Being Productive: Prioritization vs. Time Budgeting

Like many people, I struggle with productivity. My growing list of projects at home only seems to get longer, and I don’t complete things as frequently as I would like. Many people have adopted David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) approach. Others have modified it to better fit their needs. At the end of the day every person needs to figure out what works best for them and go with it. The most important part of any system is actually doing things, so whatever system is best at accomplishing that should be the system of choice.

I have been bouncing around between systems and techniques for years. I still haven’t found something that seems to consistently work for me. I have spent a lot of time bouncing between the concepts of prioritization and time budgeting. Prioritization focuses on picking your next action based on what is the most important task to complete next across any project. Time budgeting focuses on setting up set amounts of time for each project and only working on the projects during those times. I am going to go into more detail on my experiences with each.


Prioritization involves selecting the next action based on what is the most important thing to complete. This could be based on due date or urgency. The benefit here is that the most important task always gets done on time. The drawback is that projects without hard deadlines or that less impactful on a day-to-day basis can easily be neglected. Proponents of this system like this fact because it forces people to ignore unimportant tasks and projects and instead only do what is important.

This concept seems great, and I have tried it before. The problem is that I had little side projects I want to work on, and they rarely take precedent over other things. The best way to foster innovation and to improve yourself is to try new things, but this can’t happen if you only work on the same few things all the time. I was finding that I was never getting to things besides the blog and the podcast because it seemed like there was always things to do on those. And because those had weekly soft deadlines, I was always forced to focus on those.

Time Budgeting

The concept behind time budgeting is to figure out how many hours of week you have to work with, and then plan our how much time to spend on each project. The biggest benefit here is that projects don’t go ignored forever, and it’s easier to stay productive because the clock is always ticking. But because this is more structured, it doesn’t add a lot of wiggle room.

For example, if you schedule time for Project A on Mondays for one hour, and something comes up what happens? Project A likely gets neglected until the following week. Maybe that’s OK because if it only has one hour per week maybe it isn’t that important. But similarly sometimes I just have nights where I don’t feel like doing anything. And the same rules apply as above. What happens to that work I skipped.

It’s also difficult to budget time for leisure. Is it a set amount each night? Is it an entire night once a week? And what if something comes up out of nowhere and your leisure night was the night before?

My New Plan

I had been trying to get back on the time budget again, but it just isn’t working for me. Things vary too much from night to night and week to week. And prioritizing left me with the exact problem I mentioned above, too many neglected projects. Enter the hybrid model.

I already do a weekly review of my tasks, something right out of the GTD book. During that time I am going to budget time for the week as well. I will have a preset budget to start from, but I will adjust it weekly to compensate for things that are planned for the week and what has been neglected recently.

My hope is that this helps me stay on task, but not feel restricted to what I can or can’t do, or rather should or shouldn’t do. Maybe this really is just a different way of time budgeting, but hopefully it will feel different.