EBD-TF - A Two-Dimensional Approach to Task Prioritization
While the world isn’t short on task prioritization frameworks—each promising a unique approach to effective task management—I’ve found that none truly resonate with me. This is especially the case when it comes to personal task management, a category that spans both professional and personal responsibilities.
Existing methods often fall short in one of two ways: they either oversimplify tasks, stripping them of their context and nuance, or they skew towards organizational settings, missing the mark at the individual level. Additionally, these frameworks tend to neglect the fluid nature of task priorities over time. In this article, I will first describe some of the existing methodologies and then propose EBD-TF as a more well-rounded approach to personal task management.
Many task and project management applications allow you to classify tasks by priority levels such as low, medium, high, very high, or urgent. This rudimentary approach is fraught with limitations.
First, it provides no context or guidance for determining the priority level of a given task.
Second, it is unclear how to proceed once the tasks are prioritized. If you continuously tackle high-priority tasks first, you may never get to work on the low priority ones. There will always be something with a higher priority to do. This raises the question: are these low-priority tasks meant to be addressed eventually, or can they be safely disregarded?
Lastly, it lacks nuance when it comes to task dependencies. A low priority task may be blocking a high priority task, which would require elevating its priority to high as well. This shift in priorities could give the impression that the task is of critical importance in itself, when it may not be inherently so.
The MoSCoW method asks you to classify tasks as must have, should have, could have, or won’t have. Developed for software project management and commonly used in agile contexts, this framework emphasizes the prioritization of features within specific time frames, helping to identify which immediate deliverables are critical for a project’s success within that period.
In contrast, personal task management usually operates without the confines of fixed time frames, cycles, or sprints. As such, the MoSCoW method may not align well with the more fluid nature of managing personal tasks, where the focus is less on attributes of a final product and more on actionable, individual tasks. The language of MoSCoW leans towards describing levels of obligation and necessity within the regarded time frame, without shedding light on the underlying motivations or values behind the tasks.
This difference in context becomes particularly evident when considering the won’t have category. In project management, won’t have tasks are deferred for future time frames. However, without the time-boxed framework that is typical in project environments, this category can easily be misconstrued as a discard pile in personal task management, which is not its intended purpose.
Must, should, want
This framework is similar to MoSCoW but is more geared toward personal task management. It is commonly used to plan the day or the upcoming days. As the name suggests, you categorize your tasks as must for obligatory tasks, should for tasks aligned with your long-term goals, or want for tasks that you feel an emotional urge to complete. While this method works well for short-term planning, it isn’t well suited for a long-term perspective.
The categories can be a bit counterintuitive. Consider tasks that contribute to your long-term goals—items you would be intrinsically motivated to complete. You might think these belong in the want category. However, according to the method, they belong in the should category, implying a sense of external obligation rather than internal drive.
Another example involves tasks such as household chores. These tasks might seem like musts that you have to complete in order to prevent your home from descending into chaos. But when planning your day, they often are of lower priority—unless you’ve neglected them to the point of generating disorder. Yet, they hardly qualify as tasks you want to do.
These two examples illustrate the method’s inability to adequately represent the complex nature of personal priorities.
Another aspect is the psychological impact of the chosen categories. The terms must and should carry an inherent moral weight, potentially inducing guilt for tasks left undone. This turns the method into less of a motivating tool and more of a catalyst for self-criticism.
In summary, the Must, Should, Want method excels in structuring short-term task lists, but is of limited use for long-term planning. In addition, the categories lack the nuance needed to represent personal priorities and motivations.
The Eisenhower method, based on a quote by Dwight D. Eisenhower, employs a two-dimensional matrix to categorize tasks based on urgency and importance. Each quadrant of this matrix prescribes a course of action:
- Urgent and important: Do immediately.
- Not urgent but important: Schedule.
- Urgent but not important: Delegate.
- Not urgent and not important: Delete.
This two-dimensional approach to task prioritization provides a more nuanced framework than the methods mentioned before. It’s generally used for short-term planning and immediate to-do lists.
However, the Eisenhower method has its shortcomings. For starters, the not urgent and not important quadrant seems superfluous. One could argue that tasks falling into this category shouldn’t be on a to-do list in the first place. This is certainly the case for the “time-wasters” that are often listed as examples for this category. Moreover, even if a task is neither urgent nor important in the context of long-term goals, it might still be rewarding to complete.
Second, the notion of “delegation” appears too simplified. The capacity to delegate a task often depends on factors other than its urgency or importance—like available skill sets or willingness among team or family members. An important task might be highly delegable, while an unimportant yet urgent task could be non-delegable due to the lack of availability of a delegate.
