Importance over Immediacy

When should I complete this task?

This is a question you'll need to answer again and again. Usually, the answer takes one of four forms: early, late, paradoxical and time invariant. The last two being far more interesting and the primary discussion of this entry.


First, we go through early tasks. Early tasks are ones with reasons to complete them immediately. Usually either output ambiguity or a benefit that occurs continuously after the task is completed. For example, if you buy a phone case sooner, you can avoid risking dropping your phone on the pavement and having to get it fixed. If you have a project with coworkers that depend on you, it benefits them, and you, for you to finish sooner. If you need to apply for a passport before a vacation, it's usually wise to do so months in advance because the patent office is often ambiguous with how long the process will take.


Second, late tasks. These are usually that involve some kind of input ambiguity or can harm you if you do it too soon. Homework is probably the clearest example of a task that is best done late. This is because a student benefits doubly by waiting -- teachers sometimes change or remove homework as it approaches a deadline, but more importantly the student learns more about the subject -- and thus become more capable of completing the task. Another example of a late task is laundry. Washing machines only do tasks in batches. It rarely makes sense to wash a single shirt, for example.


Middle tasks are extraordinarily rare. Almost no tasks have an obvious sweet spot when they should be completed that isn't weighted either towards the beginning or end. Instead, most tasks in this space are the opposite -- paradoxical tasks.

Paradoxical tasks exhibit traits of both early and late tasks. In truth, most early and late tasks are a little bit paradoxical. Homework, for example, benefits marginally from being able to know how much work you have left and it's better to have more extra time than less. Or for another example, the passport office might be busy now but be much faster later.

But many tasks fall in a state of paradox. When working with others on a project, there are usually both people who depend on you and people you depend on. You would benefit from waiting for them to finish, and they would benefit from you finishing sooner. It's often the case there are a wide variety of factors providing different levels of benefit depending on when the project is completed.

In these situations, the most logical thing to do is to break down the task into pieces, and figure out what would be better to do sooner. If you can resolve a paradox by completing certain parts sooner, you'll get benefits of both instead of harmed by the one you didn't pick.

Time Invariant

Time invariant tasks care very little about whether or not they're completed sooner or later. Self-improvement tasks often fall in this space, as do hobbies and vacations. You're clearly better off learning the guitar sooner, but it's also a large time investment to do so. You can go on a vacation this month or next. It might benefit you to do it this month, but the task never expires -- there's no date by which you'd just give up and not do it. Sometimes, the task may expire, but it will be very ambiguous when exactly it does or it could be gradual, over a period of years. Either way, you can only know if you're early or late in hindsight. Either timing doesn't matter or how much your timing matters is not known to you in advance.

Almost every truly important action in your life falls in this category. If you ask an old person on their deathbed what they did or didn't do in their life, odds are it will be nothing but things in this category.

However, this is also the category that gets the least prioritization. Human beings plan on a day-to-day basis and put every task on a list of today's/this week's/this month's importance. These tasks have no immediacy, so they're easy to put off. In addition, these tasks are the first ones to be dropped. So they end up half finished many times before they're ever completed.

In addition, time invariant tasks are usually characterized by a high barrier to entry. Planning a vacation requires scheduling and research. Learning guitar requires setting aside time for weekly lessons or you slowly forget what you learn. Thus, it becomes the case that most individuals will end up prioritizing mundane or even unimportant tasks over time-invariant ones. It's rare to have the time and energy to make it over this hurdle, even if the actual weekly lessons wouldn't be a significant commitment.

Of course, because these require planning, it's common the planning gets done and then set down and promptly forgotten. The planning gets forgotten not because it's hard to stick to a plan, but because these plans are usually set up in the margins on your life -- 30 minutes before work, or every Tuesday evening, without accounting for how you prioritize tasks or for unplanned events landing in your lap, e.g. why these times are margins in the first place. For example, sleeping through your alarm due to undiagnosed sleep apnea or a friend who is usually available on Tuesdays inviting you to go to a movie.

Prioritization Between Types

Most people prioritize late tasks over early tasks, push ambiguous tasks until they become late tasks, and occasionally peck at the margins of time invariant tasks but eventually give up on them. This is precisely the opposite of effective planning and will lead you to a life where you are constantly putting out fires.

Instead of planning based on immediacy, plan based on personal importance. It's okay to drop tasks completely. It's okay to do what you find meaningful and risk getting punished. It's okay to build your own life up and possibly disappoint others. It's okay to give up some benefit you may have otherwise gained from completing a task in an optimal fashion.

Completing the important time invariant tasks is a genuine struggle and should be prioritized above other tasks, rather than placed in margins. After all, they're likely the only tasks future you will even remember.

From a practical perspective, I prioritize tasks by personal importance first, then deconstruct complex tasks, then complete parts of tasks that will either help others immediately or simplify my life, then decide what of the remaining tasks I will actually do.

So, to answer the question posed at the start. When should I complete this task?

Do what you find important, not what you find immediate. 


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