Must, Should, Could: With a Twist

3 min read

While coming up with a task list, it’s a great exercise to initially break them into 3 categories: Must, Should, and Could. This will help you prioritize when you inevitably run out of time to complete the project.

By doing this in advanced, you’ll know what’s negotiable and what’s not. This will allow your project to be successful, despite not completing all the tasks in the task list.

Must, Should, Could

Musts are tasks that must be completed in order to meet the desired outcome. Shoulds are tasks that should be completed if time allows. Coulds are tasks that could be completed, but are not necessary.

For example, let’s say we’re building a sign up experience for our social media platform. We Must have a task to “Send user confirmation email after sign up”. We Should have a task to “Briefly show user what they can do on the site”. We Could have a task to “Allow user to add different topics to their favorites list”.

These categorizations can be used by themselves but what about timing or due dates?

Short, Mid, Long

Not only do we need to know the priority of tasks, we need to know how much time we have to complete them (due dates). These due dates could be fixed or flexible.

You could have a Must that’s due months from now. You could have a Should that due days from now. It’s all a matter of timing based on external factors. Some factors include:

  • Upcoming event
  • Vendor management
  • Your budget
  • The market

Your project will define the time period of each of these categories. Example: this sprint, this quarter, this year.

In the example above with the social media platform, maybe we’re just working through the ideas for our side project so we have lots of time. Or maybe there’s a big tech meetup in 2 weeks and we want to show our MVP. The way you approach the tasks would be different in each of these scenarios.

Priority Matrix

We can categorize tasks as Must, Should, Could. We can categorize tasks as Short, Mid, Long. What if we could categorize them together? Enter a new form of Priority Matrix:

  Must Should Could
(this week)
(this month)
(this year)


This matrix gives you prioritization and time period. Tasks get put in cells based on their importance and urgency.

You can use any software to help with this such as Google Doc, Jira boards/swimlanes, Trello, Miro, etc. Low tech solutions work too such as notebooks, whiteboard, sticky notes, etc.

The goal is to write concise, high level concepts and prioritize them with your customers/stakeholders.

If there’s too many ideas in one area, ideally you can negotiate to move some things around. Determine what you can move to the Should column or to the Mid row. Keep pushing things down and/or right until you have the core requirements (Short term Must haves).

Remember that anything you put here is negotiable. Don’t worry about putting everything in the perfect spot. Start with the first row of Short term task.


Once you’ve filled out your matrix, you can use it as follows:

  1. During the Short Term time period, complete all the Musts. If time remains, move to the Shoulds and Coulds to complete this row (left to right).
  2. When the Short Term time runs out and the Musts are complete, move to the Mid term row, move left to right.
  3. Repeat in the Long Term row.

Incomplete Musts will cause the project to fail. Completing the Shoulds will likely make the project successful. Completing the Coulds will likely make the project outstanding.

Keep it simple and it’ll pay dividends.


The next time you have a bunch of tasks for a project and you’re not sure where to start, consider putting them into a Priority Matrix for better prioritization and flexibility.

Written on February 16, 2023

The opinions expressed here are my own and do not reflect any individual or organization from my past or present.


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