Finally, the concept of “urgency” in this framework is inadequately defined. Does urgency refer solely to time-sensitivity, or does it encompass other factors? Some tasks may have upcoming deadlines without necessitating immediate action, adding complexity to what should be categorized as urgent.
In summary, the Eisenhower method excels in immediate task prioritization, but falls short in capturing the complexity of real-world priorities and the fluid nature of task delegation.
The Proposal: EBD-TF
Having described a selection of existing methods for task prioritization and their shortcomings, it’s time to envision a framework that fills these gaps. My proposal aims to meet the following criteria:
- Universality: Suitable for task management across both personal and professional spheres on the individual level.
- Temporal Flexibility: Applicable to both long-term planning and immediate, short-term task lists.
- Motivational Complexity: Accounts for the diverse motivations behind individual tasks.
- Timeliness: Captures the time-sensitive nature of tasks without reducing them to mere deadlines.
- Adaptability: Acknowledges the shifting nature of task priorities over time.
Mainly inspired by the Must/Should/Want and Eisenhower methods, EBD-TF aims to overcome their limitations. It introduces more intuitive nomenclature, offers less rigid task recommendations, and extends its applicability to long-term planning.
The process can be summarized in three steps:
- Categorize tasks
- Sort by priority
- Pick next tasks to work on
EBD-TF classifies tasks on two axes: motivation (or importance) and timeliness.
- Motivation: essential, beneficial, desired
- Timeliness: timely, flexible
These are non-negotiable tasks that are crucial either for maintaining your day-to-day life or fulfilling broader responsibilities. Failure to complete these tasks could have severe repercussions, affecting either your well-being or your professional standing. Examples include paying essential bills, delivering on significant work commitments like crucial project milestones or quarterly reports, and conducting household chores that, if left unattended, would disrupt your living conditions.
These are tasks aligned with your long-term goals and aspirations. While these tasks are important, they can be postponed without immediate severe repercussions. Examples include skill development, networking, or projects that contribute to your career growth or personal well-being.
These are tasks driven primarily by personal interest or emotional satisfaction. These tasks are neither essential for daily functioning nor directly beneficial in the pursuit of long-term goals, but they provide emotional or psychological rewards. Examples might be hobbies, social events, or personal projects.
Note that the motivational categories are not mutually exclusive in terms of emotional engagement: a task can be both essential and desired, or beneficial and desired, but for the purpose of prioritization, it should be categorized under its most compelling attribute.
Tasks that either have a deadline that is approaching soon or that need to be done as soon as possible to avoid negative outcomes or to seize a time-limited opportunity. Examples include work obligations with deadlines, bills with due dates, or ordering tickets for a concert that may be sold out soon. A timely task is not automatically important, it just means that a decision needs to be made before the impending due date to either complete the task or to abandon it.
Tasks that have a wider window of opportunity for completion. A flexible task can be either important or unimportant. It just means that the task doesn’t carry the same time-sensitive urgency as a timely task. Postponing it will not lead to immediate negative consequences, but continuous neglect might.
To help you determine whether a task is essential, beneficial, or desired, you can ask yourself these questions:
- “Does the failure to complete this task have immediate, severe repercussions?” - If yes, the task is essential.
- “Is this task critical for maintaining my current quality of life or professional standing?” - If yes, the task is essential.
- “Is this task directly aligned with my long-term goals or projects?” - If yes, the task is beneficial.
- “Is the primary drive for completing this task emotional or psychological satisfaction?” - If yes, the task is desired.
- “If this task were completed, would it bring measurable advancement to my personal or professional life?” - If yes, the task is beneficial.
To help you determine whether a task is timely or flexible, you can ask yourself these questions:
- “Does the timeline for this task come from a deadline or a limited-time opportunity?” - If yes, and the deadline is approaching or the time window is shrinking, then it is a timely task.
- “Would you be able to complete this task at a later time without affecting its inherent purpose or value?” - If yes, it is a flexible task.
Sort by priority
After categorizing your tasks along both the motivation and timeliness axes using the EBD-TF method, the next step is to sort these tasks by priority. This sorting serves as a long-term backlog, given that your to-do list will likely contain more tasks than can be completed in a single setting.
When sorting tasks, place all timely tasks at the top of your list, followed by flexible tasks. Within each of these categories, sort tasks from essential to beneficial to desired.
