The “Everything is Important” paradox: 7 practical methods for how to prioritize work

One of the biggest struggles in the modern workplace is knowing how to prioritize work. Workloads are ballooning and everything feels important. However, the truth is that a lot of the work we do every day doesn’t really need to be done. At least not right away.

Learning how to prioritize means getting more out of the limited time you have each day. It’s one of the cornerstones of productivity and once you know how to properly prioritize, it can help with everything from your time management to work life balance.

But while the elements of prioritization are simple (i.e. Know what tasks need to be done and rank them). It’s far from a simple exercise.

To make things easier, we’ve collected some of the best strategies out there on how to prioritize work into one master list.

1. Capture everything on a Master List and then break it down by monthly, weekly, and daily goals

Prioritization happens on different levels. You have the tasks that need to be done today. The goals you have for this week. And the accomplishments that would make you feel like the past month has been a success.

Unfortunately, those lists don’t always match up. It’s all too easy to default to what seems urgent today and ignore the fact that it isn’t getting you any closer to your bigger priorities. So before you can learn how to prioritize your daily work, you need to get everything down in one place.

Start by making a master list—a document, app, or piece of paper where every current and future task will be stored. One great way to do this is David Allen’s Get Things Done (GTD) methodology—a 5-step process we wrote an in-depth guide to here.

Once you have all your tasks together, it’s time to break them down into monthly, weekly, and daily goals.

As productivity consultant Brian Tracy explains, your monthly list pulls from your master list. Your weekly list pulls from your monthly list. And so on. This way, you know your daily priorities are aligned with your bigger goals.

However, when setting your priorities, try not to get too “task oriented”. Sure, checking items off a list feels good. But you want to make sure you’re prioritizing the more effective work.

When filling out your different lists, remember the Pareto Principle—or, the 80/20 rule—which says that 20% of your efforts tend to produce 80% of your results. Look for those tasks that don’t just get checked off, but that bring you real results.

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2. Separate the urgent from the important with the Eisenhower Matrix

It’s all well and good to say you should learn how to prioritize work that brings the most results, but how do you actually do that?

In some cases it will come down to experience. But when you’re unsure, the Eisenhower Matrix is a perfect tool to use.

Developed by former US president Dwight Eisenhower, the matrix is a simple four-quadrant box that answers that helps you separate “urgent” tasks from “important” ones.

In basic terms, urgent tasks are things you feel like you need to react to right away, like emails, phone calls, texts, or news. While important tasks are ones that contribute to your long-term mission, values, and goals.

When looking at how to prioritize tasks best, ask which one of the quadrants they best fit in. And then deal with them accordingly:

  • Urgent and Important: Do these tasks as soon as possible
  • Important, but not urgent: Decide when you’ll do these and schedule it
  • Urgent, but not important: Delegate these tasks to someone else
  • Neither urgent nor important: Drop these from your schedule as soon as possible

3. Rank your work by its true priority with the Ivy Lee Method

Sometimes, despite our best efforts, we end up with a massive list of urgent and important tasks we need to get done. In which case, we need to find a way to dig deeper and find their true importance.

One of the best ways to do this was developed over 100 years ago by productivity consultant named Ivy Lee. The so-called Ivy Lee Method is a ridiculously easy way to force prioritization of your daily work.

Here’s how it works:

  1. At the end of each work day, write down the six most important things you need to accomplish tomorrow. Do not write down more than six tasks.
  2. Prioritize those six items in order of their true importance.
  3. When you arrive tomorrow, concentrate only on the first task. Work until the first task is finished before moving on to the next one.
  4. Approach the rest of your list in the same fashion. At the end of the day, move any unfinished items to a new list of six tasks for the following day.
  5. Repeat this process every working day.

Limiting yourself to six tasks (or less) each day creates a constraint that forces you to prioritize properly and then stay focused by single-tasking your way through your list.

4. Separate tasks with seemingly similar priorities using the ABCDE method

How to prioritize work - ABCDE method

While the Ivy Lee method is great for prioritizing daily tasks, there’s still one part that’s unclear: How do you know the “true importance” of a task?

The biggest unknown when it comes to how to prioritize is differentiating between tasks that feel like they’re on the same level of importance.

Here’s where Brian Tracy’s ABCDE method works wonders. Instead of keeping all tasks on a single level of priority, this method offers two or more levels for each task.

Here’s how it works:

  • Go through your list and 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

Again, this is a deceptively simple prioritization strategy. While in most cases it’s almost impossible to differentiate between a B1 task and an A3 one, by giving each task multiple layers of prioritization, you get clarity on what’s truly important to you.

5. Set the tone of the day by “Eating the frog”

How to prioritize work - eat the frog

Once you’ve prioritized your most important work (in whatever method you choose), it’s time to actually choose how to attack the day.

How you start the day sets the tone for the rest of it. And often, getting a large, hairy, yet important task out of the way first thing gives you momentum, inspiration, and energy to keep moving.

That’s why a huge number of productivity experts suggest spending time on your most important task (MIT) right away each day. Or, as Mark Twain famously wrote:

“If you have to eat a live frog, it does not pay to sit and look at it for a very long time!”

When thinking about how to prioritize your daily work, try to include one of these “frogs” at the top of your list.

6. Cut out “good enough” goals with Warren Buffett’s 2-list strategy

How to prioritize work - most important

It doesn’t matter how efficient and effective you are each day if you’re working towards the wrong goal. That’s why it’s a good idea to periodically reassess your long-term goals and priorities to make sure you’re still on the right path.

Here’s one great method for doing this from billionaire investor Warren Buffett.

(As the story goes, Buffett ran his personal pilot through this process to help him prioritize his career goals.)

The first step is to write down your top 25 goals. This could be life goals, career goals, education goals, or anything else you want to spend your time on.

Now, circle your top five goals on that list (if you’re doing this right now, finish circling before moving on).

Finally, any goal you didn’t circle goes on an “avoid at all cost” list. Rather than intersperse working on these goals when you have time, you should actively avoid them. These are the tasks that are seemingly important enough to deserve your attention. But that aren’t moving you towards your long-term priorities.

7. Be aware of the sunk cost fallacy (i.e. don’t fix a leaky boat. Just switch vessels)

How to prioritize work - sunk cost fallacy

As you go through these prioritization exercises, it’s important to remember to be flexible. No one knows the future, and prioritizing and planning is really just guessing.

Sometimes you might prioritize a task only to have expectations or deliverables change on you. At this point it’s hard not to be disappointed. But you can’t let that skew your judgement.

Humans are especially susceptible to the “sunk cost fallacy”—a psychological effect where we feel compelled to continue doing something just because we’ve already put time and effort into it.

But the reality is that no matter what you spend your time doing, you can never get that time back. And any time spent continuing to work towards the wrong priority is just wasted time.

Sometimes our effort is better placed switching boats than trying to fix a leak.

Priorities are great. But remember to be realistic about how much work you can actually do each day

When you prioritize your work properly, you’re guaranteed to have a good day. Hitting the end of the day and seeing that you’ve knocked out some important work is an amazing feeling. But it’s not always possible.

Tasks take longer than expected. Interruptions come up. And our days get filled with meetings and chats. So while it’s great to know how to prioritize your most valuable work, you should also be realistic about how much can actually be done.

This way, you’ll end the day feeling good about the progress you made and like you can step away and take a well-deserved break.

What works best for you? Let us know how you prioritize your work in the comments below or on Twitter

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Jory MacKay

Jory MacKay is a writer, content marketer, and editor of the RescueTime blog.

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