How to Prioritize When Everything Seems to Be a Priority?

Below you find a summary of the best approaches to prioritize and you will see that most of those approaches do in fact not work. However, we will provide you with approaches that do work.

I felt that I was unable to accomplish the tasks that I had set for myself. The problem was not that I was lazy or procrastinating, the problem was that I just had too many things on my plate. So I was constantly playing catch-up and was too busy to pursue my big goals.

My situation resembled that of so many others in today’s knowledge based economy. We all seem to have too many responsibilities and too many tasks, so that we often feel that we are not able to accomplish our big goals.

So we all want to know:  How to prioritize when everything seems to be a priority?

1. Traditional Prioritization Methods

As I was frustrated with my work overload I researched online for solutions on how to prioritize. Finally, after having read over 20 articles on the subject I knew all the prioritization methods:

  • Eisenhower matrix
  • Steven Covey prioritization matrix
  • Ivy Lee method
  • Warren Buffett prioritization
  • MIT list

Unfortunately, once I started to use those methods, I saw the limitations of all of them: 

  • They all advise to focus on the important tasks only, but they do not prescribe how to identify these tasks.
  • They neglect that many tasks do not seem important to our main goals but are nonetheless required. 
  • They do not prescribe in what order to do the important tasks. 

Therefore, the two most important questions of prioritization are not being answered:

  • How to know what is most important?
  • What to work on right now?

Before we try to answer these two questions, let us take a quick look at each method:

1.1. Eisenhower matrix

The Eisenhower matrix is as follows:

It divides tasks into the following quadrants:

  • Quadrant 1: Urgent & important -> Do
  • Quadrant 2: Not urgent & important -> Plan
  • Quadrant 3: Urgent & not important -> Delegate
  • Quadrant 4: Not urgent & not important -> Eliminate

The value of the Eisenhower matrix is in reminding us to focus on the important tasks, rather than the urgent ones.

The problems with the matrix are as follows:

  • Quadrant 3 (Delegation):  Delegation should not depend only on the importance of a task but if the tasks can be delegated. For example, calling your friend for his birthday or taking a shower, might be considered not so important but can hardly be delegated.
  • Quadrant 2 (Planning): Planning should depend on complexity of the task but not on urgency. For example, exercising, losing weight, calling clients to make a sale could be considered important but not urgent, but none of the tasks would require planning.
  • Quadrant 1 (Doing): May of us have many tasks that are both urgent and important. What do you do if hundreds of tasks are urgent and important? How do I know what to work on first?
  • Evaluating Importance: How do you know which task is important? 

For these reasons the Eisenhower matrix has only one use: to remind us to focus on important tasks rather than urgent tasks. However, beyond this it has no usefulness. 

1.2. Stephen Covey prioritization matrix

The Stephen Covey prioritization matrix is very similar:  

The matrix also divides tasks into the following quadrants:

  • Quadrant 1: Urgent & important -> Manage
  • Quadrant 2: Not urgent & important -> Focus
  • Quadrant 3: Urgent & not important -> Avoid
  • Quadrant 4: Not urgent & not important -> Limit

Just like the Eisenhower matrix, the value of Stephen Covey’s prioritization matrix is in reminding us to focus on the important tasks, rather than the urgent ones. Beyond this it has similar problems as the Eisenhower matrix:

  • Quadrant 3 & 4:  Often we have tasks that we have to do even though they are seemingly not important. For example, bringing the garbage out before the garbage collection comes, or paying a parking fine. 
  • Quadrant 1 & 2: What do you do if hundreds of tasks are important? How do you know what to work on first? 
  • Evaluating Importance: How do you know which task is important? 

For these reasons the Stephen Covey prioritization matrix, just like the Eisenhower matrix, has no practical usefulness in prioritizing your work.

