Priorities don’t work 20:33 on Wednesday

I’ve recently refound Remember The Milk (RTM), another to-do list on the web. With a disproportionate amount of time and boolean logic I have been able to set it up to be a pretty decent personal task management system.

But still, besides date, RTM relies only on priorities to make order in the humongous pile of tasks I have entered. My take is that setting priorities will never work. It leads to one thing and one thing only: lots of unnecessary house-keeping.

The priorities we use to juggle what gets done are far more complex than a list of numbers. That’s what I find interesting — how could we build software that would reduce initial house-keeping, the impossible task of knowing priorities of tasks beforehand, and favor some form of just-in-time prioritization and organizing of the tasks that matter? Or the tasks that appear on the way of getting the important things done?

4 Responses to “Priorities don’t work”


  1. Tina Aspiala Says:

    I think there’s a certain fixed amount of prioritization work that you need to do whenever you set up a to-do list, and it’s either done in your head, or on the computer, or on a piece of paper. You can’t automate the housekeeping away completely. So what can you do? Software makes it far too tempting to do ALL of the prioritization on the computer, down to teeny tiny details, which is a waste of time. On the other hand, your brain can only handle about five items at the same time, be it five projects or five project sub-items.

    So what you need is a short list, so your brain can do the rest. I’d like software that let you first filter out “someday”s and “five-minute jobs” (á la GTD), then reorder the rest into separate project lists that would only show you the NEXT item in that list on your screen.

    The other thing about priorities is that they change with time, which requires daily housekeeping. If you wanted to, you could give each bigger project a due date and a time estimate, then have the software divide the number of days left by the amount of days needed, and automatically reorganized daily by the resulting “urgency quotient”, or whatever is closest to 1.

    After that, your to do list should be short enough for your brain to be able to decide on the fly what the next most immediate job is. If not, the guys in white coats should come confiscate your computer till you learn to cope.

    Yeah, this has been on my mind lately.

  2. Niko Says:

    In a broad sense, prioritization is essential. But in the sense it appears in computer systems, usually as a number scale, it doesn’t work. The priorities on computer are supposedly something that should reflect the priorities in your head, but the prioritization algorithms in our heads are way too complex to be reduced to a scale of one to five.

    With a lot of work, you might get quite close to what you want with Remember The Milk.

    With Autodo I want to try to do something that would better reflect the prioritization that happens in your head. If a due date or the duration of a task affects your priorities, you should be able to reflect that easily in the system. Maybe it’s a person or your location or who you’re with that affects the priorities, but you should be able to teach the system that.

  3. Tina Aspiala Says:

    I tried RTM, but due dates alone don’t help me because I tend to have many long term projects that I need to remember to KEEP doing, even if their due dates are far away. (Classic high school final term paper syndrome) Those are the tasks I find the hardest to keep track of–my lizard brain tends to put smaller, more immediate items on higher alert even though I know I’m going to end up in trouble with the big project later on.

  4. Niko Says:

    What would David Allen do? ;)

    If the due dates are far away, those are projects (as you say), not tasks. To get those projects done, says David, you need to break them up to small, doable tasks. Create a tab for each project and create the tasks under the tab, or tag the tasks with the project name and create a saved search tab for the projects you want to see all the time (more flexible, even more nerdy).

    I agree that it would be helpful to integrate long term projects to a todo list somehow. This RTM solution is more a loose hack than a real solution, but other todo list alternatives don’t go even this far.