5 methods to prioritize tasks and when to use them

What are the best methods to prioritize tasks and which one makes you most successful? This article sheds light on the mindset of highly effective people and guides you on how to select the right prioritization method in each situation.

One of the biggest challenges in personal and professional life is how to effectively prioritize your tasks.

Bad prioritization makes you clutter yourself with busywork, fosters procrastination, and prevents you from finishing important tasks that move your needle towards your goals. As a result, you may experience a lack of drive and a loss of motivation.

Good prioritization is a mental relief and stress-reducer. It creates focus, makes you motivated to start working on your tasks, makes you feel more satisfied with your results afterward, and thereby brings you closer to your desired outcome while being happier. Your engine “just runs”.


Choosing the right method

Many popular methods can be used to prioritize a list of tasks. Which one is the best? There is no best method. Prioritization methods do not compete which each other. Prioritization methods should be seen as a set of tools, of which multiple play smoothly together if you apply them “at the right spot”. Your prioritization skills will be one step ahead if your skillset will cover multiple methods.

In each situation, the particular circumstances are determinative for which method is suited best. E.g., the time horizon and granularity of your prioritization, how limited your resources are, the number of choice options you have, the certainty about the usefulness of your tasks, or other objective data such as dependencies or constraints. If you did not use many prioritization methods until now, you might struggle with selecting the best one for your situation or you might tend to often re-prioritize your tasks because you feel not satisfied with the prioritization that you created for yourself.

Prioritizing is a mindset

Blindly applying a prioritization method is not a magic solution and will not produce satisfying results. If you don’t understand why you are prioritizing in a particular way, there is a risk that you will feel unconfident about your order of tasks and question your own prioritization a lot. To avoid that risk, there are a few things about prioritization that you should always consider, independent of the method you choose or the nature of your tasks. Knowing those things will help you to gain confidence in your prioritization.

1. Be aware of your goals

Your prioritization aims to help you to fulfill a specific goal. You need to be aware of the goal you are prioritizing towards. Sometimes you can have multiple different goals. In that situation, you should get aware, which goal is most important right now, and prioritize accordingly.

2. There will always be more tasks than you can do

Many people consider prioritizing tasks only as creating the order in which you do work. But prioritizing is also about eliminating work that blocks you from doing the most important things. Prioritizing is decision-making, and decision-making itself is not selecting something because you favor it, but it is the process of disfavoring and “cutting things of” things. You need to allow yourself to drop tasks. It does not mean that some work you would do is not useful, it only means you accepted that you cannot do everything. Thinking this way about decisions and prioritization will make you faster and extremely confident with decisions over time.

3. Avoid introducing complexity

While it is important to have a clear structure that makes you feel focused, you do not need a complex prioritization process. Prioritization is about enabling you to do something, not about stopping you from something. A good way to keep your prioritization simple is to watch out how much time you are spending on it and make sure you don’t spend too much time. Getting started is more important than having the perfect order of work. If you feel like you spend too much time on it, your actual problem might be that you have too little data to make you comfortable about the priorities that you created. If you face that situation, instead of improving your prioritization method, ask yourself what you would need to make you feel better about that prioritization decision and try to gather more data.

4. Sometimes the order does not matter

If you already identified your top priorities, you might feel an urge to lay out the exact order in which you will work on them. If you cannot exactly predict how changing the order will influence the outcome, there is no need in creating an order. The best thing to do is to start working on your tasks by randomly picking one or starting with the one you are most excited about. A good method in that situation is “eating the frog”, which is explained later in this article.

5. Prioritization gets easier when you make tasks smaller

One reason many people struggle with prioritizing tasks is that they make the tasks too large. If a task is very long-going, the degree of certainty you need to confidently prioritize that task is also very high. Often you cannot gain that certainty. One way to handle that is to break down the task into smaller subtasks. While this might seem difficult to do, here is one tip. Think once again about the original reason behind the task, about the goal it is supposed to fulfill, and how good it helps to fulfill it. Many times you might find a simpler, quicker way to achieve the same outcome. Apply the Pareto principle and think of what part of your tasks really brings the benefit. Move the remainder of subtasks that are less important to a separate list. Also, evaluate if your approach is the best possible solution. Many times you can do a trade-off and find a faster solution.

6. Don’t chase sunk costs

If you already worked for a long time on a project or task, you might feel the urge to finish it no matter what. This is also known as the sunk cost fallacy. You already invested time and resources which feel “wasted” if you stop working on a project. It makes you want to continue. There is a major problem to that: if what you work on provides no value and does not support your goals, the damage you do to yourself is that you waste even more time and resources. At some point, every one of us will invest time and resources into something not useful and only realize it when already working on it. You can make the best out of that by acknowledging and anticipating that it is part of working on something larger and not blaming yourself when falling into this trap. Wasting resources is OK, but keep the waste small as soon as you realize.

Highly effective people consider all of these principles no matter how they prioritize.


