How to prioritize tasks at work and be more successful

If you read this, you probably are among those people that have a lot on their agenda and need to prioritize what to tackle first, what later and what not at all. You do not want to get overloaded with too many tasks. You want to take the best practices of how to prioritize tasks. If you maintain a daily to do list, make sure it stays on a level you can handle. There is absolutely no sense in planning dozens of tasks for a single day. There is no way, you will ever manage to perform them. This would again lead to frustration and compromise your motivation and energy levels. Be ambitious but realistic.

Find a way to prioritize tasks that works for you.

Prioritize tasks an make it happen!

Now you need to choose. There are several different ways to prioritize your tasks. Which one works best for you depends on your personality, the nature of your job and your goals in life. Try them out. Adapt or combine them to fit your needs. These are tools and principle that shall help you – not doctrines to be followed slavishly.

What criteria should you use to set priorities?

First, be visionary: Prioritize your task by their value

To decide on what task to work on, you need a rough understanding of what the completion of a task is worth. You can estimate this in several ways:

  1. Monetary value: Try to estimate the market value of a task. What would you be willing to pay somebody to perform this task for you? What do others pay for this kind of work? Try to stick to tasks that match or exceed your target income. Decide on this basis, where to invest your time. This is an easy and transparent criterion, however there are many valuable things in life that do not have a fair market value.
  2. Contribution to your long-term goals: Another criterion for prioritization is the contribution to your long-term goals. How well is a task aligned with your mission and vision. This can be applied on a personal as well as on an organizational level. Avoid working on tasks that do not contribute to what you want to achieve on a higher level.
  3. Joy: Do you enjoy performing this task? Of course, everybody has to run chores and do things they do not like. But try to keep the fun and interesting parts in the majority.

Second, be realistic: Take into account the constraints on your own priorities

In a perfect world, you would just do what promises the most value to you. However, there are some restrictions to this that you need to balance against the value. Most importantly:

  1. Effort: How much time, money and energy do you need to put into a certain task. Is it significantly lower than the value or would performing a task be a zero-sum-play or even produce a net negative value?
  2. Urgency: There are deadlines which have to be met. Some opportunities are only available in a limited window of time. You need to consider this in your priorities in order not to face negative consequences or miss out on opportunities.
  3. Responsibilities: Everybody has some responsibilities towards others. You might have to do something for your children, parents, friends, colleagues, your community your boss or even the state. Even if it does not bring a high value to you personally, you should take this into account when making decisions. You do not want to let people down who trust in you.

What are popular tools to prioritize tasks at work?

The Eisenhower Matrix is a classic tool to set priorities.

It works like this: You sort tasks based on the two criteria urgency and importance. By combining them, you get a 2×2-Matrix with four fields and associated recommendations of how to deal with them:

  1. Important and urgent: do yourself
  2. Important and not urgent: Schedule to do later
  3. Urgent but not important: delegate to competent employees
  4. Not urgent and not important: do not act on this

The Eisenhower-Matrix can help to regain an overview in situations where you have a large backlog of unprocessed tasks. However, it has limitations. For example: if you have a good time management and organization, you should ideally have very few urgent tasks coming up. So, you end up with just the criterion of importance.

Another drawback is that you would decide on what to do yourself based solely on the importance of a task, not on your ability to perform it or the amount of effort needed. In many cases it can be very reasonable to delegate important tasks to specialist.

Finally, it is a matter of fact that very important tasks are rarely urgent, and many urgent tasks are not of high importance which reduces the applicability of the system. Nevertheless, it can help you to achieve an initial orientation and the differentiation evaluating urgency and importance is a very valuable principle for any prioritization effort.

Cost-Value-Matrix – Hot to prioritize tasks like an MBA

If you build up a matrix with the two dimensions impact (how high is the value of performing this task) and effort (how much does the task cost in time and energy), you get a 2×2 grid with these field and recommendations on how to prioritize tasks:

  1. High impact and low effort: Can be considered as quick wins and are likely to be valuable to be addressed quickly.
  2. High impact and high effort: This is important to be worked on, but only a limited number can be performed on a single day. They also might be broken down into smaller chunks as they could actually be projects and not mere tasks.
  3. Low impact and low effort: These are fill in tasks that can well be performed during idle time before a meeting or in order to have a quick run of completing and striking off topics.
  4. Low impact and high effort: these are thankless tasks. Try to avoid them unless you absolutely must do them. Also consider automating, delegating or even deleting these tasks.