1.3. Ivy Lee method

The Ivy Lee Method is illustrated below:

As we see in the illustration, the Ivy Lee method comprises the following 5 steps: 

  1. Write down the most important 6 tasks: Make sure you write down the most important tasks, not the most urgent ones.
  2. Order the tasks according to importance; the tasks with highest importance should go to the top.
  3. Work on the first task till finished. Make sure you do not get distracted and complete this one task before you work on anything else.
  4. Work on the second tasks only after the first task is completed. And only after completing a task are you allowed to reorder the task list.
  5. Move unfinished tasks to the next day.

The Ivy Lee method is similar to the Eisenhower and Stephen Covey matrix as it prescribes absolute focus on the most important tasks before doing any other task. However, it also does not show how to identify the importance of a task.

The Ivy Lee method does provide a guide on what to work on next but this guide is not practical in 2020, when we constantly have many important tasks that need to be done as soon as possible. Let us take for example a task list of a typical knowledge worker, whose daily task list looks as follows:

  • Attend corporate training (meet at 13:00)
  • Meet with Abacus company (meeting 9:00)
  • Finish writing the paper and correct it 
  • Call the doctor to make an appointment (call before 17:00)
  • Get the IT service department to fix the mouse (asap so I can work)
  • Write article on new stem cell research

The tasks that are highlighted yellow are the most important ones, the ones highlighted red are the most urgent.

Let us assume that the person had written these highlighted tasks into his 6 item task list. 

According to Ivy Lee he would have to complete the tasks highlighted in yellow, before he could do any of the rest. That would mean he would miss important meetings, not be able to attend corporate training, not be able to make an urgent doctor appointment and work without his computer mouse. This shows the prioritization according to only importance is not practical.

In summary, the only usefulness of the Ivy Lee method is to remind us to limit our focus to only a few tasks and to focus on the most important rather than the most urgent tasks. 

1.4. Warren Buffett 2-list method

The Warren Buffett 2-list method goes as follows:

  • Make a list of your 25 most important goals
  • Then circle the top 5 goals
  • Then make the top 5 goals your top priority, and avoid the second tier top 20 goals at all costs until all top 5 goals are reached.

This is very similar to the Ivy Lee method. The essence is: Do not try to do many things at the same time but only focus on a very small subset of the top goals or tasks and only think about others once these are completed. 

As the Warren Buffett 2-list method is very similar to the Ivy Lee method, is has the same problems:

  • It does not show how to identify the importance of a task.
  • It is not practical to a person who has hundreds of important tasks.

1.5. MIT list method

The MIT method is very similar to the Ivy Lee and the Warren Buffet prioritization method and goes as follows: 

  • Write down the one most important task,
  • Do not focus on anything else during the whole day unless the task is completed.

So this is almost the same as the Ivy Lee method; instead of writing down six tasks we only write down one task. 

As with all the other prioritization methods we have the same problems:

  • It does not show how to identify the importance of a task.
  • It is not practical to a person who has hundreds of important tasks.

So we have seen that none of the traditional prioritization methods has any practical utility, except for reminding us to focus only on a few tasks at a time and to focus on important tasks rather than urgent tasks.

2. Problems of Traditional Prioritization Methods

All of the above five methods tell us that we need to focus on the important tasks, which is indeed important! But they all have the following problems:

  • They do not tell us how to identify the important tasks!
  • They do not tell us what to do when everything is important and in which order we need to execute the tasks! 
  • Their advice is often impractical.

Why is the advice impractical? Because if we look at knowledge workers in 2020 it is impossible or at least not advisable to limit us only to the top 5 goals or only the top 6 tasks, let alone top 1 task.

