How NOT to Set Priority for Tasks

Can you imagine being productive without setting priorities for your tasks? It may seem counterintuitive, but it’s a characteristic of Getting Things Done (GTD). The lack of priority in GTD makes it different from many time management practices that use things like ABC method to set priorities for tasks.

As I wrote in my review of Ready for Anything, David Allen handles this problem by introducing a simple distinction: projects and someday/maybe. Either something needs to be done as soon as possible (which makes it a project) or not (which makes it a someday/maybe).

After knowing this, I then asked myself: Don’t we need to distinguish different projects to know which ones are more important? Don’t we still need to set priority?

Around the time when I was thinking about it, I watched Randy Pausch’s lecture on Time Management. There he featured Covey’s quadrant that classifies tasks into four quadrants:

  • Quadrant 1: Important and Urgent
    For example, finishing a report that due tomorrow.
  • Quadrant 2: Important but Not Urgent
    For example, building relationships.
  • Quadrant 3: Not Important but Urgent
    For example, unimportant phone calls.
  • Quadrant 4: Not Important and Not Urgent
    For example, playing games excessively.

Then, connecting this quadrant concept to GTD’s lack of priority, I saw a place where we don’t need to set priority:

We don’t need to set priority when we are in quadrant 2

The reason is simple:

For tasks that are considered important, priority setting are only necessary when some tasks are urgent.

When you need to finish something tomorrow, you have no choice but to work on it first. You must give it high priority. The situation is different when you have plenty of time to do your tasks. You have the freedom to choose what you want to do at any moment. You don’t need priority setting because – though the tasks are important – none of them is urgent.

So I would say that:

GTD’s natural place is quadrant 2

Of course, GTD can help you manage crisis (quadrant 1), but quadrant 2 is its natural place. Quadrant 2 is where you can have “mind like water”.

If you want to reach this position where you no longer need to set priority, here are some things you should do:

1. Eliminate unimportant tasks

This should be the first thing you do. You can’t afford to have your time spent on unimportant tasks in quadrant 3 and 4. So look at each item in your next action or project list, and ask yourself: Do I need to do this as soon as possible? Think before you answer. Be selective. Being selective is essential because you may leave some unimportant tasks otherwise.

If the answer is yes then you can leave the task in your project or next action list.

If the answer is no, then the next question is: Can I eliminate this? If you say yes then just eliminate it. Otherwise, put the task in your someday/maybe list.

Though it would be difficult to eliminate all tasks in quadrant 3 (sometimes you just can’t prevent unimportant phone calls), do your best to eliminate as many of them as possible.

2. Get the urgent things done

The time you save in step 1 can then be used to get tasks in quadrant 1 done. The key here is not to procrastinate (see Review: The Now Habit and 7 Can’t-Miss Ways to Defeat the Procrastination Habit for tips). The sooner you work on quadrant 1 tasks, the sooner you will finish them. Your goal is to clear quadrant 1 as soon as possible.

3. Finish tasks before they become urgent

Now that you have cleared quadrant 1, you can focus your effort on quadrant 2. Look at tasks that can potentially be urgent in the future and work on them. Try to finish them before they become urgent. This way you can keep your quadrant 1 clear.

4. Keep pushing back

You can take the previous point further by keep pushing back. Start with the tasks that will due first and get them done. Then push back and work on the task that will due next. This way you clear your tasks further to the future and you will have enough “cushion” for unexpected things. When unexpected things come, you can handle them without compromising your performance. It will also give you the freedom and flexibility to quickly seize on unexpected opportunities as they arise.

5. Allocate time for tasks that never become urgent

There are some tasks that will never become urgent though they are important. As I wrote above, building relationships is an example. For this kind of tasks, you should allocate time to do them. Make a commitment to do it as soon as possible and put it in your project or next action list.


When you do all these, you no longer need to set priority. You have the freedom to do what you want. You do something not because you have to but because you choose to.


  1. I can’t believe how many people give their precious time to Quadrant 3 tasks.

    I read an article recently about how to handle telemarketers or unwanted phone calls. The author gave a series of polite ways to deal with these folks.

    Since the advent of caller ID and voice mail why even answer these calls? If the call is important the caller will leave a message. If you decide to pick it up, then you may do so.

    One person I suggested this to said it was impolite. A minister said during his sermon that not answering your phone when you’re really at home is lying.

    What’s wrong with these people?

    I give my cell phone number to close friends and important contacts. Anyone still calling on my home line is either one of my distant friends who has my home number etched in their minds and can’t get the hang of calling my cell phone, someone trying to sell me something, or the clueless.

    You might wonder why I even still have that phone. It’s still the phone number of record on accounts I started 20 or more years ago so I just leave them as is.

    On rare occasions when I accidentally pick up that phone and hear “May I speak to Mr. or Mrs. Brown?” I say “NO!” and hang up.


  2. Thanks for the Randy Pausch lecture, I didn’t know he had done anything on Time Management!

    I recently saw his ‘Last Lecture’ ( ) and I was immediately impressed by him.

  3. Flora,
    I’m glad you shared your thoughts on how to deal with quadrant 3 tasks. Quadrant 3 is perhaps the most difficult to deal with. It’s not important but its urgent nature could distract us and we could end up wasting a lot of time there.

    Yes, I also love his ‘Last Lecture’. It gives me a lot of useful life lessons. No wonder he also did well on his Time Management lecture.

  4. David Allen often talks about not prioritizing stuff, but I have never made the link to the Quadrants. That makes perfect sense.

    Thanks for the great insight, Donald.

  5. Luciano,
    GTD’s lack of priority was something that puzzled me, so I was excited when I saw a possible explanation from Covey’s quadrant. It makes me better understand the context of GTD.

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