You sit down in front of your computer to work.
But where do you start?
You have a huge list of things to do, and much of it is random, unsorted and just not organised.
You have everything on our list from picking up some milk at the corner store to working on your next masterpiece.
So how do you prioritise your tasks?
Humankind has been trying to figure this out since we started putting things into lists.
Let’s take a look at six of the most popular prioritisation techniques out there today, and see how well they actually work.
Why Do Humans Need to Prioritise Tasks Anyway?
As human beings we need to prioritise what we do, otherwise we get overwhelmed.
Because when we get overwhelmed, we might just look at that long list of things to do and say “forget it” and go watch Netflix all day.
When we’re organised we have a sense of order and control about what we’re doing. This stops us from missing things.
Simply put: it lets us be more effective and productive.
Which means we can do what we need to, and then get on with the things we really want to do.1Like uh, go watch Netflix all day 📺.
Six Popular Task Prioritisation Techniques Deconstructed
Here are six of the most popular task prioritisation techniques in use today.
I am going to deconstruct each one, and see how well it actually performs in the real world.
1. Due dates
Due dates are ubiquitous.
They are built into basically every single to-do app created ever and we all know what they are:
You pick when something is due and do it by then.
If you want to get a bit more sophisticated, you add in when you want to start doing something as well.
But due dates have a really big problem.
Which is that people tend to assign artificial due dates to things, and this does not work.
What happens, is people miss the artificial due date… and then they move it. Again. And again. And again.
And what happens over time, is that our brain says, “you know what, this whole due date thing is kind of useless, isn’t it?”, and we start to ignore due dates.
Which makes them completely useless for prioritisation.
My personal rule is to never set a due date unless something is really due.
Aaron’s Rating: 1/10.
And only because it is better than having no system at all.
2. Flags and Today views
Flags and today views are the next step up from due dates.
They work on this premise:
You have a huge list of things to do… so how do you now what to work on right now?
You run through the list and you “flag” each item you want to pay attention to right now.
And then you focus on the flags.
The “today view” variation of this is simply using due dates or another marker to neatly compile all these flagged items into a filtered list so you only see the marked items.
For simple things, this is OK.
But there are downsides, like having to review your entire list to flag items to begin with, and having to reset this flagged list every day.
Aaron’s Rating: 4/10.
Not bad for simple lists, starts breaking down when you have projects and multiple lists of things to do.
3. The ABC method, or High-Medium-Low
Now we’re getting into proper task management territory.
ABC, or high-medium-low, is how tasks are usually sorted in project management systems like Jira or Asana.
This method can be quite useful in a team setting where the team has agreed upon a definition of what constitutes a high (“A”), medium (“B”) or low (“C”) priority task.
When these assignments are spread across a team, it is useful because you can focus the majority of your resources and time on the highs, then if anyone has spare time they can look at the mediums and the lows.
Individually, it becomes a bit more nebulous as there is only one “resource”: you!
Aaron’s Rating: 5/10 for teams. 3/10 for individuals.
Teams would actually be better served using something like SCRUM or Kanban and individuals have better options.
4. Eisenhower Quadrants and Matrix
Eisenhower Quadrants or the Eisenhower Matrix is attributed to US President Dwight D. Eisenhower. It was popularised in Stephen Covey’s book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.
It looks like this:
Explaining the Eisenhower Quadrants
Quadrant 1 is urgent/important.
These are your crises or important problems that must be solved right now.
This could be immediate deadlines, for example a client deadline.
Quadrant 2 is not urgent/important.
This is any generative work that “primes the pump” for the future. It includes most growth activities and some recreational activities.
Exercise is a good example of this.
Quadrant 3 is urgent/not important.
These are the interruptions, where other people hand you their problems to deal with.
Examples would be phone calls and app notifications.
Quadrant 4 is not urgent/not important.
These are your time wasters and most forms of recreation.
Using the Eisenhower Quadrants
Here’s how you use the quadrants.
You take your task list, and you put each task into one of the four quadrants.2No, tasks cannot exist in two quadrants. You must make a decision.
