Prioritization in GTD

Another guest post by André Vargas on how he prioritizes tasks in Getting Things Done. He explores the merits of just using ones intuition and judgement vs. a more scientific approach to prioritization and sequencing of tasks.

I am a big fan and practitioner of the science behind the optimal sequencing of tasks for efficient program management (Lean, managing the rework cycle rather than the schedule, dependency matrices etc.).

But what about prioritizing one’s own tasks? GTD’s key message on prioritization is to use one’s own intuition and judgment. While as good an answer as any, the academic in me just could not accept that it was so simple. Surely there had to be others out there with this same question and moreover a need for a more scientific approach to prioritization and sequencing of tasks? I set out on a quest to find answers that would satisfy both my practical just get it done side and my academic theoretical mind.

AV1In my research, I found a host of blog entries, tips and tricks, some with similar methods to those I use in managing programs and projects, including one where the writer created a spreadsheet to house all his items and applied a Boston matrix prioritization technique I love to use myself. This is how I use it: First get the business benefit, the ordinal priorities, then understand the technical and change complexities of implementing or executing the tasks. Once this is done you can plot your results in a classic Boston matrix and pick the quick wins quadrant first.

AV2In my career as a program manager for complex systems, I have used plenty of prioritization techniques to fight the tendency of every task being priority 1. My favorite was one where I had all tasks take roles of “teams” and had each play every other task like a fantasy league (business stakeholders would vote on the outcomes in a fun and interactive way). The end result being a “league” table with a really good proxy for prioritized tasks. The scores would end up as a win, a loss or a tie.AV3

Each win would give 3 points, a draw one point and a loss zero:

AV4For the ease of implementation axis, I use technical complexity estimates (function points, planning poker etc.) and also level of effort in terms of the business change of the equation. However, this was not enough. This first matrix needs to also consider dependencies. What if a key precursor ends up in the third quadrant? All dependent tasks are not feasible even if they are to be done first! Therefore, after the initial sequencing, we need to understand all dependencies. I create a matrix of all tasks against each other and mark which task needs which tasks to be completed. The goal of the matrix is to try to move the most dependent tasks under the diagonal. This means the enablers go first. There are tools out there that have advanced algorithms to do this for you.

Great! The academic in me was finally happy! I could, in essence, map out what my intuition was telling me.

But wait. Reality check. Would creating such a cumbersome overhead align with stress free personal productivity? Wouldn’t doing all this work create a whole new level of stress?

Maybe intuition and judgment are really the way to go?

To answer that, forthwith I will experiment with being conscious of my intuition and judgment. Is my next action really a next action or a project? I will revisit the meaning of horizons, and also take extra care when applying context tags to my Evernote notes.

Will the sheer act of chronicling what needs to be done–without laying things out in a matrix—then letting my instinct takeover be enough? I’ll let you know, in the meantime I would be interested in knowing your thoughts and experiences prioritizing in GTD!