Something is seriously wrong with the way we set priorities. Especially in businesses. Imagine this list of items to address for a fictional online store, does this look familiar?
#1 - Fix broken shopping cart - High priority
#2 - Add PayPal as payment option - High priority
#3 - Fix customer login screen - High priority
#4 - Update article pricing - Medium priority
#5 - Send new e-mail campaign - Medium priority
#6 - Update company blog - Low priority
Lists like this rarely get done completely. If all goes well, the first ones do get done, but the low priority items rarely do.
With this way of prioritizing items, the list becomes a dumping ground for leftovers. High priority items get done, but lower priority ones rarely all get done. Better yet, while addressing the high priorities, new items are added that usually end up getting a higher priority then some of the items already on the list. That is not a problem in itself per se, but it does give you a sense of really how low the priorities of those other items are.
Lists like these are there to make sure, everybody involved knows what needs to be done first, finish it and get on with the next item. And not contain anything that does not really need to be addressed. You might want to keep notes about those items elsewhere, but do not pretend them to be something that needs to be worked on if it is not really that important. Because everytime people go through the list to discuss priorities, or try to decide where to put new items, those really low priority ones are being talked about, but they never get done. So, time wasted!
Instead, here are two tips to improve on keeping lists of prioritized work easy and manageable:
1) Do not add a priority to each item. The item on top of the list, is the highest priority. Simple as that. If everything becomes "High priority", nothing is "High priority" anymore.
2) Only include items that are actually doable and really need to be done in order to prevent endless discussions about stuff that does not get worked on anyway.
So, keep the lists short and to the point. And no priority indication. The top one is first priority. Easy as that!