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How to prioritize tasks: 11 techniques to try

Last updated

1 May 2024

Author

Dovetail Editorial Team

Reviewed by

Mary Mikhail

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Getting everything done in a day can sometimes seem monumental. 

If you're juggling multiple tasks, several high-priority projects, and a near-constant stream of emails, figuring out how to tackle what items on your to-do list can leave you with more stress at the end of the day than when you first sat down at your desk. 

Stress at work can be a slow killer, causing you to disassociate from your job or struggle to determine what items deserve attention.

Developing an effective system to manage your workflow can help you avoid the effects of burnout and job-related stress. Systems like these—prioritization techniques, can keep you from being overwhelmed and save time. 

When you know which tasks should receive priority, you can work down your list logically and complete more work in less time.

What is a prioritization technique?

Prioritization techniques are tools or systems that help you assign importance to tasks or actions. 

Using prioritization techniques, you can make informed decisions about your tasks and manage your available time more efficiently. 

It's important to note that prioritization techniques are for more than just professional situations. They can also help manage priorities or requests from family and friends, helping to safeguard your personal life from becoming overbooked or stressful. 

There are many different types of prioritization methods available. Some may be more situation-specific, while others apply to almost any project, role, or industry.

Why is it important to prioritize work tasks?

Most people get overwhelmed at work, at least occasionally. 

There are ways to deal with being overwhelmed at work before burnout sets in, including setting boundaries on your time and workload, outsourcing or delegating some of your tasks, and pinpointing the source of your stress so you can work to reduce its impact on your time. 

By prioritizing your tasks, you can directly affect your productivity and increase your chance of earning recognition through raises, promotions, and other rewards. 

Managers and leaders will see you care about how your time is spent and could even ask you to share your insights and tips with other team members.

And, of course, there are drawbacks to not prioritizing your time well. 

You could cause your team to miss a deadline or unfairly rush to complete a forgotten or mismanaged project. 

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11 prioritization techniques

When evaluating prioritization techniques, consider what suits your work style and personal goals. 

Researchers, project managers, product development experts, and writers have identified these techniques. Try several until you find one that works for you (or mix and match a bit):

1. Priority matrixes

A priority matrix is a straightforward framework for making informed decisions about allocating time and resources. The idea behind the priority matrix is to identify high-priority tasks with the highest return on investment.

Here are three matrix types you might experiment with using:

The Eisenhower matrix 

Impact-Effort matrix

An impact-effort matrix is a powerful decision-making tool representing the relative impact and effort of different tasks or activities. It helps you to prioritize tasks by considering their potential impact and the effort required to complete them.

The matrix typically consists of a grid that shows each task or activity plotted against two axes: impact and effort.

Impact is usually measured in terms of the benefit or value of the task, while the effort equates to time, resources, and complexity.

Using an impact-effort matrix, you can make more informed decisions about where to focus your time and resources to achieve the best possible outcomes.

Cost-Value matrix 

The cost-value matrix is a valuable tool for evaluating tasks and determining the time required for completion. It is a two-dimensional graph with cost on the X-axis and value on the Y-axis. By grouping tasks appropriately, you can see how much time and effort you need to invest in each task relative to its value—this allows you to prioritize tasks and allocate your time and resources more effectively.

If you opt for a priority matrix as your prioritization technique, play around with the structure and visual formatting. Create it in a way that makes sense to you so you can easily track your progress and tasks throughout the day.

2. MoSCoW prioritization method

M: Must have - Essential requirements that must be included in the project for success.

S: Should have - Important requirements that are not critical for the project's success but are highly desirable.

C: Could have - Requirements that are desirable but not necessary. They are doable if time and resources permit (highly relevant to product development teams).

O: Optional - Sometimes used as an alternative to "W" to denote features that are nice to have but in consideration for the current project iteration. 

W: Won't have (this time) - Requirements deemed unnecessary for the current project iteration. They can be considered for future releases and help prevent scope creep. Some organizations use the W to represent "wish" or “will not have right now.”

3. ABCDE method

The ABCDE method of prioritization is action-focused and easy to track.

"A" items are the most critical tasks you must complete for your workday or workweek to be successful. If you have multiple "A" tasks, you can prioritize them individually through designations like "A-1," "A-2," and so on.