For example, let’s take Susy who is a single career oriented woman in her 40s. Susy wants to get married and have a family, while at the same time stay healthy and soon switch to a coaching career. She writes down these top 15 goals:

  • Get married
  • Have a family
  • Stay healthy
  • Pay off the mortgage
  • Get a career promotion
  • Have a beautiful vacation
  • Practise Mindfulness/yoga
  • Happy parents
  • Get coaching certification
  • Next level Salsa dancing
  • Make 100,000 USD per year
  • Get a new kitchen decoration
  • Lose 15 pounds
  • Get the knee operation done
  • Get 5 coaching clients

Let’s reorder the list as follows:

  • Family
    • Get married
    • Have a family
    • Happy parents
  • Finance and Material things
    • Make 100,000 USD per year
    • Pay off the mortgage
    • Get a new kitchen decoration
  • Health
    • Stay healthy
    • Lose 15 pounds
    • Get the knee operation done
  • Career
    • Get a promotion
    • Get coaching certification
    • Get 5 coaching clients
  • Fun & Spirituality
    • Have a beautiful vacation
    • Next level Salsa dancing
    • Mindfulness/yoga

Now, imagine that Susy has to choose only 5 of the above 15 goals. Which one would you recommend her to choose? She definitely should focus on her health. If she is overweight she needs to lose weight. And if she has an injured knee she needs to fix it. But that would only leave her two more goals! She definitely needs to focus on her family, getting married and children as well as on her own parents. But that would leave no room for career nor finance nor fun!

Here is the advice that we would give her: 

“Susy, it makes sense to have many areas in your life because all of these areas are important. In fact, for a balanced life you want to have goals in every area. However, within each area look out for conflicting goals. For example, if you are aiming to make a career switch to coaching, then maybe you do not want to focus on also getting a promotion at your current job”.

While focus is important, the above example illustrates that the Ivy Lee and the Warren Buffett method are just not practical for the majority of people.

3. A New Way to Prioritize

As we have seen above none of the traditional prioritization methods answer the following questions: 

  • What is important? 
  • What should we work on next?

After a lot of research and experimentation we have found the best methods to answer each question:

  • What is important?  -> Why-What-How Framework & ROI Focus
  • What should we work on at this moment? -> Task oriented scheduling

We will present these new methods of prioritization below. 

3.1. What is important? The Why-What-How Framework

This framework was popularized by Simon Sinek in his talk on how great leaders inspire action. Turns out that asking these three questions is actually very helpful in order to know which tasks are important.

3.2. What is important? ROI Focus

In order to rank tasks according to importance we need to base it on a measure. This measure has to be the return on investment or ROI. The ROI of a task is the contribution of a task to achieving a goal, divided by the time it takes to complete that task.

3.3. What should we work on at this moment? Task oriented scheduling

As we have seen above, we cannot just make the decision of what to work on at this moment depending on which task has the highest priority. Instead, we need to look at the specific characteristics of all the tasks to see which task has to be done right away.

We will examine each of the three methods in detail below.

4. What is Important? The Why-What-How Framework

In order to know what is important we need to ask three questions:

  • Why?
  • What?
  • How?

4.1. Why-question

Firstly, we have to ask the ¨Why-question¨. The why question is important to understand the importance of tasks. For example:

  • Study for a law exam. 
  • Why? -> So I can pass the class.
  • Why? ->So I can graduate from law school. 
  • Why? -> So I can work as a lawyer.
  • Why? ->So I have a nice job, and make a lot of money. 

So the why questions lead us to our ultimate goals in life, which we need to know to assess the importance of a task, because the importance of a task is how much contribution it has to a goal and how important that goal is.

This can be formulated as:

Value of ultimate goal x Contribution of task to ultimate goal = Value of task

4.2. What-question

Secondly, we have to ask the what-question, which means selecting the tasks to work on. For example, if you are launching a new coaching agency, you might need to decide between:

  • Taking a coaching training
  • Networking with other coaches, and 
  • Building a website. 

