If you couldn’t tell, the title of this post is a nod to “Mazlow’s hierarchy of needs”, a psychological theory about how we prioritize things as humans. This post isn’t about that theory whatsoever.
This particular hierarchy of needs has to do with prioritizing tasks to accomplish a goal. I am not the master goal setter in the world. I don’t claim to be some sort of planning guru. Far from it. But I have had a thought about a simple way to deal with task lists. It has all been inspired by conversation with my friend and colleague AJ and an article I read on Trello’s blog.
In short, the article’s (and AJ’s) point is that often our task lists aren’t correlated to projects; there are a bunch of things to get done, but they don’t always drive us toward completing our projects. The idea is you should prioritize those things that actually drive you closer to project completion. So, the problem isn’t your task list; it is the fact that the tasks are just tasks, not attached to anything. I love the idea; it’s something I think most of us know, but forget far too easily. I sure know I do. Thanks for getting me started down the path AJ!
Once I finished the article, I thought, “But how does one actually do that? A lot of those tasks that don’t push us towards our ultimate goals and project completions are still critical things that need to get done.” As I thought about it, I came up with a simple list to help remind my self what my options are in such circumstances. In essence, with any any task that doesn’t drive you towards a goal, you ask yourself if you can do one of the things listed below, in the order listed. Do this with each task. In fact, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to do this with all your tasks, both project/goal aligned and otherwise.
In order of preferability, here are the options you should try to apply to each task (with further explanation below): Eliminate, Automate, Delegate, Degenerate, Procrastinate.
- Can a task be outright eliminated? Can you quit a job or quit your volunteer position in an organization that isn’t driving you towards your goal/project completion? Do you really need to add that one extra cool feature to your app/library/product/animation/film/game, or can you do without it and ship it on time or earlier? Sometimes elimination just isn’t possible, but it should be our first go to; the easiest tasks to complete are the ones you don’t need to complete in the first place.
- Is there a phone app, a program, a service, an AI assitant, or a script you could use to get the task done for you without your intervention or with minimal intervention on your part? If you are a software developer, would it take less time to code up a solution than it would be to do it repeatedly by hand? Some tasks are one offs, so scripting your own solution might not make sense, but perhaps someone else has already done the work to automate it. Even if this costs money it is often worth it. The simple formula is to compare your hourly wage to the cost of the product. For example, if you are paid the Federal Minimum wage, any automated service that can save you at least one hour of tedious work is worth $7.25 USD (the US Federal Minumum Wage as of last year, 2016). Then you could spend your hour doing something more worthwhile; like learning a new skill that will earn you more than minimum wage. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
- Is there someone who works for you or with you who has the bandwidth and aptitude to accomplish the task? Will it take more time to train the person than it would be to just do it yourself? If it is a repeating task, perhaps the time lost training someone else upfront can be made up in the long run (just as with automation via scripting).
- Can you sacrifice on quality? Often, 80% of the effort goes into the last 20% of quality of a pursuit. Does the task really need to be treated as top tier, or is it Ok to just phone it in with 20% of the effort for 80% of the quality and save yourself a lot of time? Confession time: I am a perfectionist. I don’t mention this as some sort of humble-brag, but with true chagrine. I either do something with the best that I have got, or I don’t do it at all. It is very binary and very unhealthy. It means a lot of stuff that should end up happening simply doesn’t. I think a lot of other people are the same too. Be ok with putting in less than your best to get something less important off of your list quickly. As for me putting this into action, I am not proof-reading this a million times or sitting on it for multiple days like I usually do. So, please excuse errors. Or don’t. It doesn’t matter because I am posting it whether you excuse the errors or not. I’m trying to be ok with not giving 100% on this one, because it doesn’t further my most important goals and associated projects.
- If worst comes to worst and you truly do need to give your level best, can this task simply be put off for a while? I know, I know; your mother and/or father told you to never procrastinate, but the reality is that we do it all the time anyway without thinking about it. The difference here is that you are doing it conciously and purposefully. Really, another term for procrastination is prioritization, but it just sounds far worse. Which is why I chose it: so that both you and I will remember to actually do it! Also, Prioritize doesn’t rhyme with the other options like Procrastinate does ;). To make it a less dirty word, let’s call it Planned Procrastination. At some point your workload is going to lighten some and there will be time to do that one nagging thing. Of course, all procrastinated things must eventually be done, which is why this is the last possible option available and easily the least desirable.
I have yet to think of any other possibilities. Thoughts and suggestions are welcome on this one. More options are always better. I wrote this post for myself more than anyone. I need reminders like this, and I like simple steps and systems I can follow. Life isn’t always so clean cut and tidy, so they end up just being guidelines, not hard and fast rules. But even loose guidelines are better than nothing. And with that I say, Carpe Diem!