009: The Most Important Tasks



Guild member @BrianP has a question we dive into this week: how do you best pick your daily most important tasks?


00:00 Hello and welcome to Process. My name is Justin DiRose, owner of the Productivity Guild, and today we’re talking about the most important tasks. If you’ve been around the productivity world for any amount of time, you’ve probably heard about this idea of the most important tasks or MIT’s. The idea here is that we focus better if we have an appropriately sized subset of things to work on in a given day. So instead of looking at our task managers with the hundreds of to do’s and projects lingering around, we pick a few of those items and set them aside to work on each day. The general idea with the MIT’s or most important tasks is to pick a set number, usually three each day and knock these out first. These tasks are those that you’ve identified as the most important, hence the name. Now you don’t need to pick exactly three each day for this to work.

00:47 The idea is to keep your list small so that you gain a sense of accomplishment and focus. This is because of your whole day falls apart after lunch, but you still hit your MITs in the morning. You can still rest assured that you’ve made progress that day. I personally use some facet of this every single day where I go into OmniFocus and I review the lists that I have there, and then I set aside usually three to six tasks that I’m going to work on for that day. Now, I don’t limit myself to those six tasks. If I complete those tasks, I’ll go back into OmniFocus and choose something else to work on. After I do that, no question came up from a Guild member, @BrianP, how do you pick your MITs each day? This is going to be different for each and every person, but today I wanted to talk about some strategies that you can utilize to help better pick your MITs.

01:38 The first thing that usually comes to mind to me when I think about important tasks is the Eisenhower Matrix. This is a matrix of four quadrants where we’re defining the difference between urgent and important. So a task can either be urgent or not urgent, important or not important. Based upon those evaluations of the task, a task will end up in one of four quadrants. Quadrant one are your urgent and important tasks. These are things like running a kid to the emergency room because they broke their leg or you have a business critical outage such as if you’re working in IT like I used to as servers down and you can’t do anything, and so that’s something that all hands need to be on deck for. Everybody needs to be focusing on getting that one thing done. That’s a technically true Q1 urgent and important task.

02:27 Q2 are your important tasks but not urgent tasks. These are the ones that are really easy to skip over things like exercising, taking care of yourself, uh, spending some time journaling that project that brings you a lot of life and fulfillment, but there’s necessarily no due date on it. These are the ones, like I said, they’re easy to ignore, but they’re usually the most important tasks that we need to be focusing on because they tend to bring the most longterm gains in our lives. Q3 are the urgent tasks and unimportant tasks. These generally are the ones that other people put on our plate. They’re the ones where somebody comes by and says, Hey, I really need you to do this for me by next week. So they add a sense of urgency on it. But the question is like is it really urgent or is that just an arbitrary thing?

03:14 Quadrant three tasks are the ones we need to have the most guard about in our lives because if we’re not careful, we can be swept up in other people’s urgency instead of defining what our day looks like for ourselves. Lastly, quadrant 4 are the non important non urgent tasks and these are the things that Cal Newport talks about in Digital Minimalism that we need to get rid of in our lives because they tend to eat up a lot of time browsing around on Facebook, looking on the Internet and having low value conversations with people where we’re just throwing memes back and forth. You know, it might be fun at the time and there’s not any problem with that, so to say. But we just need to evaluate how much of that to engage in because there’s lots more important and other things that we can focus our time on.

03:59 So when looking at our important tasks, I think the Eisenhower Matrix is an easy way to at least start to frame, put a framework around what’s important and what’s not. I don’t necessarily recommend trying to categorize each of your tasks in your task manager with the Eisenhower Matrix because this can fluctuate from day to day. Something might be important and not urgent one day and the next day it might become urgent because a situation changes in your life. Rather, I recommend just use it as a framework in the back of your mind to help guide your decisions on what to work on for a given day. One way that I like to approach picking my MIT’s during the day is just using my gut instinct, my intuition. Usually you have a pretty good idea of what’s important already and just go with that. I know sometimes I think we tend to overthink the important things in our lives.

04:51 We already know that it’s important to take care of ourselves to exercise. It’s important to advance the projects that we want to get going. I know for me, I get this sense of urgency inside where I just know that I need to work on something in a particular day. So generally like in my week I’ve got a few main things that I need to get done such as recording this podcast. And there are often days where I find that I just know I need to get it done that day because I can sense, you know, in the rest of my week that it’s going to be pretty busy or my schedule is not the most ideal for recording later on in the week. So I just kind of get a gut sense that I need to do it now. And this is how I tend to function by default.

