“Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”Dwight Eisenhower
One of the primary frameworks I use in my work is something I call the business production function.
It’s a diagnostic tool that lets me quickly look at the four big categories of business and asks: which one of these is the current limit? Which of these, if improved, will make the biggest impact on the business?
Within the Personal Operations category: there are three sub-sections: task management, knowledge management, and priority management. Task management is the one most commonly taught and includes systems like David Allen’s excellent Getting Things Done.
Knowledge Management came on the scene with the rise of digital note taking apps like Evernote and is embodied in systems like productivity educator Tiago Forte’s also excellent Building a Second Brain.
However, there is a third pillar without which these two fall down: priority management. It’s important to have your tasks and resource organized, but how do you prioritize them?
I believe that spending time defining your priorities is the hardest and most important work that most of us today. There are plenty of stories of smart and hard working people failing to reach their goals because they worked on the wrong thing. With that in mind, I’d like to walk you through the priority management method that I’ve developed over the last eight years or so.
How to Prioritize Tasks at Work
The most common way to prioritize and the best place to start is “bottom up.” That means looking at your tasks or to-do list and figuring out how to prioritize what is already there.
Step One: Get All Your Tasks and Commitments in One Place
It’s impossible to start prioritizing if you don’t really know all the things you need to get done. This is often the main problem – you don’t know what is most important because you don’t have a good way of seeing what’s “on your plate”.
Before you can prioritize, you need to have a list of all your tasks. There are dozens of task management systems out there to help you stay on track for what you need to get done. (My favorite is ToDoist. Omnifocus and Things are also great but Mac only)
A simpler (and perhaps more effective in the short term) way to start is to pull out a piece of paper and make a list of everything you need to get done. In either case, it will probably take you between twenty minutes and an hour to list everything so don’t rush it.
Go for quantity. It’s much better to overdo this process than to risk missing something. You can always toss the junk later.
If you are having trouble listing everything out, here are some questions to help you:
- Do you have specific projects you are working on right now? List each of the projects and next steps associated with them.
- Do you have a bunch of to-dos lying around in different places like apps on your phone, post-it notes, or documents on your computer? Go through all of them and get them in one place.
- Do you have commitments to others like your boss, partner, kids, direct reports, or clients?
- Do you have communications you need to send or respond to? Phone calls, emails, texts, social media posts, etc.
- Do you have anything you need to submit? Reports, evaluations, proposals, articles, summaries, status updates, or meeting notes?
- Do you have meetings that need to be set up or done?
- Do you have any financial tasks that need to get done? Budgeting, forecasting, talking to the bank or investors?
- Do you have any planning that needs to get done? Business plans, marketing plans, upcoming events, presentations, or conferences?
- Do you have any marketing tasks that need to be done?
- Do you have any sales tasks?
- Do you have any administrative tasks? Legal, insurance, staffing, or training?
- Do you have any professional development tasks that need to get done? Trainings, areas to research, skills to develop, books to read or study, or classes to take?
Bonus: Getting Things Done (GTD)
Getting Things Done by David Allen is a robust task management system, written with knowledge workers and professionals in mind. It starts with a similar exercise, but goes well beyond to help you get everything out of your head, organized into proper categories, and eventually put into action.
Step Two: Brainstorm
Setting priorities means putting some things in front of other things (duh…). But how do you decide what to put in front? What you put in front is determined by your goals. Someone whose goal is to launch a new marketing campaign to generate more sales for their company is going to prioritize different things than someone trying to improve how smoothly operations are running.
If you don’t come up with a clear set of goals, it’s effectively impossible to prioritize your tasks. I like setting 90-day goals because I find 90 days is long enough to make meaningful progress on a project but soon enough that it prompts a sense of urgency.
What things would you like to accomplish in the next 90 days?
Here are a few of my favorite questions to prompt goals if you’re having trouble coming up with them:
- “What’s the one thing I could do that makes everything else easier or unnecessary?
- If I were giving advice to someone else in my position, what 1-3 things would I tell them to focus on?
- Imagine yourself five years from now looking back on yourself. What do you want to have accomplished over that time?
Similar to the tasks, don’t limit yourself initially, just write down everything that comes to mind.
Step Three: Prioritize Your Top 1-3 Goals Using an Expected Value Calculation
No that you have a list of possible goals, you need to prioritize them. Trying to do everything at the same time is a recipe for failure because of task switching costs. Imagine trying to work on a different project every five minutes – you’d never get anything done because as soon as you figured out what to start working on, you’d be on to the next task.
