Why ABC Priority Codes Don't Work

Hi Folks,

Before you spend another minute creating yet another list with ABC, 123, or high-medium-low codes as a way to define your priorities, read my essay this month. You may discover there’s a more natural path for getting you what you need to get the right things done.

All the best,




“How do I set priorities?” Because I hear that so frequently, I assume most people think they could and should be doing it better.

The “ABC” priority codes don’t work. Listing your top 10 things you think have to get done, in order, doesn’t work. You’ll have a different priority set at 8:00 tonight than you will at 10:30 this morning. And sometimes the most strategic thing for you to do will be to water your plants. Like, when you’ve been in six meetings, felt beat up in five of them, and by 4:30 your brain is scrambled eggs, and you barely have the attention span of a gnat. That’s the time to water your plants and fill your stapler. Why? Because you can’t do anything else, and you’re going to have to water your plants sometime anyway.

On a day-to-day, moment-to-moment basis, there is no algorithm or formula that will last very long, or is really worth trying to nail down in some written or coded system. The four criteria that you will use to decide what to do are (in order of precedence):

Context (what can I do where I am?)
Time (when do I have to do something else?)
Energy (how wasted/fresh am I?)
Priority (what has the highest payoff for me if I do it?)

This excerpt is from a recent issue of David’s Productive Living newsletter. It’s free and sent about every 4 weeks. You’ll find essays from David Allen, thought-provoking quotes, and productivity tips you can use every day.

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  1. Hi,

    I totally agree with you putting ABC priority tags on tasks is totally ineffective for me too. Too bad I always find these ABC tags in GTD mobile applications. Shameless plug though, I have created a GTD mobile application that has no ABC priority tags but still very effective in applying GTD methodology. Its user interface is one of its kind in the market.


  2. I’m not sure that I agree entirely with this. Or perhaps i don’t understand it properly.

    If you don’t list items by priority, don’t you waste time then deciding on priority anyway? For instance I have over 300 ‘to-do’ items in my GTD system. Each night I make an effort to list out the six most important things that I have to complete the following day. If I didn’t do this I’d become lost in the shear volume of tasks.

    I find that listing out the top six tasks for each day improves my focus. Not detracts from it.

  3. This has been, for me, the most damaging piece of productivity advice I have ever put into practice. An ABC prioritized lists of daily tasks has helped me as nothing else ever has, and giving that up set me back immensely. Not to try to blame others for my own failings, but if I never gave up the ABC approach after reading GTD, I think I’d actually be more successful in life now.

    I have ADD and am therefore terrible at spontaneously prioritizing in the moment. No matter how clear I am on my projects and next actions, I will always have an unlimited amount of things to do that are completely unnecessary, and without some technique to discipline myself, I will invariably spend all the time I possibly can doing things that I don’t really need to do at all, while putting off the things I really need to do. I can have all my projects and next actions mapped out, and then spend the entire day reading books and arguing on Facebook. But if I make a prioritized daily list, reading and Facebooking are in the “optional” category where they belong, and I do them last, if at all, after I do the things that are actually important.

    I suspect GTD is more appropriate for high-functioning, workaholic business executives who have plenty of focus and drive, but have too much to be responsible for to keep track of it all without a good system…or maybe just anyone with a relatively normal brain. Than it is for people like me, with few meaningfully different “contexts” to speak of, and a serious impairment in my ability to spontaneously prioritize and direct myself.

    A lot of David Allen’s advice is fantastic, and this article may be true and helpful for a lot of people–maybe even for the majority of people, I don’t know. But for me specifically, as a person with legitimate, clinically-diagnosed ADD, this article is without a doubt the worst piece of advice I have ever read. I guess it just shows that no one approach is perfect for everyone.

  4. Nice comment, Lee. I was kind of leaning toward your thinking as I was reading the essay. I understand what the author says, and I agree with everything they said, but I found myself thinking, “This is exactly what I’m not good at doing.”

    I, too, have ADD, and it does no good for people like ourselves to take advice which basically amounts to “Do well at the thing you’re not good at.” It’s like pointing out to someone with a speech impediment the parts of annunciation they’re getting wrong.

    I 100% agree that this is probably great advice for those who have the mental faculties to follow it.

  5. Thanks for your great GTD system, David Allen, but I disagree on this point. Marking priority levels on next-actions lists does work, for me: in my experience it enhances my productivity.

    Priority levels don’t usually change all that much, in my experience. A more urgent thing may come up, but relative priorities of other things usually stay roughly constant.

    Deciding to water plants can be about energy levels, not requiring any change in priority levels at all. If priorities change, they might well change back again later.

    Priority markings don’t have to precisely match current priorities to be useful. They allow me to maintain much longer current next-actions lists without having to read the whole list every time.

    If recording priorities on next-actions lists was really as useless as you argue it is, then according to the same arguments it would also be useless to select certain projects as having actions on next-action lists as opposed to just being on Someday/Maybe.

    See my reply to this newsletter here: http://web.ncf.ca/an588/abc.html and a description of how I sort my next-actions lists here: http://woodgold.wordpress.com/2011/04/17/sorting-actions-by-energy-level-required-etc/

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