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Imagine the following situation:

Once upon a time, you get asked to do something. You are already extremely busy. Your dolist is overflowing with overdue items tagged "important" and though you're in the process of improving your time management/productivity skills, you still have a tendency for things to go from "Important & Not Urgent" to "I Will Die/Lose The Roof Over My Head".

The conversation goes like this:

Someone Else (SE): Could you take a look at X when you have time?
You (Y): Well, I'm very overloaded with critical things. Is it OK if I take a while before I get around to it? Is it important?
SE: Sure. It's not really that critical. Please do the stuff for project A (where A = a big critical project that sprouted lots of the important tasks, etc.) first, for starters.
Y: [giant sigh of relief] :)
Y: [Add thing to dolist as "not important/not urgent" with a due date of end-of-next-week]

The next week ends and you haven't gotten around to it. But that's fine because it's not important and not urgent.

Things happen and you never get around to the "not important/not urgent" tasks for 1 month+.

More time passes...

SE: Why haven't you looked at X?! You knew that it had to be done by the end of [name of month 3 months from the original conversation]! [more bad things happen]

How do you prevent this situation from happening? Assume that SE is someone important but not so important that you drop everything to do his bidding (for example, substitute "co-worker" for SE and not "CEO").

Bonus Question:
Imagine that X is actually a project and not something to just take a look at. Maybe it's "type up the notes from a 1 month trip, cross reference the photos, e-mail copies of photos to the people in the photos, and so on" and just breaking X down into individual steps is a time-consuming endeavor of its own.

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If it will become a mini-disaster a month later, the task was apparently not exactly "unimportant". Maybe "not urgent".

In "Eat that frog" the advice is given to label tasks with A, B and C priorities. A being super-important as defined by your work contract. A means a disaster if not done. A done well might advance your career. B is also bad but for other people. B if not done (well) makes other people mad at you. C is nice to have but nobody suffers if not done.

The other suggestion (from the Personal Kanban slides) is: if you're really busy, don't take more work. If the cars on a street are bumper-to-bumper, the traffic will not go forward. Say "no", do it politely but point to all the other stuff you have to do which is also important and has been waiting longer.

And: if you don't get a task done by an agreed-upon due date renegotiate the due date with SE. If you keep SE in the loop about how busy you are SE might be able to task somebody else.

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To get the reductive pithy answer out of the way first: you do them, or you never agree to them in the first place.

To be slightly more helpful, I'll start with some observations:

  • if X was due in two weeks, but X is actually a project and not something to just take a look at, then from the moment you accepted the task, even at the delayed due date, you were probably behind schedule--if you suspected it would be a week before you'd even look at X then you're actually starting even further behind
  • if it's been 1+ month and you still haven't started then at least one of two things is failing you:
    • your weekly review, which should have prevented this task from completely falling off your radar for that long, if nothing else when the original deadline passed you can't even lie to yourself anymore as you are by definition behind schedule, even if you could work at infinite efficiency
    • your assessment, as time passed, that the task was becoming more urgent; you should have either realized that it was becoming more important and thus starts commanding your time and attention, or you realize it's not important and push the date out or drop it off your list

What to do given these observations is simple but not easy.

  • When accepting a task--even, or perhaps especially, with a far-flung due date--take the time to honestly assess if you think it's going to get done. If the answer is no you need to decide right now what to do about it. Will SE be angry that you've said you can't help? Probably. But I contend they'll be less angry if you tell them now than if you tell them in six weeks.
  • Continually re-assess your commitments because once one is made, you have an obligation to follow through on it, even if that's nothing more than going back to SE and telling them that project A took longer than expected, that project X hasn't been started, and that you won't be able to make the originally agreed-to date.
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1) Keep your tasks ordered by timeline: I keep a "critical this week", "critical this month", "critical this quarter" TODO list, plus a "whenever I can get around to it" list - every month I sit down and reevaluate them. Your example task should go on one of your "critical " lists - unless the person didn't make it clear to you that it needed to get done in three months, in which case it's their fault.