I think the magic number for goals is between 1 and 3. Once you have more than three goals, you effectively don’t have any goals because you will just jump around aimlessly
If you’re having trouble prioritizing goals, you can use an expected value (EV) calculation. In our situation, the expected value is:
Expected Value = Resources Required x Return on Investment x Probability of Success
Take the list of everything you could potentially work on over the next 90 days and then rank them by these criteria. Criteria will depend on your situation, but if you’re trying to set business goals, some that I like are:
- Time required
- Cash required
These are relatively self-explanatory – you ideally want something that takes very little time and very little cash.
Probability of Success
- How likely it is to work
- How excited I was about it
“How likely it is to work” is a fairly obvious way of calculating the probability of success, but I actually prefer how excited I am for a couple of reasons. One, is that I think there is a strong argument that excitement and interestingness are emotions that evolved to help humans optimize their fitness in an environment where external indicators were hard to measure.
Much of what we do that improves our skills as individuals (and thus fitness in Darwinian terms) is difficult to measure. There is no easily measurable metric which Einstein could have optimized for that would have lead him to e=mc2. He just thought the problem was interesting and existing. This is true of every major discovery or innovation in history.
It’s equally true of the investor, CEO or any knowledge worker. You can’t make high level decisions on data alone, there should be a large element of going with your gut.
Return on Investment
- 1 year Return on Investment (ROI)
- 5 year Return on Investment (ROI)
Some projects have quick pay back periods while others have much longer term ones. If you focus exclusively on the short term ROI, you usually miss out on the benefits of compounding and under perform in the long run. The short term ROI of staying in a job you hate is almost always higher then taking a leap and trying something new, but if you use that reasoning every year for twenty years, you’ll be unhappy.
If you focus exclusively on the long run, you run the risk of simply being wrong in your probabilities. If you think something is the best 10 year ROI but you end up wrong, you just wasted ten years on it.
So balancing between them helps keep things sustainable in the long run while also giving yourself long term upside. I usually have at least 1 short term ROI goal I’m working on and one longer term ROI goal.
Ideally, you want to prioritize something that requires very little time or money, is extremely likely to work and has a very high ROI. In practice, it is very difficult to find projects that are all of these things and so you have to deal with the tradeoffs.
I found EV calculations are rarely accurate as a precise predictive tool, but forcing myself to assign a value to each variable is a helpful tool to think through the possibilities and better understand them.
- Why am I more excited about one thing as opposed to another?
- Why do I think this has better long-term ROI than that one?
- Is this really that expensive or can I get it done cheaper without sacrificing quality?
- Will this project actually take that long or am I over or underestimating it?
Step Four: Prioritize your tasks by Importance to your Goals
Once you have a list of all your tasks and a set of goals, it’s a lot easier to start prioritizing your tasks. In this section, I’ll show you the most effective task prioritization methods so you can choose the best one for your unique situation and working style.
If one of these seems too simplistic, too complex, or just not a good fit, then move on and try to find one that works. The difference between not prioritizing at all and using any method is huge while the difference between the methods is pretty marginal so don’t overthink it.
A creation of productivity guru Brian Tracy, this method consists of ranking your tasks into five categories.
A – Very important, must be done at all costs.
B – Pretty important, but the consequences aren’t as dire if it’s not completed.
C – Would be nice to have done. No consequences for not doing it though.
D – Delegate this to someone else (it’s not worth your time).
E – Eliminate. Not worth doing, delete it.
What’s this look like in practice?
Eisenhower Priority Matrix
US General and President Dwight Eisenhower used a 2×2 matrix to prioritize his work, a method later popularized by professional development author Steven Covey because Eisenhower had a reputation for sustaining high levels of productivity not just for weeks or months, but for decades.
Instead of needing to look at what is easiest, hardest or has the most consequences attached, the priority matrix allows you to look through your to-do list and categorize based on their urgency and importance.
Start by filling in quadrant 1 (urgent and important) by selecting anything that is due soon or overdue. If a task leads directly to moving a project forward in your business, that goes in quadrant 2 (not urgent and important). Quadrant 3 (urgent not important) and quadrant 4 (not urgent/not important) are where you can put the rest.
A common issue people using this system run into is that they always have so many things in the Urgent/Important category that they never get to anything outside that quadrant.
Usually this means you need better systems to handle those things. For example:
- If you have to constantly go in and pay bills, can you put any of those bills on autopay?