The question can be answered by focusing on the biggest return on the time invested for a task, i.e. the task’s return on investment or ROI. The return on investment is the total value of a task divided by the time it takes to complete the task. This can be formulated as:

Value of task / Time to complete task = ROI of task

Combining with the formula above we get:

ROI of task = (Value of ultimate goal x Contribution of task to ultimate goal) / Time to complete task 

4.3. How-question

Thirdly, we have to ask the how-question. This is important because often there is more than one way to get close to a goal. For example, if you want to build a website for your coaching agency you have two options:

  • Do a very quick one page site, which you could have up in one day, or 
  • Take time to study your competitors and get a professional designer and developer to work two months to build a great website.

While the great website has more value than a one page site, it also takes 30 times the amount of time and money, and thus probably has a lower ROI.

Similarly, if you want to do networking you have two options:

  • Attend a conference in New York or 
  • Attend a 2 hour Zoom meeting. 

The conference in New York might have 3 times the value but cost 50 times the resources in terms of time and money, so that it would have a lower ROI.

Before we can compare different tasks according to importance, we first have to determine the way to execute each task, or the how. This decision process between two alternatives execution ways can be formulated as:

Value execution A / time execution A < ? > value execution B / time execution B

In summary, asking the WHY, WHAT, and HOW question can help you determine what to focus on. But the ultimate decision should be made by comparing the ROI, return of investments of tasks, which we will see below.

5. What Is Important? ROI Focus

We can illustrate the value, urgency and ROI of tasks as follows:

The above diagram shows tasks as rectangles of different width and height. The diagram has time on the X-axis and return on investment, or ROI, on the Y-axis. So the wider a task the more time it will consume and the higher the task the higher the ROI. Multiplying ROI * time, we get the total value of the task, which is represented by the area of the rectangle.

5.1. Setting target ROI

We can arrange the task by ROI as in the diagram above to focus on the highest ROI tasks.

After this, we have to determine which tasks we should do (yes-tasks) and which task we should avoid (no-tasks). This is done by determining our target ROI and avoiding all tasks that have a lower ROI than our target, as we can see in the illustration below:

The red line represents our target ROI. Thus we should do all tasks above the red line (yes-tasks), and avoid all tasks below the red line (no-tasks).

5.2. Taking account of urgency

According to the traditional prioritization methods mentioned above, we should just work from left to right, meaning we should finish high ROI tasks first. However, this neglects that certain tasks are so urgent that we need to work on them first, even if their ROI is lower. For that reason we need to add urgency to our ROI model. We can do this by representing the urgency as follows:

  • High urgency: red
  • Some urgency: yellow
  • No urgency: green

In the diagram above the two highest ROI tasks have no urgency, so we can leave them for later and first focus on the high ROI red tasks. But what we do not want to do is to execute the red and yellow tasks that are on the right end, and thus low ROI.

5.3. Falling into the urgency trap

Unfortunately, most people do not set a no-task list and thus prioritize only according to urgency. They first focus on the urgent tasks (red), then on the medium urgency tasks (yellow) and only in the end on the no urgency tasks (green). This we can illustrate as follows:

The problem with this is that we have a limited time illustrated by the vertical line. This line represents our time limit, so the tasks on the right of the line become de-facto no-tasks. This means that after completing all the urgent tasks you have no more time for the several high ROI, but less urgent tasks. 

Now imagine that we have in fact less time available than we think. In that case an even greater part of the important tasks might not be done as illustrated below:

That is why it is important not to determine WHAT to work on by urgency but by importance, which means ROI of the task. Only once the WHAT is decided, meaning the yes-task list is set according to ROI, should we in the second step focus on urgency to see WHEN they should be executed.

To summarize:

  • WHAT tasks to work on -> ROI of task
  • WHEN to work on it -> urgency

5.4. Setting a high target ROI

Do you feel more often that you do not have enough tasks to fill the day, or that you do not have enough time to complete your daily task list? Probably the second! So you want to assume that you have very limited time available. Doing that means the required ROI of a task in order to be put on the yes-task list should be very high. So increase your target return on investment.