You clear the Quadrant 1 (urgent/important) things first.
Then you deal with and (hopefully) put in place a system to handle the Quadrant 3 (urgent/not-important) things.
Then you try to eliminate or minimise the Quadrant 4 (not-urgent/not-important) things.
Then you try to do as many Quadrant 2 (not-urgent/important) activities as possible.
Aaron’s Rating: 7/10.
The Eisenhower Matrix is a great prioritisation method and is attributed to helping build the White House’s administrative arm into what it is today.3Depending on when you are reading this, your opinion may vary 🙈🙉🙊.
5. Purpose and Instinctive Action
Using your purpose and instinct to prioritise tasks is probably the simplest method in use today.
You simply know what your purpose is, and ask:
What is the most important thing right now that will move me towards my purpose?
And then you do that.
It’s not a perfect method, as obviously everyday things will be missed and other people’s priorities tend to get sidelined. You also need to have a very clear idea of what your purpose is.
Aaron’s Rating: 6/10.
Great for emergency mode when there’s just a lot of things to do in a short amount of time.
6. Goals and Outcomes
Goals and outcomes is a more systemised version of using purpose and instinct to prioritise.
The idea is to use cascading timeframes to work out what to do first.
It works like this:
- Purpose determines your long-term goals.
- Your long-term goals determine your annual goals.
- Your annual goals determine your quarterly goals.
- Your quarterly goals determine your monthly goals.
- Your monthly goals determine your weekly goals.
- Your weekly goals determine your daily tasks.
- Your daily tasks and schedule determine what you do right now.
You are essentially prioritising based on what the most important goal is in the next timeframe up.
For example, keep in mind what’s important this week when you’re working out what to do today.
And when you are setting your goals for each timeframe, you simply refer to the next timeframe up to work out what’s important.
The best way to implement this kind of prioritisation system is with journal entries.
Aaron’s Rating: 9/10.
There is no perfect system, but this is as good as it gets.
Why Do Ineffective Task Prioritisation Techniques Exist?
You may have noticed that a lot of the task prioritisation techniques in use today are… not very good.
So why do they exist at all?
Well very simply, somewhere out there, a software engineer or project manager decided that “we have to have due dates” and implemented that into their app.
And before we had apps, task prioritisation methods were mostly based on the idiosyncrasies of some popular figure people read about or saw on television.4And this is because people assign value to fame, and mistakenly believe that person’s fame to be the result of the way they do things.
Which Task Prioritisation Technique Should I Use?
I’ve given my ratings of each method above but everyone is different.
What works for me or what I’ve helped set up for others, may not necessarily work for you depending on your specific circumstances.
But generally here is what I would recommend: prepare and execute.
A common mistake is for people to try to use prioritisation techniques for execution when really they should be used for preparation.
Here’s how this can look:
- Use Eisenhower Quadrants to work on eliminating not-urgent/not-important activities completely. And use it as a diagnostic tool to get rid of as many urgent/not-important tasks as possible.5A simple example would be turning off app notifications or having your phone on silent during work hours.
- Set up a journal system with goals at each timeframe. You don’t have to include everything in each timeframe, and you can use some agile sorting method like must/should/could/won’t to help decide what makes each timeframe.6Anything that doesn’t make a particular timeframe can go in the next timeframe up or on a future list.
- When executing, refer to your daily tasks and schedule and use purpose and instinct to work out what’s next—and do that.
What To Do Next
Task prioritisation is important and having some method or technique for it is better than having none.
You need to work out which method works well for you—and then use it!
- Like uh, go watch Netflix all day 📺.
- No, tasks cannot exist in two quadrants. You must make a decision.
- Depending on when you are reading this, your opinion may vary 🙈🙉🙊.
- And this is because people assign value to fame, and mistakenly believe that person’s fame to be the result of the way they do things.
- A simple example would be turning off app notifications or having your phone on silent during work hours.
- Anything that doesn’t make a particular timeframe can go in the next timeframe up or on a future list.
Photo by sk.