A Controversial Opinion on Task Priorities in To-Do Lists

It’s is useful to express a controversial opinion now and then, and today, I have an opinion about task prioritization methods. I find most of them utterly useless.

Every to-do system, it seems, has a method for prioritizing tasks. Typically, priority is expression in one of three—sometimes four—values: Low, Medium, High—and occasionally, Urgent. Sometimes, a variant of this scoring is used (1, 2, or 3, !, !!, !!!, etc.).

I have never found this method of priority in the slightest bit useful, and I am surprised that others find it so useful. And people must find it useful, if software-makers continue to include this odd system of priority in their products.

I have two main objections to the way priority is handled in to-do systems.

  1. It is a subjective measure, and at best, a relative measure.
  2. It is redundant.

Due dates are useful because they provide a specific measurement for a given to-do item. If I create a task and give it a due date of Saturday, I can, at any point in time, measure how much time is left before it is due. There is nothing subjective about it.

Priority, on the other hand, is a subjective “measurement” that is relative to the other tasks on my list. What’s more, the priority of one task is affected by the priority and completion status of all other tasks. If I complete all of the top priority tasks on my list, does that mean that the next highest priority item on the list becomes top priority? What it comes down to for me is that it is often faster to do a task than to assign a priority.

Then, too, priority is redundant. To-do lists are just that: lists. A list can be sorted. Certainly in Todoist, I can easily change the order to tasks by dragging them around in my list. The things at the top of the list are, presumably, the highest priority thing. The things at the bottom, less so. Why do I need two measurements of priority when, visually, the order of the list itself gives me more information than a priority rating does?

There are other problems with priority. What should the distribution of priority levels looks like over time? Is it a bell curve, where most tasks fall in the middle (2s and 3s) with a handful of 1s and 4s as outliers? Am I forcing things into a particular priority bucket for reasons that have nothing to do with priority, but because I want to feel more important about the things I am doing?

I prefer to sort my list based on urgency: how soon does it need to be done versus how long does it take to do it. I might have something due this evening that must be done. But there might be three or four things that take only 2 minutes that I can get out-of-the-way before that “urgent” thing is done.

My list tends to be dynamic in this respect. I like having things sorted in my list in the rough order that I plan on doing them. Often, when someone who is waiting on me asks for an update, I’ll jump to the list and give them the place of their request in the queue: “When can you get me that spreadsheet?” Pause, while I check my list. “You are currently number 7 (or 12, or 19) in my list.” At that point, a person might express urgency, and I can shake things up with that piece of information, if need be. But for me, the priority of tasks is embedded in the order that the list takes at any moment in time.

Giving a task a low, medium, or high priority just seems redundant and unnecessary to me.

6 thoughts on “A Controversial Opinion on Task Priorities in To-Do Lists

  1. In part, I think it depends on list length. Of course “what should I do next?” can be subjective, the question is when to subject the list to evaluation. If it’s a short enough list to scan, it’s easy to chose priority (and potential enjoyment) of tasks on-the-fly – and that’s what I end up doing most of the time too. I can imagine people for whom that’s not the case – they’ve piled so much upon their list that they need to structure things at task-entry time… but I can also see those people never actually getting to the bottom of the list.
    But even with a short list, there are things I never get around to, so there’s that. *shrug*
    What I see missing in most of the task list apps (that I’ve tried, anyway) is a way to specify order – wrapping presents can’t be done until shopping is complete.

  2. Good point about length, Steven, although I still think there is something intuitive about that stuff that is most urgent. Often times those things never make it to my list because I just do them. And I am not that much of a completist that I need to go back and record them after the fact. 🙂

    Todoist has subtasks, which allows you to break a larger task into several components. But I don’t believe there are any forced dependencies between tasks. In systems like JIRA, you can mark one task as “blocking” another, or “blocked by” another, but that is probably more useful in a system where multiple people are involved.

  3. Yeah, the important / urgent matrix is, Erm, important. Just because something is urgent, it might not necessarily be the best thing to do. It might due today but doesn’t really matter of you do it or not. Especially compared to something that fulfills a life goal. It is subjective and it doesn’t matter if you use priority a b C or just sort the list putting the important stuff at the top.

  4. I only use the high priority level in todoist for financial tasks so they stand out at a glance. It’s a visual indicator that makes it easier for me to see truly time-critical tasks vs relative priority ones. It comes in handy due to most of those types of tasks are recurring and I don’t want to miss them.

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