This change in target ROI can be illustrated by the two illustrations below. In the first illustration the required ROI is low, which assumes you have a lot of spare time:

Having a low target ROI you assume that you are able to get most of your tasks done.

However, if you assume that you have little available time then you can only engage in the most important tasks, meaning the highest ROI tasks, so you have to set a high required ROI as illustrated below:

Such a high target ROI means that most of the tasks that you would like to put on your task list should in fact not go on your task list.

In summary, only focus on a very small set of very important, meaning high ROI, tasks, otherwise you will end up doing a lot of urgent tasks and have no time for the important tasks.

5.5. How to assess ROI

Above we defined the importance of a task as the ROI of it, meaning the value divided by the time it takes. Return on investment can be easily measured when a task involves money but how do we measure it for tasks like these: 

  • Buying a present for dad
  • Dropping kids off at school
  • Taking a shower
  • Going to the gym
  • Dating to find a husband

These tasks have no money associated with them yet are important. In fact many people would say these tasks are more important than money.

5.5.1. Identify your ultimate goals

In order to give an ROI value to the tasks above you should identify your ultimate goals in life and decide how much time you want to allocate to each one. The are the most common ultimate goals:

  1. Abundant financial wealth
  2. Thriving career 
  3. Large influence and fame
  4. Positive contribution to the world
  5. Excellent health
  6. Great connection with God and spirituality
  7. Happy family
  8. Great friends

For each area you want to determine how important it is, what your specific goals are within the area and how much time you need and are willing to allocate to each area. Then you set limits of time and resources for each area.

Once you have gone through the above exercise, the different areas should no longer be competing with each other for time and attention. For example, you are thinking about starting a business. This is part of the first 2 areas. Thus, if you have to work for a new business you might have less time for your day job and you might have to take money from other financial projects. So the starting of the business does affect other goals within the same area. But starting a business should not change the time dedicated to family, friends, health or spirituality, as these are different areas.

5.5.2. Set aside time for maintenance tasks

Another type of tasks for which the importance is difficult to define are maintenance tasks like:

  • Taking a shower
  • Sleeping
  • Eating
  • Brushing teeth
  • Cleaning the office

None of these tasks seems to move us closer to our goals. But if we do not do them we will not be able to do any productive work or worse we will die.

Therefore, we do not have to determine the value of maintenance tasks but just do them when they are due.

6. What Should We Work on Next? Task Oriented Scheduling

After we have determined what to work on by asking the WHY, WHAT and HOW questions and determining ROIs, we need to get the tasks completed. And after completing a task we have to ask ourselves: “What should I work on next?”

6.1. Separating the What-question from the When-question

Once we have answered the WHAT-question, and we know the tasks to work on, we need to answer the WHEN-question: “What should I work on next?”

All of the traditional prioritization methods would recommend to work on the most important task, i.e. the highest ROI task, first, but in fact this is wrong advice, as often you better work prioritizing urgent tasks even though they have low ROI. 

For example, let’s say you have an appointment with the cosmetician to get your nails done. You might say that this has a lower value than finishing a report for work. However, you have already decided that both tasks are important enough to get them done, meaning the ROI is above your target ROI. Now, it does not make sense to cancel your appointment, and after finishing the report for work get a new appointment. That means that the WHEN-question has to be answered independent from the WHAT-question. Once we decide that the ROI of a task is high enough to be done, then the value of the task should no longer determine when it should be done.

Another example: A client owes you 400 USD. You initially think it is not worth pursuing as it is only 400 USD. But then decide that you do want to get your money back. So the task of “getting the client to pay 400 USD” becomes a yes-task, even though the value is low.

Even though the value is low, you should not implement it last. In fact, a task of getting a debt paid should usually be one of the first tasks to be implemented, as it usually carries a lot of negative emotional energy with it. So the faster the task gets done the less this negative energy affects you.

In conclusion, the answer to the WHEN-question is independent from the ROI of the task.

