Besides managing your time in an efficient way, prioritizing your goals has a major impact on success. When you set personal goals, it’s important to immediately decide which are highest priority. Go full force with the highest priorities on your list and work your way down. Chances are, you will still be working on multiple goals simultaneously, or at least some tasks that support these goals. Keep on prioritizing your work to get the most things done.
There are a ton of theories on managing priorities. In this article, I will explain four of the most well-known priority-management theories. This subject could fill a book on its own, but these examples will give you a good start to managing priorities.
When using the Eisenhower Matrix (developed by former president Dwight D. Eisenhower), you separate the urgent from the important. The matrix is a simple box with four quadrants that help you separate the important from the urgent tasks.
Important tasks are those that contribute to your long-term values, mission, and goals.
Urgent tasks are those you feel need to be acted upon right away, like phone calls, e-mails, news, or texts.
Write all your tasks in the matrix, and analyze which tasks fall into which quadrant. When this is done, deal with your tasks accordingly:
- Important and urgent: Do these tasks as soon as possible.
- Important, but not urgent: Decide when you’ll do these, and schedule them.
- Urgent, but not important: Move these to your “waiting list” and do not act on them until you have time, or delegate these tasks to someone else, if possible.
- Neither important nor urgent: Drop these from your schedule as soon as possible.
Eat the frog
The “eating the frog” method is designed for daily task prioritization. The method comes into play after you have prioritized your most important work, and is designed to set the tone of the day and to determine how to attack it.
How you start the day sets the tone for the remainder of the day. Getting a large, difficult, important task out of the way first thing will give you momentum, inspiring you and giving you energy to keep moving.
Many productivity experts suggest that you spend time on your most important task at the beginning of the day. The name of this method comes from a famous Mark Twain quote: “If you have to eat a live frog, it does not pay to sit and look at it for a very long time!”
Ivy Lee method
The Ivy Lee method consists of 5 simple steps:
- At the end of each workday, record the six most important things you need to accomplish tomorrow. Do not write down more than six tasks.
- Prioritize those six items in order of their true importance.
- When you sit down the next day, concentrate on the first task. Work until the first task is finished before moving on to the second task.
- Approach the rest of your list in the same way. At the end of the day, move any unfinished items to a new list of six tasks for the following day.
- Repeat this process every working day.
This method of prioritizing tasks sounds extremely simple. So why is it so effective?
The primary critique on methods like this is it’s too simplistic. It doesn’t take the many complexities and nuances of life into account. What happens when something unexpected pops up? What about new technologies?
Complexity in any theory can be a weakness, as it makes it harder to get back on track. Distractions and emergencies will certainly arise. The trick is to ignore those as much as possible. Deal with these distractions if you must, but get back to your to-do list as soon as you can.
This forces you to make difficult decisions. The Ivy Lee method does not work because six tasks is a magical number — the power of this number is that it makes you impose limits on yourself. When you have too many ideas, or you’re overwhelmed with everything you need to do, you have to trim away everything that is not absolutely necessary.
The biggest challenge in finishing tasks is actually starting them. Lee’s method removes the friction from starting a task — it forces you to decide on your first task the night before you go to work.
A lot of people start their workday having to decide what task they’ll do first, losing valuable time. By deciding the night before, you can wake up, drink your coffee, and start working on the first task immediately. It’s simple, but very effective — how you start affects how you finish.
This method also requires you to focus on a single task at once. In modern society, multi-tasking almost is synonymous with doing better. In reality, the opposite is the case. Having fewer priorities leads to better quality of work; mastery requires focus and consistency.
Do the most important thing first each day.
Warren Buffett’s “two list” strategy
If Warren Buffett had not become famous for his success in investing, he could have had a great career as productivity coach. Buffett has developed multiple methods for productivity and prioritizing work. One of his most famous is the two-list strategy, which consists of three steps:
Step 1: — Write down your top 25 career goals. (You can also use this exercise for smaller goals with a shorter timeline, like the top 25 tasks you want to accomplish this week.)
Step 2 — Review the list and circle the Top 5 priority goals.
If you are doing this exercise now, pause here. Complete Steps 1 and 2 before reading Step 3.
Step 3 — Divide your list into two lists. List A is your Top 5 tasks, and List B is the other 20.
You probably agree that List A consists of tasks that are your primary focus, and List B comes in second — these tasks are less of a priority, and you can work on them when you have created some time and energy by completing List A.
This is where Buffett would have stopped you. His suggestion would be to rename your lists:
- List A becomes “Most important goals.”
- List B becomes “Avoid these at all costs!”
Nothing on List B would get any attention until you complete all of List A.
But this is easier said than done. Eliminating things you care about is difficult — it’s hard to ignore things that you need to do. But the tasks that offer little in the means of payoff are the things that can derail you from achieving your most important goals.
This is where you need to follow Buffett’s strategy ruthlessly. Items six through 25 on your list are important to you, and it’s easy to justify spending time on them because you care about them. But compared with your Top 5, those lesser items are mere distractions. The reason you end up with everything half-done is you put your energy into smaller, insignificant tasks instead of completing the five most important tasks.
The most dangerous distractions are the ones you love — but they don’t love you back.