- Is there anything you can delegate or outsource? Make simple instructions and hire someone on Upwork or Fancy Hands to do routine tasks that take up too much of your time.
- Can you use automation tools like IFTTT or Zapier?
Tasks in the Important, not Urgent category are things that are most beneficial to your career or business in the long run like putting together company plans, developing new products or marketing campaigns and making sales calls or checking in with key clients. Because these tasks are not-urgent and tend to be difficult, they often get procrastinated.
So, another solution to not getting stuck in the Urgent/Important category is to start your day by working on something in this quadrant means you are pushing forward the big things before you go into firefighting mode. I’ve seen something as simple waiting to check your email until you spend an hour or two on a non-urgent, but important first thing in the morning double productive output.
The Marshall Matrix
A prioritization method developed by marketing educator Perry Marshall is to categorize your tasks by how much value they generate for you or your company. Tasks can be assigned as either $10 per hour, $100 per hour, $1,000 per hour or $10,000 per hour.
Perry picked these numbers because of an insight based on the 80/20 Rule – 20% of the work we do generates 80% of the value. If you can focus on doing that 20%, then everything else doesn’t really matter that much. The 80/20 rule is fractal, which means there is an 80/20 of the 80/20 – the 4/64 meaning if 4% of the work we do generates 64% of the value (and a further 80/20 of the 4/64 – the 1/52)
This is not immediately obvious, but, upon deeper reflection, everyone I’ve talked to about this agrees. You can probably point to a very few things in the past five years that have made the most difference to your career or business. However, we tend not to think about it this way.
The natural, human thing to do is to think of the value of the tasks as linear, with some tasks being a little more valuable, then others. “I guess working on my new product would be good, but maybe I’ll just update a couple things on my website.” However the difference in value of those things is exponential: the new product could dramatically grow the business while the minor website update is likely to make a tiny difference, if any at all.
A one-hour call diligently following up with a good prospect for a large sale could make you $10,000 whereas spending an hour fixing a few categorization errors in your latest expense report doesn’t really make much of a difference.
In real life, the difference follows an 80/20 distribution, also called a pareto distribution, also called a power law distribution. The difference between a good opportunity and a great opportunity is 10x or 100x, not 2x. If you had the choice between joining Google versus any other startup in 2000, it might seem like Google was only a moderately better opportunity. Unless that other startup was called Amazon, the outcome was 100x or 1000x different.
A power law graph of prioritization matches reality more closely and thinking of it in those terms helps to prioritize more effectively. Instead of thinking “I guess working on my new product would be good, but maybe I’ll just update a couple things on my website,” you think “working on my new product is 100x more valuable than fixing some things on my website so I should just forget about the website until that product is launched or delegate that to someone.”
This is why I used a linear total and a pareto total in the Expected Value calculation in step 3. The linear total makes all the opportunities seems about the same (ranging somewhere between 13 and 20) while the Pareto calculation more accurately reflects distributions in the real world (ranging from 10 to 195).
Bonus: Make a Not-To Do List
Is it beneficial? If not, write it down on a “stop doing list.” I realized a few months ago that I was spending a lot of time promoting content in places that didn’t drive any traffic. No more of that.
Some things that are frequently wastes of time beyond what Perry outlined as $10 tasks above:
- Checking business stats (traffic, sales) every day if there is nothing actionable to be done with them.
- Answering phone calls from unknown numbers
- Responding to the same email thread more than once a day (so you end up spending all day going back and forth)
- Meetings without a clear agenda
- Meetings before noon
- Errands that can be outsource – (e.g. grocery shopping)
- Social Media on Phone
- Email On Phone
- Responding to Emails more than twice a day
- Saying yes to hanging out with people you don’t truly enjoy being around
- Responding to emails that can be more quickly answered via a quick phone
- Responding to emails which don’t obviously have a purpose
- Micromanaging people instead of managing by KPIs and results
The Last Word on Prioritizing by Importance to Goals
The big thing to point out here is that all these methods more or less map together pretty cleanly, so it doesn’t matter too much which method you choose.
In effect, these are all rules of thumb for coming up with the expected value of different tasks. Marshall’s Matrix is an explicit measure of value, while Eisenhower and Tracy’s are more abstract, but you will notice they get to about the same place.
Marshall’s $10,000/hour tasks include improving your Unique Selling Proposition, creating new offers, and public speaking – things that are nearly always important, but not urgent.
