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Your priorities are meaningless (unless you stack rank them)

Andrew Liu
Andrew Liu
1 min read
Your priorities are meaningless (unless you stack rank them)
Photo by Brett Jordan / Unsplash

Table of Contents

As far as I can tell, every issue tracker and to-do list app known to man supports some feature that lets you prioritize your tasks.

You typically tag everything as high, medium, or low priority. Other apps may refer to them as "P0's" or "P1's," though they all use the same bucketing system. Sounds good on paper. I enjoy understanding my priorities just as much as the next person does. But what happens in practice? Personally, I experience a two-part problem.

  1. Everything gets labeled as a high priority.
  2. You get confused about what's actually important.

Dividing your priorities into buckets can backfire. If everything has a high priority, the system's meaningless. It's like giving each task a participation trophy.

Having real priorities means that no two things are equally important. By prioritizing one thing, you must explicitly deprioritize something else.

Simple ordering solves this easily

"But everything is important!" you might rebut in protest. I totally agree. Multiple things can be important, but that doesn't mean they're equally important. You can plan to buy both milk and eggs, but if the grocery store were rationing supplies, you'd eventually pick one over the other.

Here's what I recommend doing instead:

  • Stack rank everything in order of their relative priority.
  • No two items can be equally ranked.
  • You're done. It's that simple. Start completing those tasks!

Ranking tasks in an ordered list works so well because humans can intuitively sort items once we've given them some measurable values. Once you ban equal priorities, you're suddenly forced to make real decisions.

For those who still feel the need to divide tasks into buckets, you should still rank everything first. After ranking everything, then draw cut-off boundaries between your "high priority" and "medium priority" tasks. That way, you gain some notion of absolute importance without forgetting your relative prioritization. Though it's just a cherry on top. Stack ranking is enough.

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Andrew Liu Twitter

Software engineer. Does cybersecurity and ML stuff. Takes life one step at a time...


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