Prioritizing Your To-Do List: Getting the Right Things Done

Summary: Planning what to do first can keep you from just spinning your wheels on useless tasks. (Tweet This)

If you are anything like me, you can't get to the bottom of your to-do list. It's one of the reasons I created this blog. What can I say? I'm just a boy who cain't say no. "Learning How to Say No" is a great article for another day, but today I'd like to talk about to-do lists and getting the right things on it done. (Update: Here's that article on "how to say no".)

More than a decade ago, I worked for a top 20 Internet company managing one of its most profitable properties: Search. It was a lot of pressure for me at 24 years old. Fortunately, the Vice President had a lot of confidence in my abilities and we really clicked. It wasn't too long after we started working together that we came across the problem that everyone encounters at one point or another. The VP had a bunch of things he wanted to accomplish and I was just one engineer. With limited time and resources, something had to give.

To-Do List - Get Things Done

Using a To-Do List to Get Things Done

I suggested that we try something very different. I told him to make a list of all the tasks that need to get done. Separately we tackled that list in two different ways. I went through and estimated how easy the task was to accomplish. He gave each task on the list a score based on how important it was to the business. We each used a 10 point scale - 10 was "easy" on mine and 10 was "very important" on his. Then we simply multiplied our scores and sorted on the result in descending order.

The bottom 30% of the list got tabled indefinitely. It was a lot of effort which wasn't important. The easy stuff with the big impact to the business bubbled up to the top 30% of the list. In a few days, I implemented all these features and the VP was extremely happy. The middle 40% took me another month, but it was a quiet month as the bosses moved on to torture harass supervise other projects.

Recently I was reading Never Check E-Mail In the Morning and Julie Morgenstern suggested a similar thing.

I decided to resurrect that idea, incorporate it with the ideas from the book and came up with a new way of managing my to-do list. As I've found in the past, Excel (or your favorite spreadsheet equivalent) is the right tool for the job.

Currently my metrics are:

  • Revenue Relevance - It's hard to downplay the actual money factor.
  • Time to Complete - My original idea of quantifying how hard something is.
  • ROI - This is the impact to the rest of the business. A guest post isn't going to directly bring in revenue, but it is very important to the growth of the business.

I have a couple of other columns as well. On a tip from Morgenstern's book, I have a Deadline column. In the blogging business there are few deadlines. This is more of an informational column for me. I can color-code the cell to green if it's more than one week away and gradually move it up to shades of red if it's overdue.

I like to have a Category column to sort by. This way, if I feel like my blog articles are in need of promotion, I can work on that. If I start seeing a number of finance tasks piling up, I can focus on those even if those other categories may technically be more important.

I also have a Notes column, which should be self-explanatory. I don't use it as much as I should.

In Never Check E-Mail In the Morning, Morgenstern suggested that the impact to the company's revenue should be the metric for "important to the business." At the time I was reading the book, it made sense, but in applying it to my business, I started to disagree. I'm keeping it in my spreadsheet for now, but I'm thinking of combining the ROI and the Revenue into the same column like I did 10 years ago. This means tasks with big revenue impact would just have a big a ROI impact as well. One of the problems I have with the focus on revenue is that it would push necessary evils tasks like security of my web server towards the bottom. It may not seem relevant to your revenue until there's an emergency - and that's often the worst time to deal with it.

I should also emphasize that this is my business to-do list. I've thought about shoehorning personal tasks into it, but I currently don't see how it would work. It seems like comparing the business impact of doing laundry can't (and shouldn't) be compared to writing blog posts. Laundry would almost always lose out unless it started to really pile up.

I think instead, I'd need to create a separate pages for each area in life. Perhaps one for health, one for chores. I'm going to have to think about how much I really want to run my life by a spreadsheet. Something seems a little too robotic there.

P.S. See the comments from 2011 below? That's from version 1.0 of this blog. This is version 2.0, so it is that much more awesome.

Photo Credit: Richard Dingwall

This post involves:

Productivity, To-Do

... and focuses on:

9 Responses to “Prioritizing Your To-Do List: Getting the Right Things Done”
  1. Weekly Roundup – Rich Man, Poor Man Edition Says:

    […] Prioritizing Your To-Do List: Getting the Right Things Done. I really like the way this list of priorities can be sorted by various metrics, making it easier to see what really belongs at the top depending on your goals. […]

  2. LisaO Says:

    This is the first time I’ve visited your blog and I’d like to address you by name but I don’t see it anywhere on the page…I followed the link from Frugal Dad’s email.

    I love this post. This is the easiest tool I’ve seen and it meets my needs admirably – well done and thanks!

    For the prioritization of personal tasks, I’m going to replace the “Revenue Relevance” column with “Irritation Factor”. If you wanted to combine personal and business items, you could simply add that column and use it, leaving revenue relevance blank. You’d still get an accurate overall value.

    Thanks again, and I’m going to go read your other posts now…

  3. Brian Says:

    Thanks LisaO,

    My name’s Brian (I just added that to the Welcome sidebar – thanks). This is a very new blog and there are lot of personal touches missing. I thought it was more important to invest some time in writing articles that would elicit reactions like yours. I have only mentioned it to a couple of people. In many ways, you getting an exclusive sneak peak ;-).

    I’m glad that you liked the post. I have an idea to take this a step further that I kind of hinted at the end. Be on the look-out for that over the next couple of weeks.

    That’s a good point that you could simply just add the columns. I think I liked the multiplication because if something was really important it stands out with a really high number. In a two column system, really important (10*10) is 100, while average importance (5*5) is 25 and low importance (2*2) is 4. I’m not sure I buy that explanation myself. Perhaps I just like exponential curves ;-).

  4. Doreen Says:

    Love this idea and I think I can make it work for my never-ending to-do list at work. Would LOVE to have an app (Android or iPhone) for this!

  5. LisaO Says:

    re: “Irritation Factor”, I’d assign it a number as well and do the multiplication just as you’re doing with “Revenue Relevance”…Of course the assumption is that the two are mutually exclusive or you’d get skewed results in your “Value” column.
    Sorry I wasn’t clear.

  6. Life Compass Blog’s Weekly Round-up for Feb 5 Says:

    […] Be Better Now shares tips on how to prioritize your to-do list and get the right things done. […]

  7. Prioritizing Your To-Do List by Be Better Now | The Mastermind Project Says:

    […] the items that are most important, this could be a useful tool to check out – read more here. The rest of his site has some interesting stuff as well (like a detailed guide on how to win at […]

  8. the twilight of the tweets, and links | brip blap Says:

    […] Prioritizing Your To-Do List: Getting the Right Things Done:  In my eternal quest for a perfect to-do system I think I may finally have hit upon my gold standard.  I keep an index card and a small pen in my pocket all day and write my to-dos down.  In the evening I put them in Google Calendar if they are time-sensitive and a text file if not, without dates, just a list.  So far, seems to be working well. […]

  9. Solving My Too Much Mr. Nice Guy Problem - Lazy Man and Money Says:

    […] Guy." Whenever anyone had a problem with a computer they'd come to me. And I'd help them as I lack all ability to say no. Sometimes that leads to me not having enough time or energy to get my own work done as well as I […]


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