05:29 I honestly think that most of us have a better sense of what we want to be working on, what we need to be working on. And it doesn’t necessarily have to mean that we thrust all of our effort behind those things as well because there’s genuine real life responsibilities that we have to take care of that aren’t necessarily the most appealing to deal with on a day to day basis. But when we use our intuition, we can get a sense of some of the, especially those Q2 tasks that we want to get done, that we need to get done in a a given day or in a given week. And we can start to add those to our lists.

06:00 Another way to choose a MIT is simply by due date. This is the obvious one. You know, these would be things that are in your Q1. These are things that need to get done by a specific date and time. So if it’s due soon, just crank it out.

06:13 Another way is by planning. One way to approach this is just to take some time to plan out your priorities for the week and then each day pick something from that priority list or at least a small task from that priority list and focus on that. So right now I’m working on my Making Sense of Bear course and one of the things that I’m really trying to do before I start making videos is just get a really good sense of the outline and so this week one of my aims is to work on that outline at least 10 minutes every single day. So that makes it really easy for me to write down on my MIT list to advance the Making Sense of Bear course outline a little bit today. Another way that you can approach planning is using something like the Agile Results method.

06:57 I really like this idea and while I’ve trailed away from doing this in particular, I found a lot of value for doing it in the past. In fact, I may start adopting something like that again, but JD Meier in Getting Results, the Agile Way discusses this concept of three wins. It’s similar to MIT’s, but the focus is different. Basically what he says is instead of trying to focus on tasks, focus on outcomes for your day or for your week, for your month, pick three of them. At the end of the day or at the end of the week, what do you want it to have looked like that he says? This can be anything from an actual project or task that you want to complete. Two, I just enjoyed my lunch today. In order to leverage this in the concept of most important tasks, one thing you could do is at the beginning of your week lay out what your want your week to look like in this three wins approach so you can list out your three outcomes that you want to have for the week and then each day you can pick outcomes or most important tasks based upon those outcomes for the broader time span.

07:57 There are a number of different ways to approach picking our most important tasks. The items that we’ve highlighted today obviously are not all of them, but from what I’ve found in personal experience, they’re really good way to at least start thinking through the process of picking your most important tasks. Start with the Eisenhower Matrix in the back of your mind. Start classifying tasks when you are looking at them as, is this important for me? Is this not important? Is this something that should be on a someday maybe list actually? Probably the best way to handle that is instead of labeling those items inside of your task manager, start doing that when you’re processing your inbox. Then what items get into your task manager, they’re items that you have already identified as either something urgent or something important that you intend to work on.

08:42 Then when you’re in your task manager picking your most important tasks, it’s a lot easier because you’ve done the work up front. In fact, I’ve seen task managers in the past as being an easy way to make decisions in advance. What do mean by making decisions in advance? Well, when you’re assigning tags to a task or putting them as part of a project, flagging them, putting due dates on, deferring them, you’re making decisions in advance of what you’re going to do with that particular item, and so utilize your task manager to make this process easier. If something isn’t important now defer it or put it on a someday/maybe list or put it somewhere in your system that you can come back to it, but where it’s not necessarily visible right now. If you’ve got some tasks that you know are important and they need to get done this week, don’t be afraid to flag them and your task manager so that you can refer back to them later on, but don’t get caught into the trap of thinking that you have to crank all of those out.

09:37 I know it’s really easy that when we start to put flags and due dates on tasks that we’ve got to get those done. In fact, it in almost in some regards creates a sense of urgency inside of us that these things need to get done asap, but instead remember that a flag or a due date is really a piece of metadata. It’s just data and so utilize your due dates in the way that they’re meant. Only put them on things that are due. Additionally, when you’re flagging something, don’t feel like it’s something that has to get done right now, but use it as a signifier to yourself. Say, Hey, this is something that I see is actually important and then when you’re going on through your week, you can start to pick those tasks out each day to get them done. Now granted, this is only one way to approach handling important tasks in your task manager.

10:20 There are thousands of others out there, but I hope that this topic and covering these different strategies that we can use in identifying and picking our most important tasks each day is helpful to you. If you have any further suggestions or other ways that have worked for you, I’d love to hear from you on the Productivity Guild. There’s a topic over on the Productivity Guild specifically for this podcast episode, and so if you’ve got something to share, come on over. We’d be glad to hear from you.

10:44 Well, that’s all for this time. If you want to join in on the discussion for this episode or you want to connect with others who are in the process of becoming better on their productivity journey, head on over to the Productivity Guild at productivityguild.com. Or if you want to support this podcast and get access to video modules, productivity courses, and more, consider signing up for the Pro membership at the Productivity Guild for just $10 a month. Lastly, if you like this show, rate us on iTunes or recommend us on Overcast. My name is Justin DiRose and join me next time on Process.