You’ve got a ton of work to do right now.
Your to-do list is an unstructured mess of action items, and you’ve only got a faint idea how to prioritize tasks.
Luckily, there are a few (almost automatic) ways to quickly get your to-do list prioritized without much effort. In fact, you can apply one of these methods within 5 minutes and know exactly what to do next. There have been a number of methods over the years, and all have their own quirks and considerations.
Which is right for you?
In previous chapters of my task management guide, I’ve taken you all the way through from writing, organizing and planning your to-do list. Go and check out those if you haven’t already.
Now, let’s look at at 4 different ways to prioritize your tasks.
Slot your tasks into 4 boxes — Urgent vs Important
Here’s a task prioritization method from former U.S President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
In 1954, he said:
“I have two kinds of problems: the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.” — Eisenhower
It was this quote that created the Eisenhower Matrix; a 4-box system for organizing your tasks by urgency and importance, then getting them done.
The Eisenhower Matrix puts tasks into 2 categories, then prioritizes them for you. It’s a fast way to get everything in order at the start of the day.
Action: Get into the habit of quickly categorizing tasks by using this checklist on your to-do list:
The ‘Important’ Checklist:
It will affect many people or projects if incomplete
Other tasks depend on its completion
It contributes a lot of value
It’s low effort-high results (80/20 principle)
The ‘Urgent’ Checklist:
It is overdue
It is due soon
It demands immediate attention
The consequences of not doing it are immediate
To apply the matrix to your to-do list, use tags to denote which quadrant of the matrix it falls into. From top right to left, you’ve got:
- Urgent AND important
- Important NOT urgent
- Urgent NOT important
- NOT urgent OR important
When I check this against my semi-fictional task list in TaskPaper, it’s easy to see what’s a priority and what isn’t:
The Eisenhower Matrix saves the day.
When you have two frogs to eat, eat the ugliest one first
In slight contrast to the Eisenhower Matrix, Brian Tracy’s method of consuming amphibians focuses on your feelings towards the tasks on your list.
In the words of Mark Twain, if you eat a live frog each day for breakfast, nothing worse can happen for the rest of the day. And so, the idea is to eat the worst frog as early as possible then breeze through the day. Replacing frogs with tasks, how does this method work?
You categorize tasks into 4 boxes, of course.
1. Things you don’t want to do, and actually don’t need to do.
2. Things you don’t want to do, but actually need to do.
3. Things you want to do and actually need to do.
4. Things you want to do, but actually don’t need to do.
The logic is, that if you don’t want to do a task, it’s probably because it’s hard. You know it’s important but you’re procrastinating. Get the biggest, ugliest task out of the way as soon as you can, and the rest will come easily.
You can use the same tagging method of 1, 2, 3, 4 like I demonstrated above, or you can apply this methodology to one of the 7 task management lists I’ve previously outlined.
Use the ABCDE method for precise prioritization
Another prioritization method here from Brian Tracy, this time a little more mathematical. I love how it takes into account that different tasks can take the same priority level. Instead of randomly doing equal-priority tasks as they come along, the ABCDE method has two levels of priority. Here’s the steps to take to prioritize your tasks with this method:
- Going through your list, give every task a letter from A to E, A being the highest priority
- For every task that has an A, give it a number which dictates the order you’ll do it in
- Repeat until all tasks have letters and numbers
So, for example:
To make sure there’s point in categorizing them so strictly, you’re going to have to be hard on yourself.
You’re not allowed to start on a new letter until the previous letter is fully complete.
If you reference this against the other two methods I’ve outlined already, your A tasks would be your … urgent and important frogs.
The simplest method: pick your 1-3 most important tasks
True to form, the simplest way to prioritize your tasks comes from Zen Habits. In the book Zen to Done, Leo Babauta says:
“At the beginning of each day, review your list, and write down 1-3 MITs [most important tasks] that you’d like to accomplish for the day. That’s your whole planning system. You don’t need any more than that.” — Zen to Done
Using the other methods in this article, you should be well equipped to pick your 1-3 MITs quickly, and get on the path to hitting to-do list zero.
The beauty of this method, however, is that it relies on your intuition. After you’ve been on a few projects, or swamped by an overpowering to-do list enough times, you instinctively know which tasks are your most important.
In the end, there’s not a complete mathematical formula for working it out, but there are some ways to make prioritizing your tasks a habit, and a skill you can hone to get work done faster.