Recently, I have been thinking more about the best way to prioritize tasks. Part of that thinking has been prompted by people who have been asking me how best to do that. However, the other part of that thinking is self-driven. I want to do better myself.
For the most part, I feel like I have a good handle on how best to spend my time. I have a clear picture of what has to get done and the order in which it should be done. Yet, there are also times when I stare blankly at my to-do list and wonder where to begin.
In the productivity world, the notion of task prioritization is not a new one. So, if you are looking for some inspiration, here are some of the most popular ways to ensure the right things get done on time.
Warren Buffet’s Two List System
The story behind the Two List System is based on a conversation that Warren Buffet is reported to have had with his pilot. One day, the pilot asked Buffet for advice on prioritizing his life goals.
Buffet told him to make a list of 25 things he would like to achieve. Once the list was complete, he was instructed to circle the five most important things. The pilot thought he understood.
He had an A-list and a B-list. The A-list had the most important things to work on, and the B-list had things to work on in the background. However, Buffet was quick to rebuke him. He told him not to do anything on the B-list until everything on the A-list had been completed.
In his book Zen Habits, Leo Babauta has similar advice. He talks about concentrating on your most important thing (MIT).
It’s very simple: your MIT is the task you most want or need to get done today. In my case, I’ve tweaked it a bit so that I have three MITs — the three things I must accomplish today. Do I get a lot more done than three things? Of course. But the idea is that no matter what else I do today, these are the things I want to be sure of doing. (Source)
The Pareto Principle
A related idea is the Pareto Principle. Often referred to as the 80/20 rule, it outlines the relationship between effort and results. It states that 20% of the input produces 80% of the output. Let’s take a look at some examples.
I quite often get 80% of the information I need from just 20% of your typical self-help book. The case studies, affirmations, and anecdotes are all good information to have, but they don’t offer up much additional information so you can often get 80% of the author’s intent from 20% of the book.
To give another example, it is not uncommon for a company to make most of its profits from one or two of its products. Apple is a great example of this. In January 2021, the iPhone accounted for 58% of Apple’s total revenue. That means it sold more than the sum total of every other product that Apple sells.
Whether it is 80/20, 85/15, or 70/30, the Pareto Principle reminds us that some tasks are more critical than others. When you identify the tasks that really matter, 80% of your time and energy should go towards them.
The key, therefore, is to be laser-focused on which tasks are going to make the biggest difference in your work. When you identify these tasks, you can allocate your time accordingly.
The Eisenhower Matrix
A popular way to identify your high-priority tasks is the Eisenhower Matrix. It’s named after the American president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, but was created by Stephen Covey in his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People.
This method is designed to help you distinguish between urgent and important. It encourages you to divide your daily, weekly, or monthly tasks into one of the following four categories:
- Urgent and important
- Not urgent, but still important
- Not important, but urgent
- Not important and not urgent
Sometimes, we spend all our time in the first category. We run around with a fire extinguisher, putting out one fire after another. However, as you can imagine, this is not a productive place to be.
Instead, Covey recommends that we try to spend as much of our time in the second category. When you plan ahead and schedule a time to do things, you get more done. It also leaves some flexibility in your day for those small fires that pop up unexpectedly.
Tasks in the third category are best delegated whenever possible. Of course, they need to get done, but they don’t always need to get done by you because they don’t move you any closer to completing your main goals.
If a task is not important and not urgent, you don’t have to worry about it. These tasks are trivial things that you can get to if you have time, but if you don’t, nothing bad will happen.
The Relative Priority System
If you work your way through the Eisenhower Matrix and find that you have a lot of important (but not urgent) tasks, you still need a way to decide which ones to work on first. The Pareto Principle is one approach, but relative priorities are also worth considering.
It works by assigning a level of importance relative to the other tasks on your list. You select the tasks you want to get done today and make a list with the most critical task at the top and the least important task at the bottom. If you are unsure which is the most important task, consider any due dates associated with your tasks or think about the people these tasks impact.
A practical implementation of relative priorities can be seen in The Today System by Michael Strum. It gamifies your task list by assigning point values to each task so that you can try to beat your high score. The more you get done, the higher your daily score is, and you can track that over time.
The Ivy Lee Method is another implementation of a relative priority system. It works in a very similar way and carries your unfinished tasks to the next day.
Eat the Frog: It’s as Easy as ABC
Brian Tracy has a complementary model called the ABC method. It’s an anti-procrastination method designed to prioritize your work and keep you on task. Tracy attributes the inspiration for this system to a quote that is purported to have come from Mark Twain.
If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And If it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.
Tracy advocates that you should label all your tasks with an A, B, or C. The A tasks are the critical must-do tasks. Bad things will happen if these don’t get done. The B tasks are important but not as critical. They also have lesser consequences if they are not completed as planned. The C tasks are worth doing but have no consequences if they are not done.
If you have more than one A task on your list, sort them by importance and assign a number to reflect their value. E.g., A1, A2, A3, etc. You can do the same with your B and C-level tasks as needed.
The more important and valuable the task is to you, the more you will be motivated to overcome procrastination and launch yourself into the job. (Brian Tracy)
BONUS: A Blank Piece of Paper
The author, Daniel Pink, has an interesting approach to prioritizing tasks, and it all starts with a blank piece of paper. His strategy is about celebrating your wins. Read more about it below:
So, the next time you are staring at your burgeoning to-do list, and you’re not sure where to begin, try one of these task prioritization methods. They are quick to learn and can easily be adapted to suit your needs.