-entered as something like "Sail round world - action needed now" if the answer is "Yes". >>

( )

I am guessing this really isn't a contradiction, but just two possible options. For some items, maybe you feel the urgency to decide what to do with it, so you leave it as "Sail round world?" But for other items, you feel no urgency to explore that item at all, so you just drop it. If it pops up again by itself, you can reconsider it at that point.

Is that how it actually works for you in practice? What do you do with items, when you aren't sure of your level of commitment?

Thanks Mark.
February 3, 2012 at 0:50 | Registered CommenterSeraphim
"How long am I willing to leave this project on my list unclarified?"
February 3, 2012 at 2:55 | Registered CommenterAlan Baljeu

Basically Alan has produced the answer. If I have a task which is a decision to make then that task is allocated urgency on exactly the same principle as any other task.

If the answer to the decision is "Not Yet" then remove the task from the list.
February 3, 2012 at 10:35 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
If the question is “How long are we prepared to put up with ... ?”, I'm afraid that the honest answer will be -- very often -- “indefinitely”. Poor people live indefinitely without a car, without a computer and without a washing machine. Does it mean that I have to put them out of my list, even if I can afford them?
May 19, 2014 at 11:12 | Unregistered CommenterJosep

<< If the question is “How long are we prepared to put up with ... ?” >>

It's not. The question is "How long am *I* prepared to put up with...?"

If you decide that you are not prepared to buy a car because of sympathy with the world's poor who can't afford to buy a car, then that's a decision that you have made out of your own sense of values.
May 19, 2014 at 13:13 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
A related point...

I've noticed that people will often grumble about an issue for a long time before taking action. Often the situation has to become more painful before commitment to change occurs. Perhaps "How far from tipping point am I?" would be worth asking.
May 21, 2014 at 11:34 | Unregistered Commentermichael

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