6.2. Task oriented scheduling

As we have seen above the WHEN-question is independent from the WHAT-question, meaning that the value of a task should not determine the priority of implementation. So how do we determine WHEN to do a task?

The WHEN question is hard to answer and it depends primarily on the type of task and the personal circumstances of the person doing the task. So we cannot make a general rule, but rather make decision criteria depending on the type of task and circumstances. 

The following questions determine which tasks should be done next:

  • Do you have a time bound task pending?
  • Do you have a roadblock to others?
  • Do you have any hated tasks?
  • Is there any In-progress task?
  • Is there any task to “sharpen the saw”?

We can show these questions in the following flow chart:

6.3. Time bound tasks

First we need to look at if the task is time bound. If it is, it needs to get done first, or at least within that time. 

These are examples of time bound tasks:

  • Birthday
  • Meeting or appointment
  • Tasks with hard deadlines

For example, when your dad has his birthday, you should not say that you will call him later that week, because the value of calling several days late is far less than calling on the date of his birthday.

6.4. Other people depending on tasks (roadblocks)

If other people depend on you completing tasks then you should get this task done as quickly as possible. Many times it is enough to do something quickly just to get the ball into the other person court. Unblocking others should be done even if it interrupts another important task.

For example, your co-worker is unable to continue her work unless you spend 10 minutes checking her report and giving your approval. This 10 minute approval should be done asap.

6.5. Most hated tasks

The success guru Brian Tracey wrote a book called “Swallow the frog”. In the book he advises us to first do the tasks that we dislike the most. These tasks are called “swallow the frog” tasks. The idea behind it is that once you have “swallowed the frog” everything else will look easy to you.

This advice has been very helpful to me, as I have noticed that the tasks that I hate the most are most often postponed to the future and therefore do not leave my task list. This is very detrimental as these hated tasks cause negative emotional energy only by looking at them and being reminded that I need to work on them. This has the potential to drain my energy. Therefore, it is important not to postpone these tasks but to get the tasks done first.

So getting your most hated tasks done first is important for these reasons:

  1. The hardest tasks often tend to get done last
  2. Accomplishing hated tasks liberates us from negative emotional and mental energy.

6.6. Closing off old projects, and in-progress tasks

Related to the advice for focusing on the hated tasks is the advice to close off old projects and in-progress tasks. The reason for this is that every project and every task that we have opened but not closed consumes mental energy. So only by closing it can we regain mental energy.

So when all time bound tasks are done, and all tasks that represent roadblocks to others are done, and all hated tasks are done, we should focus on the tasks that we have already started, but have not finished yet.

Finishing in-progress tasks creates mental energy. Our mental energy is limited just like the REM memory of a computer. Imagine you have opened 10 programs simultaneously on our computer. Every program consumes REM memory of your computer so your computer will get slower if you open more programs and at some point will crash. Similarly, any in-progress task is on our mind, until we close it. Therefore, before you open a new task you need to close already opened tasks. 

6.7. Sharpening the saw

Sharpening the saw was an activity mentioned in the book by Steven Covey ¨the 7 habits of highly effective people¨. Covey recounts the story of a guy sawing a piece of wood. He was exhausted because the saw was not sharp enough to cut well. So a bystander asked: “Why do you not sharpen the saw?” to which the guy replied: “Can you not see how much work I have to do? I do not have time for sharpening the saw!”. So that the guy continued sawing with a blunt saw, even though it would have been much quicker to just sharpen the saw.

So under this category falls any activity that increases our proficiency at getting future tasks done. These kinds of tasks should be done first.

6.8. Incoming tasks

Sometimes tasks come at us and it makes sense to just get them done right away. For example, you get an incoming phone call from a client, or a co-worker approaches you with an urgent question.

If these tasks only take a few minutes you should get them done without considering the flow chart above.

6.9. Daily routines

Certain tasks we have formed habits for and we do them in daily routines. For example, eating lunch, taking a walk after lunch or a morning routine including getting up, having a shower, getting dressed, running for 15 minutes and then doing 10 minutes of meditation.