- timely and essential (TE)
- timely and beneficial (TB)
- timely and desired (TD)
- flexible and essential (FE)
- flexible and beneficial (FB)
- flexible and desired (FD)
The reason for prioritizing timely tasks at the top of your list regardless of their motivational category is their inherent time-sensitivity. Neglecting these tasks could result in missed deadlines, lost opportunities, or other negative outcomes. While you may still choose not to act on a timely task based on its motivational category—essential, beneficial, or desired—you must make that decision promptly to avoid undesirable consequences.
Sorting tasks by priority can differ depending on your task management tool. You might use labels, tags, or categories to denote each task’s EBD-TF classification. Alternatively, you could create separate lists for each of the six priority levels. The end goal is to establish a system that automatically groups tasks by their priority once they are classified, enabling easy selection of your next action items.
Pick next tasks to work on
After categorizing and sorting your tasks, the next step is to select a subset of tasks from the top of the list that you can realistically tackle within your current planning horizon—be it an afternoon, a day, a week, or some other period.
It is a good idea to confirm that the categorization of these top-of-the-list tasks still holds at this point. Circumstances and priorities can shift, making it essential to reevaluate them quickly.
Decision-making on tasks
The act of ‘dealing’ with a task encompasses the following options:
- Complete the task yourself.
- Delegate it.
- Postpone it.
- Abandon it.
The action you choose depends on both the timeliness and the motivation of the task, as per its EBD-TF categorization. For instance, a task that is both timely and essential should be either completed or delegated unless new information renders it non-essential.
|1||timely||essential||TE||do or delegate|
|2||timely||beneficial||TB||do, delegate, or abandon|
|3||timely||desired||TD||do, delegate, or abandon|
|4||flexible||essential||FE||do, delegate, or postpone|
|5||flexible||beneficial||FB||do, delegate, postpone, or abandon|
|6||flexible||desired||FD||do, delegate, postpone, or abandon|
While this framework provides a general guide, remember that all rules have their exceptions. Use these guidelines judiciously and adapt as needed. The ultimate aim is to facilitate informed decision-making, balancing both the motivation and timeliness of your tasks.
Dynamic Prioritization and Regular Reviews
It is in the nature of things that you will always have more tasks on your list than you’ll be able to handle. It helps to think of your to-do list as a continuous stream of tasks, among which you must select the most important ones at any given time, while you let the less important ones pass by. The EBD-TF method aims to help you in this selection process, knowing full well that your goals and priorities will shift over time.
Some tasks will naturally remain unattended, lose relevance, or even gain importance over time. For instance, a task initially classified as desired may become beneficial as your objectives change. Similarly, a flexible task may turn timely due to changing circumstances.
Consider the scenario of organizing an event. Many tasks may initially fall under flexible due to a distant deadline. Yet, as the date approaches, they become timely. Household chores often begin as essential but flexible. But if you neglect them for too long, they transition into timely tasks requiring immediate attention.
Therefore, periodic reviews are essential. These could be manually scheduled every 1-4 weeks or facilitated through task management applications with built-in review features. During these reviews, reevaluate the motivation and timeliness of each task and discard those no longer relevant.
A note on due dates: the presence of a due date does not automatically render a task timely. The time-sensitivity of a task depends on the context: level of effort, prerequisites, and proximity to the deadline.
Task Size and Task Dependencies
EBD-TF doesn’t deal specifically with task dependencies or projects. However, it is recommended to divide tasks into manageable units. If tasks depend on each other, the first task in the chain should inherit the highest motivation and timeliness of the chain.
Summary and Comparison
The EBD-TF (Essential, Beneficial, Desired - Timely, Flexible) framework provides a two-dimensional approach to task prioritization, focusing on both the motivation behind tasks and their timeliness. The framework enables nuanced and dynamic prioritization to ensure the tasks you work on are aligned with your goals and deadlines, adaptable to changing personal and professional circumstances.
While the EBD-TF framework provides structure, it is important to keep things lightweight. The purpose is to aid in decision-making, not to create an additional layer of complexity. Therefore, use the framework judiciously and don’t overthink it.
Various approaches to task management can be effective, depending on the context and on individual preferences. My hope is that you’ll find this framework useful, but the ultimate goal is to find a method that aligns well with your cognitive styles.
Comparison of Prioritization Methods
|Basic Prioritization||priority||low, medium, high, very high, urgent||undefined|
|MoSCoW||priority||must have, should have, could have, would have||short- or medium-term|
|Must/should/want||motivation||must, should, want||short-term|
|Eisenhower||importance and urgency||important, unimportant and urgent, not urgent||short-term|
|EBD-TF||motivation and timeliness||essential, beneficial, desired and timely, flexible||short-, medium-, or long-term|