With chronic procrastination afflicting one in four professionals, you may be inclined to feel pretty good about your prioritization skills if you do tasks first that are due first. You should feel good that you can get yourself to do tasks in the order they are due rather than in the order you feel like doing them. However, your simple approach to prioritization may sabotage your performance as your to-do list becomes more complicated, causing you to make three common prioritization mistakes.
Despite the emphasis on tasks’ due dates in most modern to-do list apps and elsewhere, the time to start a task is not based solely on when it needs to be done. To know when to start a task, you must know both when it’s due and how long it will take. If you don’t factor in both, you’re likely to make these three prioritization mistakes:
1. Treating big tasks due further out as lower priority
Which seems higher priority: the task due two days from now or the big project deliverable due in three months?
The most important work you need to do for your business is likely contained in a handful of extended projects or product development cycles that stretch over weeks, if not months. Yet your impulse likely is to prioritize the task due two days from now over the big project deliverable due in three months, because it feels time-sensitive while the project does not. But what if the task due in two days takes just five minutes to complete, while the project due in three months is already two weeks behind schedule and will require 40 hours of work per week to deliver it anywhere close to on time?
The Project Management Institute’s annual report on the industry shows that companies lose 12 percent of their investment in projects every year due to poor performance. This is in part because project managers and staff are under the illusion that they have a lot of time when they don’t. Big tasks with far out due dates seem lower priority when you think about them as a single task with a single due date that is nowhere close to today. To avoid this, break them down into their sub-tasks, sequence the sub-tasks, and assign each its own due date. The project may be due in three months, but if one of the sub-tasks needs to be done today, then the sub-task is higher priority than the five-minute task due tomorrow.
2. Under-prioritizing tasks that depend on others
Which seems higher priority: reaching out to potential interviewees for a research project you need to complete in a month or finishing the pitch deck for next week’s investor conversations?
Given its importance, more immediate due date, and your critical role in its creation, the pitch deck seems higher priority, but you’d actually want to do the outreach first. You must assume tasks that depend on others (e.g., scheduling interview conversations) will take longer than tasks you can do yourself. Too often professionals find themselves in a tough situation late in a project because they waited to engage those they needed something from until the moment they needed it.
When estimating how long tasks will take you, you must include waiting time for each round of communication you’ll need to have in order to get what you need. The more senior or high profile the individuals you are dependent on – both within your organization and others – the more time you’ll need to budget as well. Similarly, the less control you have over those the tasks depend on (e.g., you have no control over external interviewee experts), the longer delays you must consider as well.
3. Making tasks of certain and uncertain duration the same priority level
Which seems higher priority: a task you’ve done a handful of times that is due in a week and takes you about two days to complete or a task you’ve never done before that is due in two weeks and you think it will take you three days?
If you could trust your estimates of how long each task will take, then it would make sense to prioritize the task due in a week. However, my coaching conversations have demonstrated that people are not naturally good at estimating how long work will take them.
The smallest unexpected obstacles or distractions can turn a half-day task into a day and a half task. While adding a buffer of 10 to 15 percent to tasks of uncertain duration is helpful, you’ll also want to prioritize these tasks higher so you have time to compensate if your estimate is wildly wrong.
Your brain craves simple models of how the world works and how to make decisions, but sometimes it’s desire for simplicity leads it to oversimplify and make ineffective or inefficient decisions, leading to prioritization mistakes. Prioritization decisions are inherently complex. Many variables influence the priority level of a task in many different ways. To improve your prioritization skills, remember that task duration is as important as due date and several factors, including these three, influence duration.
This adapted from an article we published in Inc.