How To Set Most Important Tasks The Right Way

Ahh most important tasks, we all love them and use them well. Indeed, the topic of productivity is in vogue, and MITs are the focus of productivity blogs and discussions.

Save yourself a lot of time and reading and just know this: for the average knowledge worker, knowing what’s most important and then doing it is a valuable skill to have. Usually, doing it first thing in the morning – when the glucose levels in your brain are at their peak daily levels and your creative capacity is at its highest – is the best way to do it quickly and effectively.

What Most Important Tasks do

The idea of the Most Important Task isn’t really all that new. Older generations may have simply called it “prioritizing tasks” or “task management” or as my mom says, “working down your to-do list.” That last one isn’t very sexy and doesn’t lend itself to an acronym, so let’s stick with MIT.

The Problem With MITs

It’s not tough to comprehend the benefits of prioritizing your work. However, the application of assignment is less clear and straightforward.

In setting MITs over the past year or so, the following questions lingered in the back of my mind:

  • How do you decide what’s most important? If important simply meant urgent, then it would be an easy decision. But what about long-term projects that have no deadline? The benefits of working on such projects are much less apparent.
  • What’s the best time of day to set the MITs? If I set them in the morning, I’m likely to focus on those tasks which have more urgency, and perhaps those that seem easier. After all, despite my energy being high in the morning, I haven’t built up any momentum throughout the day and my mind is likely to seek “low hanging fruit” tasks: the stuff that’s easy to pick off without much effort. That’s great for feeling accomplished, but not ideal for tackling the resistance and doing the work required for bigger projects.

I’ve also found that, in knowing the importance of facing the resistance, I’ve arbitrarily chosen tasks that were not very important simply because there was a great deal of resistance involved in the work. A complete waste of willpower…

So frame of mind really matters. So does willpower. And energy and a long list of other things that affect decision making.

What this all boils down to: in isolation, it’s highly unlikely that you are being completely real and honest with yourself when assigning “importance” to tasks.

To get real and effectively prioritize, we need some kind of analysis or external pressure to recognize what constitutes importance for our business.

How to address this

For a long time, I set my MITs in the morning. Before long I realized that not much creative work was being accomplished, and sought a different approach. In thinking about how properly set MITs, the following ideas came to mind:

1. Submit your MITs to peer review

In doing so, this would quickly out weaknesses in task assignment. My peers, many of whom are at the same level of business, could easily identify my blind spots and point out the times I’m chasing easy wins.

Further, peer review would give instant feedback on whether the tasks are “blindly facing the resistance” (itself a form of resistance), in order to feel accomplished.

This would be a great solution, were it not for a giant IF: it means that every single day, a group of people would need to review your MIT and give feedback. The peer group would also need to stay abreast of your goals, having at least some semblance of where you’re headed and how you plan to get there.

The thought of doing this for someone else sounds draining and frankly, lame. It’s demanding enough to stay on top of your own tasks – doing so for others would take up a lot of mental RAM each day. Perhaps it would work well in groups of 2 or 3, or with a sharp personal assistant, but still not an ideal solution.

2. Develop an SOP for setting MITs

This, intuitively, was always the best solution for most-important-task-setting in isolation. However, it wasn’t until a recent conversation with my productivity-obsessed friend that I saw the benefits of this approach.

He explained how setting MITs the night before was helpful in tackling the tasks that truly had 2, 3 or 10X ROI potential for his business. More importantly, however, was the list of questions he uses each evening to reflect on what is most important before moving ahead and assigning the next day’s MIT.

Here are those questions:

Questions to ask yourself before setting Most Important Tasks

What needs to be done?

Roughly how long would it take to do?

If you had to delegate this project, how would you do it?

In what potential ways would the final product be inferior when delegated, compared to if you did it yourself?

Describe the worst-case scenario that would result from the product being inferior in all these ways.

How likely is this scenario to occur?

How could you reduce the chances of this occurring without doing extra work?

What would you do to recover from this scenario?

How would it look after the recovery?

Can you live with this outcome? (if yes, then delegate)

Getting Real

What do all these questions point to? They are signposts pointing you toward high-ROI work.

It may not work out that you uncover the without-a-doubt most important task, but asking these questions will help you move towards work that is relatively more important.

By asking these questions, you are Getting Real with yourself.

Getting Real is about skipping all the stuff that represents real. Getting real is less. Less mass, less software, less features,
less paperwork, less of everything that’s not essential. – 37 Signals

It means doing less of work for work’s sake. Instead, doing the one or two things that will produce the most results.

A few takeaway points:

  • The process of uncovering the next-day’s MIT should feel a little uncomfortable. It should feel like a stretch. By mentally preparing for this discomfort, you can tackle the bigger problems without worrying about the outcomes.
  • Even with the self-analysis, peer review is a useful tool. Joining a business or productivity mastermind group will pay dividends. Any bit of feedback or random comment from someone in the group can identify weaknesses in your daily MITs.

Hopefully this short guide and questionnaire will help you assign high-impact Most Important Tasks for your business. Do you have an awesome system for setting MITs? Please share it in the comments.