"B" items are important but don't have dire consequences if uncompleted.

"C" tasks are nice to do but don't directly affect your other tasks or work life. For instance, grabbing lunch with a friend or trying a new coffee shop. Don't move on to C-level tasks if you still have A and B tasks. Still, make every effort to include these tasks in your overall plan since time spent with friends and family can prevent stress and encourage better mental health and performance at work.

"D" tasks can be delegated to someone else on your team. As a general rule, if you can delegate a task or a project, do it, freeing yourself up to focus on more critical, A-level tasks. 

"E" priorities aren't priorities at all. They should be eliminated from your project chart altogether, as they provide nothing of value.

4. Scrum prioritization

Scrum is all about delivering maximum value in a minimum amount of time. 

The Scrum (Agile prioritization) method focuses on ordering your tasks based on priority and sequence. This requires you to look at the long-term effects of each task, evaluating if there are associated projects that will cause the tasks to bleed into others. 

As you prioritize individual tasks, consider how dependent each one is on the other and how important those tasks are. 

Scrum prioritization techniques are combinable with different techniques, including the ABCDE method.

5. Two Lists technique

Created by entrepreneur Warren Buffett, the Two Lists technique involves writing down a list of 25 things you want to accomplish: 

  • When you've noted everything, circle the five most essential items. 

  • From your master list, make two separate lists. 

  • The first list should be considered the active To-Do list, containing the five most important circled items.

  • The second list with the remaining 20 tasks should be considered your future To-Do list.

  • Tackle these tasks after you've completed the first list.

6. The Ivy Lee method

The Ivy Lee method is a simple concept you can pair with almost any other prioritization technique for even greater effectiveness. 

To incorporate the Ivy Lee method into your professional or personal life, choose the six most crucial tasks from your to-do list to focus on the following day. 

Order the six tasks in terms of priority, with the first listed task being the most important, and so on.

When you arrive at work the next day, start from the top of the list and work your way down until every item is complete. 

Repeat this at the end of the day and going forward. 

Those who get easily distracted can benefit from the Ivy Lee method since it's incredibly straightforward and has little room for distractions. 

However, those working on complex projects might find the Ivy Lee method too simplistic.

7. Most Important Task (MIT) method

The Most Important Task (MIT) method is similar to the Two Lists approach.

With this prioritization technique, you'll start each day by listing three MITs. That day, you'll complete the three items on the list, and by the next morning, you'll create a new list. 

You'll likely finish more than three tasks each day at work, but you can consider these additional tasks as "extras" that can count toward your personal goals.

8. 1-3-9 prioritization technique

The 1-3-9 prioritization technique also involves making a to-do list, but it’s more nuanced than the MIT or Two Lists approaches. 

With the 1-3-9 technique, you'll create a list of 13 tasks at the start of each day, with one critical task, three important tasks, and nine nice-to-do tasks. 

Order the lists of three and nine tasks in terms of priority, then work on and complete your one critical task. 

Once the critical task is complete, move on to the three important tasks and then, the nine nice-to-have tasks.

9. Bubble sort method

The Bubble sort method is built around a grid with bubbles assigned priorities based on urgency. 

Create a horizontal grid with bubbles labeled "task 1," "task 2," and so on. 

Compare the first two tasks listed and choose which one to focus on first. Whatever task is more important of the two should be moved to the left. 

Then, move down the grid and categorize tasks accordingly. 

By the time you've finished the grid, your tasks should be ordered from left to right in order of priority.

10. Pareto principle (80/20 rule)

The Pareto principle, commonly known as the 80/20 rule, asserts that 80% of outcomes stem from 20% of inputs. 

This principle underscores the significance of prioritizing tasks that yield the most significant impact. To leverage this principle effectively, it's essential to identify the critical 20% of tasks that drive the majority of results. 

While the Pareto principle itself doesn't outline specific strategies for task identification, various techniques, such as the MoSCoW method, can be employed for this purpose. 

For instance, by categorizing tasks based on their importance and urgency, you can pinpoint the most impactful ones and prioritize them accordingly.

11. Eat the Frog First technique

The Eat the Frog technique has a title taken from American author Mark Twain. 