Once you have established such routines you should not endanger them by scheduling other tasks during that routine. The only exception to this are real emergencies. For example, you are in your daily meditation session, when suddenly your child starts screaming because he cut off a finger. Of course you will stop your meditation and bring your child to the hospital as quickly as possible. But except for these emergencies you should not consider the above flow diagram to determine what to do next, and just execute your daily routine.

6.10. Other criteria of scheduling tasks

Outside of your daily routine, and unless it is an incoming task that only takes a few minutes, you should consider the above flow diagram to determine what to do next. But if there is no more task for the day that is time bound, a roadblock, a hated task, an in-progress task or a sharpening the saw task? What should you work on next?

The answer to that question depends on the wholistic consideration of the factors below:

  • Timing & Energy level
    • Learning before bed time
    • Easy tasks after lunch
    • Fun tasks: last, or when tired
    • Variety in tasks
  • Location
    • Walking in nature: Phone calls and reading 
    • Commuting: reading
    • Office: meetings
  • ROI of the task

6.10.1. Timing & energy level

What task to do next also depends on the timing of the tasks and the energy level of the person. For example, these are a couple of rules:

  • Learn new things before going to bed, so to learn during sleep
  • Do easy tasks after lunch, since you have less mental energy
  • Do fun tasks last as a reward or when you are already tired
  • Have a variety in tasks, to reduce mental exhaustion 

Also, if you have just completed a physical task you are likely going to be physically exhausted but mentally fresh. So you should next focus on mental tasks, vice-versa.

Also, your general energy levels vary over the day. So you would want to have the most challenging tasks preferably executed at a time of high energy, which for most people is during the morning.

Similarly your brain can memorize things well during sleep. For that reason you might want to schedule your learning tasks before bedtime so that your brain assimilates the knowledge during sleep.

6.10.2. Location

Some tasks can be done particularly well in certain locations. For example, I like to spend as much time as possible walking in nature. Unfortunately, I am unable to work on my laptop while walking in nature, but I am able to take phone calls. So I try to batch all my phone calls for a time when I can take a walk in nature.

Similarly, there are certain tasks I do well while sitting in the train and others, like for example meeting co-workers I do best when I am in the office.

So the work location also determines the task that you should work on.

6.10.3. ROI

Finally, if the kind of tasks does not give you any indication on if it should be done as soon as possible and also the time of the day, your energy level and the work location are not indicating you what to do, then you should look at the ROI of the task.

Do tasks with a high return on investment first. This is the advice that all of the traditional prioritization methods give us: focus on the important tasks first. However, as we have seen above, the importance of the tasks should only be taken into account after many other factors have been considered.

7. Using Your Intuition to Set Priorities

In the above discussion you saw many complicated rules and calculations. This kind of rational analysis is just not possible to do for the vast majority of tasks. For example you do not want to spend time on calculating the ROI of a 2 minute email response. So the above analysis only applies to big tasks or projects of at least several hours duration.

For smaller tasks you should use your intuition. That means you do not do a calculation of ROI nor do you go through the above flow diagram to know what to work on next. However, you need to be aware of the above rules to sharpen your intuition. In particular you need to be pay attention to the two most common mistakes people make in prioritizing tasks:

  1. Focus on the urgent tasks too much and never get to the important tasks.
  2. Avoiding the hated tasks, and therefore accumulating a large backlog of unpleasant tasks.
  3. Having too many tasks open (in-progress tasks) and open new tasks before closing the in-progress tasks.

Also, while it is impractical to do the above analysis every day for every task, you do want to do an analysis of your work on a regular basis. We recommend that you review your accomplishments every week, and focus on the tasks that you were unable to complete. What was the reason you were not able to complete the tasks? Do you have too many things on your plate? Are you avoiding hated tasks? How could you prioritize better?

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