September 11, 2018

I love how I feel when I’m writing a to-do list: powerful, efficient, and totally in control. But when I’m done writing and ready to get cracking, things start to break down.

The biggest problem? I never know where to start.

Do I tackle the first thing I wrote down?

The easier item on my list?

The hardest?

Sometimes, I feel so overwhelmed that I abandon my list altogether. Or, I’ll pick that task that seems most important, then burn out after hours of unproductive work.

Research shows that I’m not alone—the more options we have, the more likely we are to feel overwhelmed and dissatisfied. Seeing all the ways I could—and should—spend my time that day leaves me feeling anything but in control.

The more options we have, the more likely we are to feel overwhelmed and dissatisfied.
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What I need is a way to prioritize, to rank my to-be-completed tasks in a way that solved my "Where do I start?" problem.

Enter: The SUG List

As detailed by consultant David Nour for Fast Company, the SUG list is a methodology that takes all your to-do items and sorts them by seriousness, urgency, and growth—aka SUG.

The SUG list is a methodology that takes all your to-do items and sorts them by seriousness, urgency, and growth—aka SUG.
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You can start by writing a to-do list as you normally would, jotting everything down in the order in which it comes to you. Then, weigh each item according to each of the three variables.

For seriousness: consider how important that task is. Is it essential to your work today? Is someone else’s work depending on it?

For urgency: think about when you’ll need to finish that item, and how long it might take. Can it wait until tomorrow? The end of the week?

And for growth: try to decide whether delaying the task will make other parts of your day/life more difficult.

Think, for example, of paying a bill—it’s pretty important, shouldn’t take that long, and will likely get a lot worse if you put it off. Organizing your bathroom cabinet, on the other hand, might feel a little less important, would take a while, and shouldn’t be much worse a few days from now.

Post-SUG, Prioritizing Gets a Little Easier

Once you have a handle on how each item SUGs, it’s time to prioritize. Open Excel, or draw a four column wide chart by hand. Leave the first column for your tasks, then mark one column “seriousness,” the next “urgency,” and the last “growth.” Then, mark each task “high,” medium” or “low” in seriousness and urgency, and either “yes” or “no” in growth. Paying your water bill might get a high/high/yes, while organizing your bathroom cabinet garners a medium/low/no.

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“From there,” says Nour, “it’s much easier to know how to prioritize your to-do items. If two items rank identically in the first column, the next column will be the tiebreaker, and so on. For those that rank identically in the 'seriousness' column, use the subsequent column as a tiebreaker, and so on.”

If you find yourself with several high/high/yes combinations, you can do what I do and rank them by the time they should take to complete—a bill paid online, for example, goes above a bill that requires a phone call. (Just remember that for all your planning, things may still go a little sideways—several studies have shown that we tend to majorly underestimate the amount of time a task will take.)

You might want to use different colored pens or highlighters, so you can get a sense of which tasks are high-priority and which are lower. Or, once you have your chart completed, you can rewrite your list in order of importance.

And remember, getting your SUG list down on paper—or spreadsheet—is only the first step. Once you’ve got your tasks organized, you’ll have to check in with your list and make changes as priorities change.

Once you’ve got your tasks organized, you’ll have to check in with your list and make changes as priorities change.
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“Make your weekly SUG list on Monday mornings, then start each subsequent weekday by reviewing it–before you jump into email or appointments,” suggests Nour. “End the week by checking your list again, re-prioritizing anything you haven’t finished, and adding what you need to tackle next.”

You can think of your SUG list as a living, breathing thing—you may never finish it completely, and that’s OK.


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Still feeling overwhelmed by all your tasks? Listen to our Start a Productive Day meditation in the Shine iOS app.

Read next: Why We Always End Up Overwhelmed By Our To-Do Lists