To "eat the frog," identify your most difficult task each day and tackle that first. If you have two “frogs” to eat, eat the biggest first. 

After completing that task, move on to the other items on your to-do list. The idea behind the technique is that if you finish the most challenging part of your day first, you have more motivation to finish your day. 

You can combine this method with others, referring to your urgent or essential tasks as "frogs" to kickstart your brain.

How to select the proper prioritization technique

While every prioritization technique has the same overall goal to help you focus on suitable projects and maximize productivity, not every method is a good fit for every person. 

To find the right technique, think about how you work best and what you find most motivational. 

If you're a visual learner and prefer to follow cues represented in a graph or chart, consider a technique like the Bubble sort method, which involves filling out and working directly from a graph. 

However, if you work better by following a meticulously written list, the ABCDE or Ivy Lee methods might suit you better.

And, don't worry if none of the listed prioritization techniques speak to you. 

Many professionals create their own methods by mixing and matching different elements of several prioritization techniques. 

The result should feel natural and allow you to quickly focus on what to work on during a busy workday.

Benefits associated with prioritization techniques

If it feels overwhelming to institute a method before you work on tasks, consider the many benefits of prioritization techniques. 

Prioritization techniques help you better manage your workload, producing a higher quality of work and ensuring a clearer overall view of what you must deal with on any given day.

You'll enjoy faster progress and enhanced attention to detail when a clear structure is in place. 

These benefits will help you eliminate unnecessary distractions and focus on what needs doing. You can improve customer satisfaction, enable greater team alignment, and encourage clear communication with your co-workers.

Common mistakes to avoid

No prioritization technique is foolproof. You could get tripped up by some common mistakes without the right mindset. Here are things to avoid when using any of the listed prioritization methods:

  • Not distancing yourself from distractions. To maximize your productivity, staying focused and avoiding distractions is essential, even when working with a well-organized To-Do list. You can achieve this by setting boundaries with team members and tasks that tend to waste time. Additionally, don't be afraid to seek help whenever necessary. Remember, by staying focused and seeking support, you can achieve your goals and maintain a productive workflow.

  • Failing to take breaks. Everyone needs time to step away from work, whether taking two minutes to stretch or enjoying a 10-minute walk outside. You risk experiencing burnout and extreme stress if you don't take breaks. Whatever prioritization technique you employ, pencil in regular breaks or pauses, preferably for at least 10 minutes at a time.

  • Not scheduling tasks according to energy levels. Some people work best in short bursts, while others prefer to put their heads down and work through a more sustained stretch before taking a break. Whichever camp you fall into, work according to your energy levels. For example, if you prefer to get your most urgent tasks done at the start of the day, schedule them first rather than assuming you'll have time, energy, or motivation to handle them later in the day

  • Failing to keep a personal To-Do list. Prioritizing only your work tasks can cause your personal life to suffer. To that end, use the prioritization technique of your choice to set personal goals and keep track of events and occasions in your private life.

  • Relying too much on tools. Some tools and apps make keeping up with your priorities and tasks easier. However, over-reliance on these tools can come back to bite you. If an application goes down and you don't have a backup of your daily priorities, you could lose track of where you're at, spending the better part of a day recreating your list.

Final thoughts

Motivation is something most professionals need help with. Even if you love your job, there are bound to be times when you don't feel any drive to move forward with your list. Motivation comes and goes, but when you figure out your unique rhythm and incorporate ways to delegate and prioritize your list of tasks, you'll "hack" your workflow and find new ways to finish essential projects efficiently and effectively—experiment with different prioritization techniques, combining and testing until you find what works for you.

FAQs

What are the 5 Ds of Prioritization?

The five "Ds" of prioritization are Do, Delegate, Delete, Defer It, and Discipline. By incorporating these principles into your prioritization technique, you'll stay on task and be less likely to get drawn away to other minor objectives.

How do I distinguish between urgent and important tasks?

Urgent tasks require immediate attention. They often have long-term consequences for your work or the specific project you're working on. They should be prioritized over essential tasks, usually supporting strategic progress toward your overall goal. Both types of tasks can help others meet their goals and have their place in any prioritization technique.

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