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How to Prioritize: a quick, yet comprehensive guide

May 21, 2013

"Prioritizing is the answer to time management problems – not computers, efficiency experts, or matrix scheduling. You do not need to do work faster or to eliminate gaps in productivity to make better use of your time. You need to spend more time on the right things…"

— C. Ray Johnson, Chairman and CEO of Underground Technology Inc., and Author of CEO Logic: how to think and act like a Chief Executive

The Problem

If you’re a decently-informed person, you should recognize the ubiquity of the phrase “get your priorities straight.” Who knows how many sayings there are on the matter, but it’s fairly agreed upon that having priorities is important, and setting them is even more important.

If you’re not familiar with the Pickle Jar theory, here is the link. The theory has circulated Facebook widely and was popularized as a story of a professor teaching his students a lesson: know what’s important in your life and set your priorities accordingly. Devote our time proportionally to the most important matters in our lives. Not the small matters.

Well, it’s easy to talk about setting our priorities, but how exactly do we do that? How do busy, pressured, and stressed people prioritize and find time for the important things when the small things demand so much of our time and attention?

The Solution

It’s easy. You make a daily list of tasks you need to get done and cross them off when you get them done. The goal? Cross off every item by the end of the day.

Since you’re still reading, I can safely assume that this hasn’t worked for you.

Prioritizing is essentially making that list and crossing it off. But it’s also much more than that. It’s a powerful tool if used correctly, and terribly confusing if not. It requires discipline and practice. And it requires planning and thought, which takes more time out of your day–time which you need.

However, you must take that time to prioritize. It’s part of the planning process, and failing to do so could cost you more time in the future. In fact, I insist you start taking 10 minutes at the end of each day to plan and prepare for the next. It’s good practice.


To prioritize correctly, you must take time to know yourself. Figure out how you work. How disciplined are you? When do you work best–mornings, evenings? Do you need coffee or exercise before you start your day? Are you realistic, pessimistic, or optimistic? Do you need somebody–a friend or spouse–to help keep you disciplined and accountable for what you do and don’t get done?

These are necessary questions, because they will help define what you think you can get done and by when. They will also help dictate what method of list-making will help you best.

Before I go into detail on how the lists work, there is some preliminary knowledge which you must keep in mind.

  1. When you construct your task list, you must determine if the tasks are within your power and authority to accomplish. If you don’t have either, than the task is not yours to accomplish, and you should determine who it belongs to.
  2. You should also determine if the task can or should be delegated. What’s the point of making yourself more effective and efficient if you do something which you didn’t need to do in the first place?
  3. Finally, you should also keep in mind the time-frame of the tasks. Do you need to do them immediately or later in the day? Do you need to put it in your calendar? Is this task for the long-term?

Once you have a good idea how you work and the tasks to be done, you can decide on–or try out–using different methods to prioritize.

The Lists

They include, but are certainly not limited to, the following:

  • Simple, top-down list: the simplest, least sophisticated, and least effective
  • Binary list, such as Morning / Evening: simple, easy, and also relatively ineffective
  • ABC list: a more sophisticated list which discriminates more important tasks from less important
  • Importance / Urgency Matrix: or IU matrix, which characterizes tasks by importance and urgency, and finally
  • A combination: a fusion or combination of two or more of the methods listed above.

A Simple, top-down list is exactly what it sounds like: you make a list and and accomplish the tasks from top-down. Another way of performing this method is by performing the “ugliest” tasks first, however you might define “ugly”. This is also called dynamic prioritization. You read through the list, and whichever task gives you the biggest emotional reaction (good or bad) is the task you do. This method obviously lacks any safety measure that ensures you get the most important tasks done first, so I don’t recommend it.

Binary lists, such as the Morning / Evening list are helpful if you know the time-frame you have for each tasks. However, the scope of these types of lists is limited, and so I also do not recommend it.

ABC lists are exceedingly helpful. You make a list and assign each task a letter: A, B, or C. You can add more letters, but it’s not necessary. “A” tasks are the most important tasks, which you need to get done. “B” tasks follow. They are tasks which you should accomplish, but aren’t as important. Finally, there are “C” tasks. These are the least important and you wouldn’t mind if these tasks didn’t get done.

Many people and firms like this method because it’s clear and they can apply the Pareto Principle to their lists. (Click here for an explanation)

ABC lists are limited in one aspect: they do not factor in urgency. You can modify the list to accommodate for urgency, but then the list can become unclear. Sometimes very urgent matters aren’t important (“B” tasks), and some of the most important tasks (“A” tasks) aren’t as urgent. This is why some prefer to use the following method.

The Importance / Urgency Matrix, or the Covey Time Management Matrix, is a 2 x 2 grid with Importance on one axis and Urgency on the other. It was first popularized by Stephen Covey in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Here’s how it looks.

The graphic is a great example of what types of tasks or events fit into each box. It can be used as a template for your own busy life.

But this doesn’t tell you what order you should accomplish your tasks, does it? Well, after you’ve created the matrix and fitted your tasks into it, the best rule I’ve found that will help you order your list is this: accomplish tasks by their importance first, and then their urgency. Basically, you should be accomplishing tasks in quadrants “I” and “II” before you ever get to “III” or “IV.”

This is more difficult than you think, because new tasks constantly pop up, and you must judge those tasks on their important and urgency. It tasks real discipline and practice to become accustomed to constantly planning your tasks and not giving into the most urgent matters.

In fact, there is a concept that explicitly highlights when we address the most urgent matters and allow non-urgent, important tasks (quandrant II) to become urgent crises (quadrant I). It’s called the Tyranny of the Urgent. Many people neglect Quandrant II to their misfortune, and it shows in their health and personal relationships. In fact, that's why you might be reading this article right now: you want to find the time to tackle these issues, get fit, and nurse your family and relationships back to good health.

Combination techniques can be anything, but a popular one would be to create your IU matrix and formulate it into an ABC or Binary list. I find this to be particularly effective when applying the Pareto Principle, but maybe it’s too complicated for your tastes.

The best advice I can give you is to try out each for a few days and see which works best for you. Don’t worry about the technology, like mobile apps or programs, to help you implement it. Technology, after all, is only a tool. You have to know how to use it and be disciplined first before you can use it fully.

The End

Now that you understand how to prioritize, you just have to practice doing it. Over and over. Until it’s easy. Keep in mind that it could make you exceedingly efficient and effective, but also that you are not a machine. You are human. You need rest. And you aren’t perfect. Be self-compassionate and forgiving, as well as disciplined, and you won’t lose yourself in the rush to be more efficient and effective.

Since we’re at the end, I’d like to quote Mohandas Ghandi to help you stay grounded with yourself, your family, and your life.

There is more to life than increasing its speed.”

Good luck!



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