How To Prioritize Your Tasks

Six ways to designate your tasks the appropriate level of priority.

Knowing how to prioritize your work and your tasks is a fundamental part of time management and the ability to do so can have a hugely positive effect on your efficiency and productivity.

I understand that sometimes everything seems important, but not everything can be a priority, so it is important to divide your attention accordingly.

How To Prioritize Your Tasks

Before you do anything, you need to compile a ‘master list’ of all the stuff that you need to do.

This includes everything currently in your head that you want to, ought to or must do either now or at some point in the future and also includes anything that others have asked you to do. At this point, you don’t need to make any decisions about which tasks take priority.

Simply get them out of your head and into your medium of choice, which could be a paper-based list, a notebook, a journal or a digital app.

Frankly, there is no one medium that is necessarily better than another – what matters is that however you choose to compile your master list is convenient and efficient for you, so that it works.

Once you have done this, you can then analyze and prioritize your tasks. There are various methods you can use to do this and I am going to show you six different ways in this post.

1. The Eisenhower Box

The Eisenhower Box, sometimes known as the Eisenhower Matrix or the Urgent-Important Matrix is probably my favourite decision-making tool when it comes to prioritizing my tasks.

I have covered how to use it in detail in this post, but basically, it helps you to sort out what needs doing now, what can be scheduled, what can be delegated and what can be dumped.

Prioritization with the Eisenhower Matrix #eisenhowerbox
The Eisenhower Box

There is also a “quick and dirty” method to do this known as the 4Ds of Time Management, which you can check out in this post.

2. The ‘Eat That Frog’ Method

The Eat That Frog technique of prioritizing tasks is attributed to Brian Tracy, who is a bit of a legend in personal development and productivity circles.

He wrote a book called Eat That Frog! 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time, which I have reviewed in this post. The concept of eating a frog is based around the following (supposed) Mark Twain quote:

“If the first thing you do each morning is to eat a live frog, you can go about the rest of your day with the satisfaction of knowing that the worst thing likely to happen to you all day is already behind you.”

Attributed to Mark Twain

The live frog is a metaphor for your biggest and most important task of the day that you are most likely to procrastinate on and Tracy advocates that you should always attack this one first since it is most likely the one that will have the biggest impact on your life and work now or in the future.

3. The Ivy Lee Method

The Ivy Lee Method dates back to the early 20th Century and was developed by a productivity consultant named . . . wait for it . . . Ivy Lee.

And Lee was hired by an American steel magnate called Charles M. Schwab, to improve the efficiency of his company. Legend has it that Lee offered his services for free unless his method worked, in which case, after three months Schwab could write him a cheque for whatever he thought it was worth to him. Schwab was obviously suitably impressed, as he paid him the equivalent of more than $400,000 in today’s money.1

I haven’t done any in-depth research to confirm the veracity of the story and the advice given to Schwab. I first encountered this story and method in the book, The Time Trap by Alec Mackenzie, which I have reviewed in this post, if you’re interested in checking it out.

Here’s how Mackenzie tells it in the book:

When Charles Schwab was president of Bethlehem Steel, he confronted Ivy Lee, a management consultant, with an unusual challenge.

“Show me a way to get more things done,” he demanded. “If it works, I’ll pay you anything within reason.”

Lee handed Schwab a piece of paper, saying, “Write down the things you have to do tomorrow.” When Schwab had completed the list, Lee said, “Now number these items in the order of their real importance.” Schwab did, and Lee went on:

“The first thing tomorrow morning, start working on number one and stay with it until it’s completed. Then take number two, and don’t go any further until it’s finished or until you’ve done as much with it as you can. Then proceed to number three, and so on. If you can’t complete everything on schedule, don’t worry. At least you will have taken care of the most important things before getting distracted by items of less importance. The secret is to do this daily.

He went on to summarize:

~ Evaluate the relative importance of the things you have to get done.
~ Establish priorities.
~ Record your plan of action and stick to it.

He finished by saying, “Do this every working day. After you have convinced yourself that this system has value, have your people try it. Test it as long as you like, and then send me a check for whatever you think the idea is worth.”

In a few weeks, Schwab mailed Lee a check for $25,000. He later credited Lee with giving him the most profitable lesson he’d learned in his entire business career.

Alec Mackenzie, The Time Trap, Fourth Edition, Chapter 7, Inadequate Planning.

It seems that Lee did not specify how many tasks you should list, but it seems to be commonly-accepted these days that you should limit the number of tasks to six.

My interpretation of the method is as follows:

  1. At the end of each working day, write down the six – and only six – most important things you need to accomplish the next day
  2. Prioritize the six tasks in order of their true importance
  3. Concentrate only on the first task and continue working on it until it is finished before moving on to the next one
  4. Use the same methodology for the rest of the list in the same fashion. At the end of the day, unfinished items get rolled over to the list of six tasks for the following day
  5. Repeat this process every working day

4. The ABCDE Method

This is another productivity technique that is also attributed to Brian Tracy called the ABCDE Method. No tools or training are required. Essentially, you assign a letter from ‘A’ to ‘E’ to each of your tasks, based on whether they are ‘must do’, ‘ought to do’, ‘nice to do’, ‘could be done be someone else’, or ‘irrelevant’.

I have explained how to do this in detail in this post.

Prioritzing – army style / Image by Canva

5. The CARVER Matrix

The CARVER Matrix is a tool used by the US military to ensure that they are attacking the right targets, but the same principles can be applied to attacking your everyday tasks.

The matrix looks like this one below and I explain how to use it in this post.

The CARVER Matrix

6. The 1-3-5 Rule

This method really keeps things simple and I suppose is a variation on the Ivy Lee Method. This is a less-is-more approach that forces you to identify 1 Major Task, 3 Medium Tasks and 5 Small Tasks each day.

As a rule of thumb, a Major Task is one that takes about 3-4 hours to complete, Medium Tasks take about 1-2 hours and Small Tasks should take less than 30 minutes to an hour each.

You can do them in any order, but my recommendation would be to incorporate the ‘Eat That Frog’ method and do the biggest one first.

Time Hack Hero Takeaway

Exactly how you prioritize your tasks each day is not important. What is important is that you actually prioritize them.

Not prioritizing your tasks leads to all kinds of inefficient ways of working, such as multi-tasking, directing attention towards tasks with very little return, having no clear focus, etc.

Using the prioritization technique that you find to be the simplest will enable you to stay on track and make quick decisions about your workload.

As I have mentioned many time on this blog, the ability to prioritise your work is fundamental to good time management.

Which method do you prefer?

Sources:
1) Future value of the $25,000 Lee was paid in 1919, adjusted for inflation using this US Inflation Calculator.

[Featured image credit: Juan J. Martinez]

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