Prioritizing Your Life - The How, What, When, and Why Guide

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Photo: geralt
By Cynthia Dalton
It is not a daily increase, but a daily decrease. Hack away at the inessentials. — Bruce Lee

Too Many Tasks to Do? Take a Deep Breath and Prioritize.

There is a light at the end of the tunnel, but you may need help finding it before you can see it. Learning the how, what, when, and why of prioritization is the first step to helping you find your way.

What is Prioritizing?

Here’s how defines prioritization:

As a principle, it means doing 'first things first;' as a process, it means evaluating a group of items and ranking them in their order of importance or urgency.

The trick is to identify which task is important to accomplish and which task is urgent. Often, we believe we’re getting things done just by being busy. The truth is that busy tends to stack up more and more work, much of which may be totally unnecessary to the outcomes on which we should be focusing. Worse, without a thoughtful plan of attack, we can let truly important tasks go undone until they become a crisis forcing us to drop everything else and ‘put out the fire’ in panic mode. Not only is this an unpleasant way to do business, it’s just plain sloppy and unprofessional.

How to Prioritize Effectively

According to Tim Wilson, the creator of

Much advice on how to prioritize work advocates ordering all your tasks by A, B and C or some other number/letter method.


Why? Because it’s hard to motivate yourself for C tasks -- they just don’t seem to matter. In any case, left long enough those C tasks have a nasty habit of becoming urgent issues anyway.

If things are on your list, you put them there because they do matter.

Instead, start by prioritizing only things that are deadline driven, particularly if something on your list is for today or tomorrow.

Wilson advocates a three-step approach when you are first beginning to prioritize:

1. know what your work actually consists of and make a list (including deadlines),

2. break down your list into three types of work — single tasks, recurring tasks, and projects, and

3. prioritize only the urgent deadline driven work at first, until you get a handle on things and things are running more smoothly.

The heart of Wilson’s advice is how single tasks should be handled:

Do these tomorrow. Yep, you read that right - tomorrow. This method of learning how to prioritize work is based on Mark Forster's, Do It Tomorrow time management system. Draw a line under your list of outstanding single tasks. This is your backlog. Every day, work on your finite backlog of outstanding single tasks. Start with the tasks that you deem to be most urgent. Chip away at the list daily for as long as you want. With each passing day the backlog will be reduced. Within a few days you will have cleared it. From today, schedule any tasks for the following day (unless they are genuinely same day urgent). List them in under the next day’s date in your daily task diary. This will give you a finite list of tasks to do for the next day. Tomorrow, do those tasks. Based on all the factors at the moment of choice (urgency, importance, time available, location, motivation, energy levels etc.) which task do you want to do first? Do it, cross it off your list, then pick the next one. Your aim is to always work on that day’s scheduled tasks. If you don’t manage to complete one, add it to the following day’s list. Repeat until complete. So, as a rule, single tasks get done the day after they appear. Doing this means you have a clear idea of the tasks you have to do on any given day. Your list is also limited to no more than yesterday’s incoming tasks (remember, everything that comes in today gets done tomorrow).

Essentially, Wilson is providing a blueprint for getting on track and staying on track. Check out his full article, How to Prioritize Work and Get It All Done, for his no-nonsense approach to prioritizing.

When and What to Prioritize

But how do you determine the importance of each task and when to complete each task you’ve identified?

In his article, How to Prioritize Right in 10 Minutes and Work 10X Faster, for, Leon Ho explains his Scales Method for measuring a task’s importance by its cost and benefit as if you’re metaphorically weighing each on scales. He writes:

It works like this: take a look at all the tasks you’re doing and review the importance of each of them. Specifically, measure a task’s importance by its cost and benefit. By cost, I am referring to the effort needed per task (including time, money, and other resources). The benefit is how closely the task can contribute to your goal.

Ho provides four combinations of cost and benefit “… that will enable you to quickly and easily determine the priority of each of your tasks.” These are:

Low cost + High benefit. Do these tasks first because they’re the simple ones to complete, yet help you get closer to your goal.

High cost + High benefit. Break the high cost task down into smaller ones. In other words, break the big task into mini ones that take less than an hour to complete. And then re-evaluate these small tasks and set their correct priority level.

Low cost + Low benefit. This combination should be your lowest priority. Either give yourself 10-15 minutes to handle this task or put these kind of tasks in between valuable tasks as a useful break. These are probably necessary tasks (e.g., routine tasks like checking emails) but they don’t contribute much towards reaching your desired goal. Keep them way down your priority list.

High cost + Low benefit. Review if these tasks are really necessary. Think of ways to reduce the cost if you decide that the completion of the task is required.

Check out Ho’s complete article here.

Why You Should Start Now - The Benefits of Prioritizing

The article, The Importance and Benefits of Task Prioritization, for, points out that prioritizing tasks offers the following benefits:

1. It reduces stress and increases productivity. “Knowing that you don’t have to finish all tasks at once, or in a single day will give you a more flexible time to focus on the most important things first.”

2. It helps you create room to check your errors. “Task prioritization ensures that you allocate sufficient time to complete tasks and also make necessary changes in order to save time and become more productive.”

3. It gives you more time to relax. “When you complete your scheduled tasks ahead of the time allocated, you have sufficient time to relax and recharge your body for future tasks. You may even allocate breaks in-between your tasks.”

4. It helps you avoid procrastination. “Procrastination is the number one hindrance to productivity… because it forces you to waste your time…”

5. It keeps you motivated. “When you prioritize your tasks and see positive results, you will become motivated to handle even more tasks…”

What do you think?

  • Are you a procrastinator or a go-getter when it comes to completing tasks?
  • What tips do you have for prioritizing tasks?

How do you stay motivated to complete tasks?

Do you have a question, comment or an idea for an article? Email: [email protected]

Leave a comment!

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