If there’s only one thing every goal-driven person should know for sure, it’s how to prioritize.
We’ve all been there: you wake up in the morning, grab a cup of coffee, and head into the office with the tenacity to get some significant work done only to come home later that day feeling like you accomplished absolutely NOTHING.
I’ve been there, and I know you have too – everyone has! It stinks!
I’ve been finding myself having more of these days lately and honestly; it bums me out. I don’t enjoy feeling unproductive, especially when I recall times when I was cranking away and getting a million things done.
When this happens, I dig deep and remind myself of several principles and practices that help me to prioritize. They are Pareto’s Principle, a.k.a. the 80/20 rule, the Eisenhower Matrix, and the ABCDE Method.
Each one serves me in different ways, so when I get overwhelmed or feel unproductive, I dust these off and use them to get back on the right track. I often wonder why I don’t just keep using them consistently, but it’s like going to the chiropractor: I remember to go when my back hurts, but I forget when I feel good.
So, without further ado, let me explain how to prioritize your tasks and goals for maximum success.
Pareto’s Principle, a.k.a. the 80/20 Rule
Pareto’s Principle is pretty simple, and perhaps you’ve heard of it, but any article about priorities has to include the 80/20 rule.
The Principle states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. In other words, for most things, 80% of your rewards are going to come from 20% of your efforts.
As a business owner, roughly 80% of your revenue will come from 20% of your clients; 20% of the world’s population control 82.7% of the world’s income; and Microsoft found that they could eliminate 80% of their crashes by fixing the top 20% reported bugs.
The real-world examples go on and on, but what’s important to realize is that this also applies to your daily efforts. When you’re examining your daily to-do list, it helps to identify which 20% of those tasks will have the most significant impact overall.
What’s more important: completing a proposal and closing a big client, or responding to 67 emails, answering the phone every time it rings, and taking spontaneous “meetings” from your colleagues?
The answer seems pretty clear and easy to prioritize, but we often fail to prioritize correctly when we’re in the moment, and that’s because most of us want to close out our to-do list – we want to get everything done.
But getting everything done is impossible!
For every task, we complete, two more pop up to take its place, but not everything is worth doing. Some things are much more important than others. The challenge is differentiating the difference between urgent and important, and that’s where the Eisenhower Matrix comes into play.
The Eisenhower Matrix
One of my favorite ways to prioritize my tasks is by using the Eisenhower Matrix, but before we do, let’s look at the difference between Urgent and Important.
Urgent items are those that seem to scream “NOW!” and they put us in a state of reaction. If you ever feel like you run from one fire to another, you know the feeling.
Important tasks are the ones that contribute to your long-term goals. These can be urgent, but they seldom are. Dwight D. Eisenhower had a successful career and is known to use this technique for sorting his priorities, hence the name!
Here’s what he said: “What is important is seldom urgent, and what is urgent is seldom important.”
Okay, now that we know the difference between Urgent and Important, let’s sketch some squares.
First, draw a large square and then divide it into quadrants. Then, across the top two squares, write “Urgent” and “Not Urgent.” Next, write “Important” and “Not Important” down the left side boxes, like so:
Finally, you take your entire to-do list and dump it into these four squares. But before you do, remember that not everything is equal. Some things are much more important than the others, so keep the 80/20 rule in mind.
Once you’re done placing your to-do list into the squares, you can apply the four Ds to the squares. If you’re not familiar with the four Ds, check out this article for a quick overview.
Here’s what you do:
- If your tasks are Urgent and Important, Do them first.
- If your tasks are Not Urgent but Are Important, Defer them for later.
- If they’re Urgent but Not Important, Delegate them to someone else.
- If they’re Not Urgent and Not Important, Delete them from your list – they aren’t worth doing.
As you can see, not everything on your list is something you have to do, and you most certainly don’t have to do everything right this instant. Once you’ve delegated a portion of your list and deleted another portion, you can get back to work on what’s truly important.
The ABCDE Method of Prioritization
If the Four Square Method seems like a bit too much work with all the doodling, you could use the ABCDE Method. I picked this method up from Brian Tracy’s book Goals!
To use this method, you assign a letter to each of your tasks. According to Mr. Tracy’s book, it looks like this:
- A – These tasks are critical and have high consequences. Getting them done should be your top priority because these tasks contribute the most to your long-term success.
- B – These tasks have smaller consequences, though they are still important, such as answering email.
- C – These tasks would be good to do, but they have no consequence on your life at all. Nothing bad would happen if these items are never completed.
- D – “D” is for Delegate. These are the tasks that should be done by someone else at a lower rate of pay so that you can focus on the big picture.
- E – “E” is for Eliminate. These tasks are not worth doing at all. As your goals progress, evolve or change completely, many old tasks become unimportant. Just because they were on your list at one point does not mean you still have to do them today.
There you have it! Learning how to prioritize is as simple as knowing your ABCs. Anything beyond a C isn’t something you should be doing.
Now that I’ve armed you with Pareto’s Principle, the Eisenhower Matrix, and the ABCDE Method, you know how to prioritize like a pro!
Like anything, using these methods will take practice. The more you use them, the faster and better you’ll get at weeding through all of your daily tasks. After a while, you’ll have built a powerful new habit that will serve you and your goals for years to come.