Must, Should, Want Method for balanced priorities

The Must-Should-Want method was introduced by Jay Shirley. It is very simple and encourages you to define exactly three daily top priorities every morning:

  1. I must… – this is a high priority tasks which provides an immediate impact and/or can not be deferred
  2. I should… – this is something related to your long-term goals. Something that brings you closer to your vision and.
  3. I want… – this is something your genuinely want to do. Either in self-development or self-indulgence and just for fun.

You than make sure that these threes things are achieved during the day. The review is done in the morning to have a night’s distance between working and prioritizing. This way you can see clearer. While it does not give you a guidance on how to chose with the three categories, it definitely helps to make progress on your long term goals every single day and supports your health and satisfaction by including tasks you really want to do each and every day. It is not a holistic system to prioritize all your tasks and responsibilities but helps to keep a balance in your work and life by giving duty, development pleasure equal weight.

The 1-3-5 rule to keep your priorities reasonable

I first read about the 1-3-5 rule on a post by Alex Cavoulacos, co-founder of themuse.com. It’s plain simple and hands you a rule of thumb about how much you can achieve in a single day:

  • 1 big thing,
  • 3 medium tasks and
  • 5 little tasks.

She even says you should leave one medium and two little slots unfilled when you plan your day if the nature of your job has many very short-term requirements in store. At first, it sounds quite harsh to narrow your to do list down so much, but on the other hand a day only has so many hours and unexpected topics might come up as well.

And consider it this way: If you could achieve one big thing every day, that would be something, right? The benefit of this method to set priorities is: It forces you to chose and it ensures that you have some big (and probably important) topics and some small quick wins on your agenda. However, a real guidance of what to chose is missing. Use the general criteria outlined above for this.

1-3 Most important tasks to focus your attention

In From Zen to Done, Leo Babauta goes even a step further: “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.” In this view, it is most important to prioritize at all and do it radically. The advise is to follow your gut feeling and your heart in choosing and then stick to your priorities.

Eat the frog – Just get it done

This technique is based on a quote attributed to Mark Twain: Twain famously said that if the first thing you do in the morning is eat a live frog, you can go through the rest of the day knowing the worst is behind you. Based on this, you just perform the worst task first. This can be something you really do not like or have procrastinated on for long time already.

As soon as you are done with your “frog of the day” you get back to work on all the other stuff. There is an extension of this rule: If you have two frogs to eat, eat the uglier first. I wonder, how many frogs one can eat on a single day and would probably rather combine it with a method that also ensures I work on things I genuinely like and that are important to me.

Eat the frog is a great principle to get started in the morning. You get a sense of achievement rigth away. Afterwards you continue with another method of how to prioritize tasks.

The ABCDE-Method: Avoid bad consequences

The ABDCE method is an extended scale for prioritizing by importance. It focuses on how to prioritize taskt to avoid the negative consequences of not doing a task. A, B and C stand for different levels of importance of things you should do yourself. From A as being high priority to C as being things that would be nice to do.

In this case the level of importance is derived not from the value of the task if it is performed, but from the level of negative consequences if it is not performed. A meaning serious negative consequences and C no consequences with B somewhere in between.

The letters D and E stand for Delegate and Eliminate. Meaning, that regardless of the importance of a task you should always ask yourself whether it would be possible to assign it to somebody else or ditch it completely.

Find your way, how to prioritize tasks

I do not believe in one-size-fits-all-solutions. The Tools, principles and methods above are all helpful ways to organize your priorities and decide on which of your tasks should be addressed first. See them as building blocks for your own system. Depending on how much structure you need to be efficient either derive a set of general guidelines from the systems or build your own framework to evaluate and prioritize your tasks.