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How I’m using priorities in my Toodledo hotlist

Toodledo’s flexibility lets me use priorities in a pretty interesting way.  Here's how I use them.

One of the nicest features of Toodledo is its flexibility; you can implement all kinds of different systems with it from a full blown GTD system down to something as simple as Autofocus.  And you don’t need a degree in computer science to use it.

Priorities can be a real problem, though.  There are some very good arguments against using them at all because priorities aren’t static - they change as your situation changes.  Perhaps the most trivial yet telling example is the high priority task that you can only do at home; when you’re at work, that task has pretty much as low a priority you can give it.  Still, if used judiciously - or, in my case, somewhat strangely - I think they can be quite helpful.

I’ve written before about how I think priorities should work: they’re the combination of effort to complete a task and the impact that completing the task will have.  But I’ve yet to find an app that supports this.  What I’m writing about here is something quite different.

First, a review of how I (currently) do things in Toodledo.

Toodledo lets you sort tasks in up to three sequential ways. It also has a really cool measure called Importance, which is a combination of a task’s priority, how many days you have left till the task’s deadline, and a couple of other things. (You can read the details of Importance here.

I keep both dated and undated tasks in Toodledo. I don’t break tasks down much in Toodledo, because I’m just not the type of person who needs to do that.  And if I do (for particularly complex projects), I tend to combine subtasks with notes and I keep that stuff in Evernote; so only the project name remains in Toodledo.  What’s more, most of my tasks don’t have deadlines; that’s just the nature of my work. That means that most of my tasks can’t be completed in one sitting. It’s not a question of getting them done; it’s a question of regularly taking a swipe at them so that I will  finish them in a timely manner.

I sort my Hotlist first by Importance (which incorporates priority), then by reverse modification date, then by priority.  This organizes my hotlist into between three and five chunks, one for each level of importance, with the most important tasks at the top. But what’s really interesting is what happens within each chunk.

Tasks that are due today always end up at the top of the Hotlist.  They have to be dealt with, albeit not necessarily first thing.  For instance, I have to take the garbage out on Tuesdays, but after dinner and not before lunch.  Still, because they’re right there at the top, I can’t possibly miss them.  I should note that I use due dates very strictly only for tasks that actually are due; these are hard deadlines and not just preferences.

Tasks in the other chunks are arranged by reverse modification date.  That means that the tasks nearest the top are the ones I’ve neglected the most.  Since I update the notes on each task when I work on it, those tasks will automatically cycle down to the bottom of the list.  So when I’m looking for a task to do, I can scan the hotlist from top to bottom, knowing that the first task I find that makes sense to do at that moment, is the most important task I can do, and that needs attention because I haven’t worked on in a while.  For further details on this technique, see this post.

Here, finally, is where priorities come in.  Toodledo has five priority levels, but I only need three. I’ve set my Toodledo defaults such that new tasks are created with Medium priority. I have a lot of Medium priority tasks. Because they’re sorted by reverse modification time, it can take quite a while to cycle through them all.

But some tasks just need more attention than that: I can’t just work on them once every 20 or 30 days.  So I bump those tasks up to High priority. This moves them to a different chunk, one with usually between six and 10 tasks.  They’re still sorted within that chunk by reverse modification time, so I still know which tasks I’ve neglected, but since there’s fewer of them, I can cycle through them much faster - once a week at most.  In other words, the tasks that matter most are getting more attention, which is as it should be.

Finally, sometimes, there are tasks that are so important, I have to keep an eye on every day. Typically there are only two or three of them, but I don’t want to risk "losing sight” of them among even my High priority tasks.  These are the tasks that I bump up to Top priority.  This puts those tasks into their own chunk, above all the others (except those that are due today).

The result is a task list arranged so that looking from top to bottom, I know I’m seeing the most pressing, most neglected tasks I have.

It’s not really what priorities were meant for, but it works really well for me.

And you’re welcome.

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