It Should Be Obvious What to Work On

May 2, 2021

People often ask, “How do I decide what to work on today?”

To help them answer this question, many folks will add complexity to their task manager. They’ll tag their tasks as low, medium, or high-energy tasks. They’ll create tags for work they can do at their home office, at the company office, in the garage, etc. Or they will use flags to make some tasks and projects stand out, visually.

On the margins, such techniques might help. But really, it should be obvious what to work on next.

If you’re looking at your task manager, seeing the list of tasks that are available to act on now, and you have no idea where to start, your problem isn’t with your task management tactics. No, you have a bigger and deeper problem.

What to work on today (or this week, month, or quarter) should flow from your top-level priorities: what are your goals? Which goals are you actively working towards? Which goals have you decided to work on later?

You cannot work on everything at the same time. You have to choose. And the appropriate level of choosing is at the level of goals and at the level of the key action steps that will help you achieve your goals.

For example, one of my goals is to build my own task manager someday. I have strong opinions about how a good task manager should work and there aren’t any out there that work exactly the way I’d like them to. (Things and OmniFocus come close, but I’d modify each substantially.)

However, I’m choosing to postpone this goal and its action steps. I’ll work on it later. In fact, the action steps for this goal aren’t even in my task manager.

I am, however, working on version 3 of my course Big-Picture Productivity. And since that’s my flagship course, developing it takes priority over all my other business work. Sure, I also want to record podcast episodes. But I’ve identified creating v3 of BPP as my top business priority, so unless I’m really not feeling it, my first work item for the day will be the next action step for the new BPP course. (That does require having those action steps spelled out, of course—which happens to be a core course topic.)

So, if it isn’t obvious what to work on next, clarify your higher-level priorities. Don’t try to fix it at the level of individual tasks. And certainly don’t try to make your task manager decide for you—it never will.

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