2) If the system works, at some point that task will get from a "this quarter" list to a "this month" or "this week" list. If after looking at your lists you get the feeling you won't be able to deal with it, tell the person who asked you - I'm pretty sure they'll be happier to find out before the deadline than after. Maybe they'll find someone else to do it; maybe they'll tell you it's not that important after all; maybe they'll tell you it's critically important and will attempt to bribe you with free dinner, in which case at least you'll have some extra motivation to get it done.

3) If you know you're busy, and have no good reason to think you're going to be any less busy a month later, just don't take on extra work. It's easy to think "Oh, I'll be able to squeeze it in sometime in the next couple of months", but usually the next couple of months aren't any less busy than this week. Especially if the task is something significant, like in your bonus question - don't agree to take on extra tasks just because they're presented as non-urgent.

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This is imho why weekly reviews in methodologies such as GTD are so powerful.

Simply just take a time every week to read through your task lists and reorganize what needs to be reorganized. If you agreed to do something last week, but now you know you won't have the time to do it, simply cross it off the list.

It's hard to learn to say no, but the more you do it, the better you're going to get at it.

Some tasks can become more important as the time passes, and some can simply vanish into oblivion.

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The problem I see in the setup is the following part:

You knew that it had to be done by the end of [name of month 3 months from the original conversation]!

When did you know that? The reason I am pointing this out is because you should have asked that right in the initial conversation. Specifically,

Y: [giant sigh of relief] :) Thanks, now about the real deadline - when does it need to be done by so it does not blow up?

The answer (3 months from current point) would be then used to setup an additional trigger (tickler in GTD, or calendar reminder of some sort) with enough lead time from the end point to say "Make sure to start (finish?) X that will blow up at DATE". You need to do at least minimal analysis of the task to figure out what the problem size is of course. If you cannot do that straight away, then you have two tasks: urgent one for scope and real one for bulk of work.

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More commentary/notes to come later but I intentionally didn't include an obvious due date in the conversation because that's how reality works. (As for the 3 weeks thing, it may become an implicit deadline a week after the original task is created) – Zian Choy Dec 30 '11 at 7:46
up vote 1 down vote accepted

I would've preferred to mark many of the answers as "the answer" but since I can't, I've handed out upvotes and consolidated things into 1 big answer here.

First Encounter With A Budding Task:

  • Reconsider how you're classifying things. Make sure things aren't starting off with the wrong category to begin with.
  • Don't agree to take on extra tasks just because they're presented as non-urgent.
  • When encountering a potential task, especially with a distant or vague due date, get a solid estimate of the work required before saying "Yes."

Dealing With Aging Tasks:

  • Have a weekly review that keeps tasks from becoming invisible.
  • The weekly review should set off lights and sirens when a task becomes overdue.
  • Regularly re-flag things (say, from Unimportant & Not Urgent to Important & Not Urgent)
  • Tell SE if you're going to miss the due date, whether it was explicit or not.

Thank you for all the help.

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Buy a small whiteboard. Split it into 4 sections by drawing 2 axes. The vertical axis is for Urgency. The horizontal axis is for Importance.

For each main task put a dot on the chart and label denoting it's importance and urgency. For tasks with a deadline put an arrow denoting which way the dot should be traveling. I.e. as the deadline draws close the task is getting more urgent. Peridoically reassess all tasks and move them in the appropriate direction.

As you chose which task to do next. Use the chart as a guideline which to choose. Don't choose to do unimportant tasks over important ones, less urgent over urgent.

When someone gives you a task, show them where it lies on the chart so they know that you have more important and more urgent tasks to do ahead of theirs.

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That might not convince the Someone Else, who has a different way than you of measuring urgency and importance. – Camille Goudeseune Aug 26 '13 at 17:09
I think this is the heart of the problem though. If you are working in a team, even if it is just you and your boss, it is essential to be on the same page when it comes to urgency and importance. With the above method you have taken the first step in making this clear and visible to others providing them with the opportunity to discuss with you your (mistaken) priorities and persuade or instruct you to change them if necessary. Much better than "I'll do it later". IMHO. – Stuart Woodward Aug 27 '13 at 3:00

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