Your Hierarchy of Tasks

Task Hierarchy Pyramid

Productivity and time management are based on the idea of taking control of your life. When you’re in control, you can manipulate your tasks and time to suit your goals and desires. When you’re optimally productive, you fully control your task hierarchy—you set priorities, you set the schedule, and you set the parameters for success.

However, very few of us are optimally productive all the time, day in and day out. Sometimes we end up yielding control to outside forces—sometimes even to the tasks themselves. Then your schedule starts dictating your priorities, and the tasks rearrange themselves into a new hierarchy that doesn’t always serve your purposes.

For example, if I over commit myself to various tasks and projects, I may find my life being dictated by them. Since I have a regular work schedule and half a dozen volunteer projects, I have to make it to all the meetings and complete all the assignments for all of them. Instead of making my own choices, I allow my projects to get higher than me in the hierarchy and take control of my time. Making sure you stay on top of your task hierarchy takes foresight, planning, and a large helping of self-knowledge.

Know your limits

Sometimes it’s hard to be realistic about our own abilities, but it’s important to have an accurate perspective on our limits. Maybe I can handle 5 volunteer projects, but definitely not 6. Knowing your limits takes some trial-and-error experimenting, and you should also seek outside input. When you’re thinking about taking on a new project, ask a close friend, a spouse, or another confidant their opinion on it. Accept their input and invite them to be honest. It might be hard to hear them say that last time you did something similar the results were disastrous to your mental health, but that doesn’t make it any less important to hear. When you gather outside opinions and combine them with your internal retrospection, you’ll be able to start mapping out clear limits for yourself.

Know your weaknesses

Knowing your limits can do a lot by way of keeping you from losing your spot on top of your task hierarchy, but there are bound to be things that can entice you to exceed yourself. Maybe you’re a sucker for a friend asking a favor, or for any project that involves abandoned animals. You need to identify the types of projects you have a significant weakness for, the types that you just can’t resist. Knowing what your weaknesses are beforehand can help you shore up a resistance so you won’t justify exceeding your limits.

Know your needs

Your weaknesses can be subtle saboteurs of your task hierarchy, but they can also signal inherent needs that you may have. Maybe the way you express true friendship is by doing things, like favors, and saying “no” would make you feel like you had somehow tarnished a friendship. Maybe you have a calling to help creatures who can’t help themselves. If you discover that your weaknesses are things you need in order to feel satisfied with yourself, you should find a way to work them into your hierarchy in a way that doesn’t exceed your limits. This may mean trimming out tasks that you were doing without thinking, but don’t really contribute to fulfilling your needs.

Know what makes you happy

Your needs may be a subset of what makes you happy, but the larger “happiness” factor should also come into play when you’re managing your task hierarchy. If you’re fulfilling needs and then allowing the rest of your limits to be taken up by things you don’t enjoy, you’re toeing a dangerous line. If you’re not happy with your set of tasks, you’ll start taking on new, interesting, and fun things to do. If you don’t adjust for the additions you’ll inevitably make, mandatory tasks that are neither needs nor pleasures will start taking over your hierarchy and imposing themselves on your attempts to control your life.

So make time for the things you need, and for non-necessities that nonetheless make you happy. If you’re the one making the choices—making room for things, adjusting commitments, etc.—you’ll maintain control over your task hierarchy and be able to set the priorities that best suit your lifestyle.

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