Figuring out how to prioritize projects, time, and effort is essential to living well—but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Maybe the concept of prioritizing seems abstract to you. What does it mean to prioritize things anyway? Or maybe you just feel like everything is important. Either way, lacking priorities can leave you feeling flustered and stuck, which isn’t a great look for those of us with big goals. In truth, you’re the only one who can set your priorities, but we can help you figure out the best way to do that with a little help from science, of course.
To get started, here are our own priorities for this piece:
- Provide you with a research-backed framework for identifying your most meaningful to-dos
- Give you five simple strategies that make prioritization way easier
How to Prioritize in Two Simple Steps
1. Identify your most important work: The Pareto Principle
A brilliant insight first credited to the Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto states that an outsized proportion of results comes from a relatively small number of causes. Translation: The work with the biggest impact comes from a small proportion of effort. This has been dubbed the Pareto Principle.
Here’s what that means: Pareto observed that 80 percent of the land is owned by 20 percent of the population, and a similar 80/20 pattern has popped up in countless other areas since then. For example, 80 percent of peas come from the healthiest 20 percent of pods, 80 percent of sales come from 20 percent of customers, and so on.
It’s important to note one thing—it’s a principle, not a rule. It’s a rough estimate for a statistical pattern that shows up in many, but certainly not all, situations. But that doesn’t mean it’s not useful. Applied appropriately, the Pareto Principle can help you think about your most important work—the stuff that brings about that 20 percent of results. Then, you can prioritize that work first knowing that your results-oriented tasks are getting done before anything else. The rest of it, like emails or administrative work, comes in only after you get your priority tasks done.
To try it:
- List out your tasks for the day or week
- Identify the ones that really move the needle.
- Build out time to tackle those first.
- Schedule them in your calendar and protect that time.
- Fill in the remaining spots with lower-impact work.
2. Focus deeply on that work
Now that you know how to prioritize your work, you need to be able to get it done. Enter focus. Georgetown University computer-science professor and author, Cal Newport calls it deep work, and it’s essential for making your priorities happen.
The issue, as Newport explains, is that focusing deeply is hard, and modern society is full of distractions. Is focusing deeply even possible at this point? And if so, is it worth it?
In short, yes. Newport and his peers argue that the ability to focus deeply is a skill to develop over time. If you commit to it, you’ll give yourself a powerful advantage over most other people, which may lead to increased satisfaction in your life and work. The best part? It takes less time than you think. A couple of hours per day or per week is enough to improve your concentration and push your abilities and output closer to their potential.
Here are some ways to try it, according to Newport:
- Create a ritual before you get started: Make a cup of coffee, close all unnecessary tabs, put your notifications on silent.
- Set a specific goal for your overall project. Newport argues for setting a difficult goal, one that is slightly beyond your comfort zone or abilities.
- Set a specific goal for taking on the first part of your project that can be done in a few sessions of work.
- Time it: Dedicate one to three hours to one session and see how far you get.
- Repeat tomorrow.
Learning how to prioritize is all about finding the system to identify what’s important and then following through on it. But don’t worry; we’re going to share some secrets that make it easier.
5 Strategies To Make Prioritization Even Easier
1. Use the Eisenhower Matrix
What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.
—widely attributed to President Dwight D. Eisenhower, though there’s no concrete proof of him ever saying it
We’ve talked about the Eisenhower Matrix before, but it’s worth a revisit. Used ruthlessly and in combination with deep focus, the Eisenhower Matrix is one of the most efficient and satisfying ways to cut down an overflowing to-do list. You’re essentially focusing on your top priorities, the tasks that are both important and urgent, over those that are just urgent or just important but not as timely. The others can be delegated, planned for, and sometimes, not done at all.
Set your tasks up in this way to help visualize your priorities and drill down the ones that really matter. Then, set aside some deep-focus time to get them done.
2. Do the toughest thing first
If you’ve ever heard someone talk about eating a frog for breakfast, don’t be alarmed. It was probably a reference to the classic technique of facing your biggest challenge or most unpleasant task first thing in the morning. You’re probably most alert about two hours after you wake, according to behavioral economist, Dan Ariely. So take advantage of that time by using it on the hardest task on your priority list.
3. Alternate between a maker and manager schedule
Computer scientist and author, Paul Graham, first made the maker vs. manager distinction in 2009. In sum, a maker is a person whose work involves long stretches of independent work, while a manager is a person whose spends time coordinating and checking in with a variety of people and tasks. For managers, a calendar split into hour long or even half hour chunks to meet with different people makes perfect sense. For makers, those short meetings can have a disastrous impact on their ability to focus and work.
We like the terms, but we think the maker vs. manager split is an oversimplification. If you find that you’re somewhere in the middle of a maker and manager, try batching your maker and manager tasks on separate days. In other words, lump most of your maker tasks in one day and most of your manager ones in another. You’ll get the benefits of both types of schedules and the added bonus of batching, a proven productivity strategy.
4. Protect your priority workspace and time
To make it as easy as possible to slip into focused work, take a few steps to protect your workspace and time from distractions. That might mean closing the door or leaving your phone in the other room. Or maybe it’s scheduling an ongoing meeting with yourself that your colleagues know not to interrupt at all costs.
Better yet? Turn the time you spend removing distractions into a ritual, like Newport recommends. This will set you up to get that work done and also act as an indicator to your brain for what’s to come.
5. Use a daily planner that’s set-up on the same science
You can try these prioritization techniques on your own, or you can grab a planner that makes them automatic. One of the best ones out there is Panda Planner, a tool that helps you determine your short- and long-term priorities and track your progress toward your goals. Backed by research in positive psychology and productivity, it combines the most important parts of a calendar, to-do-list, and reflection journal into a comprehensive tool for managing your time, priorities, and even happiness. With spaces for identifying daily priorities, the planner makes sure you’re focusing on your most important work every day. What’s better than that?
How to prioritize your life: Set up the right system
We hope this post helps you identify your top priorities and gives you some concrete ways to make moves on them. We’ll end with a small challenge: Grab your calendar and set aside one full hour for focused work at some point in the next week. If you follow through on that promise to yourself, you’ll have taken the first step toward proactively aligning your time with your true priorities. Every hour counts.
Your turn: What’s your top prioritization tip? Is figuring out how to prioritize tough or easy for you? Tell us more in the comments.
Want more time-saving tools? Check out these 7 productivity tools to reduce distractions and find your focus.
Author: Scott Trimble
Scott researched human motivation at The University of Texas at Austin. He spends most of his time traveling, reading, teaching, and writing.