Likewise, Marshall’s $10/hour tasks include things like fixing stuff on your website, spelling everything correctly, running pointless errands – all examples of tasks that are neither urgent nor important. Obviously the mappings are not perfect so just pick whichever one makes the most sense to you.
- A tasks/ non-urgent important tasks/$10,000 per hour tasks
- B tasks/urgent important tasks/$1,000 per hour tasks
- C tasks/urgent not iMportant/$100 per hour
- D & E tasks/not urgent not important/ $10 per hour/not-to-do list
It makes sense to use these simple rules of thumb for task level as opposed to goal level prioritization because, in practice, putting up a spreadsheet with 100 tasks and evaluating them across six dimensions every day would take so long that you wouldn’t get anything else done which sort of defeats the point of prioritizing in the first place.
So for one of my goals above, my task list for a week would be categorized like this.
Step Five: Prioritize by Energy Level: Maker, Manager, and Admin Time
The other dimension that it’s helpful to prioritize on is energy level. There are times when you are fired up and ready for a big challenge and times when you are worn out and don’t have the mental energy to take on a big tasks. By assigning energy levels to your tasks, you can find tasks that match your current state throughout the day or week.
In his essay ‘Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule’, Silicon Valley investor Paul Graham explains that Maker work is work that requires long amounts of uninterrupted time – writing, coding, and strategic planning all require a big chunk of time to work on. It’s hard to write a book or a long range plan in 15 minute chunks, it requires long periods and usually requires the peak energy part of your day (mornings for the early birds and evenings for the night owls – very few people do maker work in the afternoons from what I’ve seen).
Manager work is the kind of work that tends to be done by managers and can be split into smaller bits of time – 20 minutes to do email or an hour for a meeting. What many people do is they schedule manager work throughout their day – a meeting at 9am, another at 11am and a call at 2pm.
Even though it’s only three hours of work, it eats up the whole day. By the time the 9am meeting is done at 10am and you take a few minutes to reorient and get onto the next thing, it’s 10:30am and you have another meeting in 30 minutes, so you can’t really get started on anything. Then you take the 11am meeting and get lunch and now it’s 1pm so you only have 60 minutes before the 2pm meeting – still not enough time to do any maker work.
The idea with maker and manager time is to “chunk” your time. You can block out one large block in your day (say 9AM to Noon) to work on maker work without being interrupted. In manager time, the second block, you work on the more managerial tasks that need to get done to keep things going, but aren’t really driving things forward.
I also include Admin as a category because I find there are some tasks which I can do when I am otherwise brain dead like buying something on Amazon, scheduling an appointment at the dentist, or selling something on eBay.
Dividing your priorities into maker, manager and admin time lets you make sure you are dedicating time to moving projects forward while still keeping things afloat that aren’t high value but simply need to get done.
Maker Task Examples:
- Writing Longform Content
- Yearly, Quarterly, Monthly or Weekly Review and Planning Periods
- Update Your Company’s Strategic Objective and Values
- Designing a Dashboard for your direct reports
Another way to identify Maker tasks to do when your energy level is the highest is to “Eat the Frog”
What’s the ugly task keeping you up at night or stopping you from getting started with the day because you know you have to do it.
The rationale behind the “Eat the Frog” method is to ruthlessly confront the root cause of your procrastination when you have your best energy (usually the first thing in the morning, though it can late at night for the night owls out there). It’s the same ideas as jumping right into the cold water or ripping off a band-aid.
Here are some questions to help you identify the “frog” tasks:
- Is there anything I have been procrastinating for more than a week?
- What task on my list scares me the most?
- Where am I lacking courage ?
- Where am I avoiding a hard conversation?
- Where am I avoiding a hard decision?
Manager Task Examples:
- Responding on Slack, Telegram and other messaging apps
- Social Media
- Some shorter form writing
- Quick bug fixes
- Checking Analytics or dashboards
- Taking notes on a book
- Watching a video or reading an article
- Filling out forms (taxes….)
- Testing new software
Admin Task Examples:
- Data Entry of all types
- Organizing your office
- Setting up Appointments (doctor, dentist, therapist etc.)
- Shopping/Buying something online
- Booking hotel and airline tickets
- Paying Bills
You may have noticed that energy level tasks line up pretty closely with dollar value. There are exceptions (e.g. sales tends to be more managerial work with mostly emails and meetings, but is still very high value), but there is a pretty strong correlation.
Step Six: Prioritize Your Work Based on Importance and Energy Level
There’s a story about a philosophy professor who starts a class by taking a mason jar and filling it up with golf ball sized rocks. He then asks the class if the jar is full. They all nod and agree that it is.
