Prioritisation and to-do list strategies are a dime a dozen. Mine's simple: what's stressing me the most?

There are lots of other ways to prioritise, of course, but take a step back and think about what your overall goal is. Mine is to be happy. There are lots of contributors to being happy (friends, family, health, adventure, new experiences... the list goes on) but equally there are plenty of things whose absence contributes to happiness. Happily (Ha! See what I did there?), I live in a first-world country so my list of detractors doesn't include things like famine, war, pestilence or plague but there is one #firstworldproblem that bites far too frequently: stress.

I hate stress.

That's not to say that I'm bad at dealing with it, or that I hate it more than the next person. I think the difference is that I've accepted that dealing with stress needs to be a first-class component of my life. Rather than just "being stressed" I need to identify the causes of my stress and actively seek to minimise them.

I have a task list. So do you. You probably have several, as does everyone else you know. Everything on them is probably in various states of either procrastination or overwhelmedness (if that's a word). Mine's not much better. I get through stuff fast but - and this is the problem - the list never seems to get any shorter. Every time I cross an item off, another appears to take its place. That's life, I guess, and I just have to deal with that, but it means that more important than getting things done efficiently is getting the right things done at all.

My simple rules for prioritisation are these:

  1. Identify what's stressing me the most.
  2. Do that.
  3. Repeat. Probably unto death.

If I can choose between getting five supposedly "high-priority" tasks done or one high-stress task, I'll always choose the high-stress one. If something with an apparently-lower priority is causing me more stress than a "high-priority" task then it's likely that the prioritisation is externally-driven rather than internally. If it's stressing me, it wins.

Stress is an excellent intuitive aggregator of all sorts of other metrics. For instance, I could try to consider the cost of an activity (or not doing that activity), the benefit derived, the time it will take to complete the task, who's waiting on it, who I'm going to disappoint or delight... I'm a software engineer, so I guess I could write an algorithm to collect a bunch of metrics, mine a bunch of data and figure out what I should do next, but why would I do that when I have an internal algorithm that already does a better job of it?

Every time I'm confronted with a list entitled "To Do", I cross out the title and replace it with "What's stressing me the most?" By reducing the ordering to one simple metric, it becomes pretty clear pretty quickly what I need to do next. And, when it's done, there's a palpable feeling of relief and I can face the next-most-stressful item a whole lot less stressed.