He then takes a box of pebbles and pours them in, gently shaking the jar so they roll into the open spaces between the rocks. He asks them again if it is full. They laugh a little and now say that, “Yeah, it’s really full.”
Then he picks up a box of sand and pours it into the jar, gently shaking the jar so that the sand falls into the cracks between the pebbles.
First, the story reveals that most philosophy professors have to use tricks to establish their intellectual superiority because their field has become so detached from reality.
Second, it illustrates a seeming truism that we nonetheless fail to acknowledge: This jar signifies your life. The rocks are the truly important things: your health, family, close friends, and meaningful work projects. If they were the only things in the jar, then it is still a full life.
The pebbles are the other things that matter, but are perhaps not essential. The sand is the little things that don’t do much to move your life forward but sometimes need to get done – paying your phone bill or buying a new rug.
Most people put the sand in first, filling their schedules up with meaningless managerial (particularly email and meetings) and administrative work, leaving no room for the rocks.
Now that you have a list of tasks prioritized by both importance to your goals and energy level, you can plan your days in a way where the rocks go in first.
Schedule Your Week
At the beginning of this essay, we said that most individuals tend to ship their calendar – what you put one your calendar is what gets done.
At the beginning of each week as part of my weekly review, I go through my and update all the tasks on my list and prioritize them, then I drag them onto my calendar
What are the $10,000/hour important, non urgent tasks? Those are your rocks that go on your schedule first.
What are the $1,000 important/urgent tasks? Those go on your schedule next.
Finally the $100 and $10/hour tasks unimportant tasks are the sand.
At any point during the day, you can ask “Given my current energy level, what’s the most valuable task I can do now?” and have a clear answer.
I try to plan out my week in this order:
- Rest/Fun/Social – Purple
- Exercise – Turquoise
- $10,000 per hour (Unique) tasks – Green
- $1,000 per hour (Excellent) tasks – Yellow
- Learning – Bold Blue
- $100 per hour (Competent) tasks – Orange
- $10 per hour (Incompetent) tasks – Bold Red
This is what I’ve found to be the most effective prioritization scheme for long-term productivity.
Rest always come first. If you’re the type of person who tracks their time using a color coded calendar, you are also probably the type of person who doesn’t rest as much as they should. This leads to a cycle of almost manic productivity (I’m killing it!) followed by burnout.
By making sure you have down time every week, you’re setting yourself up for being more productive in the long run.
You need to plan your rest time just as seriously as your weeks. Many clients I’ve worked with (including myself) will plan their work schedules down to the second, but “wing it” when it comes to rest or exercise time.
Make appointments with yourself to go for a walk, watch Shrek, or take a cooking class.
After rest time, exercise always comes next. It’s one of the easiest things to skimp on, so planning it when you’ve got a more open calendar means you can pick times that are likely to actually work.
Like rest, planning time to exercise also sets you up to be more productive long-term.
Next comes high priority work (Maker work or $1,000-$10,000/hr work).
Then low priority work (manager and admin or $10-$100/hr work).
Having done this for years, my piece of advice is to try to schedule about half your work week to work on moving your priorities forward and leaving the rest to deal with meetings, email and other managerial and admin work.
This leaves margin for unexpected things that pop up, while still making sure you are pushing the most important things forward.
Schedule Your Day
At the beginning of each day, I like to look over my calendar and task list for that day, and briefly jot down three things I am grateful for my priorities for the day.
Unlike digital task managers where you can keep adding more and more tasks as the day goes on, paper is beautifully finite and I find crossing off the tasks as I complete them irrationally satisfying.
I like to split up priorities with a clear #1 priority, followed by 2 secondary priorities, and 3 nice-to-haves. These will typically loosely map to the priority system I outlined above:
- #1 Priority – Maker/ $10,0000 or $1,000 per hour tasks
- #2 &3 Priority – Manager or $1,000 to $100 per hour tasks
- #4, 5 and 6 – Manader/Admin or $100 or $10 per hour tasks
The key to being successful is doing the right work. This sound extremely obvious in theory, but I’ve found it to be extremely difficult in practice.
First, of course, you must do the work. This is table stakes. Yet, there are many hard working people who aren’t as successful or effect as they would like. I think this ultimately boils down to prioritizing – doing the right work, not just work.
This is the system I use to help myself do that. If you found it helpful, I hope you will copy, borrow, and iterate from it.
Last Updated on January 8, 2020 by Taylor