Methods

The next paragraphs of this article will explain some of the most effective methods to you. While you can apply each method in many situations, some of them are better suited for higher-level prioritization (such as you do in yearly planning) and some of them are better suited for lower-level prioritization (e.g., when planning daily tasks). For each method, this article gives short guidance on when to use it. It does not mean that a method is not useful it in other situations as well.

The methods mentioned on this page are ordered by their eligibility for a particular level of prioritization, from higher-level to lower-level (e.g. yearly to daily).

Breakdown your goals

For higher-level prioritization.

Many times, people struggle to prioritize tasks because they are not paying attention to the higher-level goals behind their tasks. Use this method if you have created a list of your tasks but have no prioritized list of your goals. After breaking down your goals, you will find it easier to prioritize tasks.

Steps:

  • Write down your goals. Write down long-term goals (e.g. yearly, monthly) and then break them down into short-term goals (e.g. weekly).

  • Order your short-term goals from most important to least important. If you need help to sort them, use the pairwise comparison method (see “Pairwise comparison” on this page).

  • Go through your list of tasks and for each task write down which of your goals you expect to achieve by doing the task. Be critical and evaluate if the task you wrote down really supports one of your goals. If not, drop the task.

Keep only tasks of your most important goal

Best for medium-level prioritization, e.g. monthly tasks.

Use this method in the following situation: you have a list of tasks and you know for each task which goal it serves. This method is very simple and aims to postpone all tasks that do not serve your current most important goal. You can consider this method a modification of Warren Buffett’s 2-list strategy.

Steps:

  • Go through your list and move each task that does not serve your current goal to another list. You can pick up postponed tasks again as soon as your goal changes.

If your situation requires you to focus on multiple goals right now, then keep all tasks that serve your top 3 goals. In most cases, however, you're better off focusing on one goal at a time. When you have your list of most important tasks ready, continue with one of the following methods to bring your tasks into order.

Pairwise comparison

Best for medium and higher-level prioritization, from yearly to weekly tasks.

Use this method in the following situation: you have a list of goals or tasks and need to find out which is most important. This is one of the best methods you can use when the things you need to prioritize are quite heterogeneous such as higher-level goals or there is little data that you can use to make a sound evaluation about which task serves a specific goal better. Also, it works well when have a lot of subjective feelings about your tasks and you cannot prove how valuable a task is. Pairwise comparison will lead you to choose the best option.

You do a pairwise comparison by comparing each of your tasks with each other in pairs. For every pair, you select the one that you prefer over the other.

Steps:

  • Draw a table. The rows of the table are your task names. The columns of your table are also the task names.

  • Compare pairs: now you go through each cell (each cell represents a pair) and make a decision, which task is better. Each cell of the table is meant to contain a “1” or a “0”. “1” means, that the task of that row is better than the task of that column. For this step, you need only half of the table, because each pair exist twice in the table. (see the image below)

  • Count the scores: go through the rows and count how often the task of a row “wins” over its pair. Look for “1” in that row. Also, check the column of the task that you are counting for wins, and count each “0”, because each “0” in the column is a win. Write the count of wins (score) into the row.

  • After you count the score of each task, write down the rank into the table. The highest rank is your most important task.

Pairwise comparison table

To rank tasks with the same score, just give the first one the higher rank.

Weighted scorecard

Best for medium-level prioritization, e.g., quarterly or monthly tasks.

Use this method in the following situation: you have a list of tasks and you know for each task which goal it serves. If you don’t know the goals of your tasks yet, then use the method “Breakdown your goals” first.

The weighted scorecard method is one of the most powerful prioritization methods. You have most likely already used it without calling it like that. In this method, you define criteria, such as benefit and cost, and assign the corresponding values for each task. Assigning the criteria values will help you to order your tasks because you can calculate a priority score for each task based on the criteria values, and then order your tasks by that score.

Weighted scorecard prioritization with Benefit, Confidence, and Cost

You are free to choose the criteria you use. If you don’t know yet what criteria are useful for your situation, use the criteria from the following example.

Steps:

  • Create a table with these five columns: task name, benefit, confidence, cost, score.

  • For each task, assign a value for the benefit, confidence, cost.

  • Benefit: use a relative value. If task A is 3 times more valuable as task B, then give task A a benefit of 3 and task B a benefit of 1. The proportion does not need to be exact. A rough estimation is fine in most cases especially if you cannot estimate it properly.

  • Confidence: In general, give a value of 1 or lower. A value of one means you are 100% confident of how useful the task is. If you are not confident, because the benefit of the task cannot be predicted accurately enough, then give a corresponding value, e.g. 75%. Use a maximum of 5 different values (0.2, 0.4, 0.6, 0.8, 1). A rough estimation is fine.

  • Cost: use the number of workdays or work hours that a task will take you.

  • Score: As soon as you have all criteria values assigned for a task, you can calculate the task’s score. Calculate the score using the formula: Score = (benefit x confidence)/cost.

  • Order your tasks from highest to lowest score.

One of the great advantages of this method is that you can always take a look at the table and see why you prioritized something the way you did. That helps you in moments in which you feel not right about working on a task. This also serves as a basis to change priorities when your assumptions (your input data) changes and to discuss the importance of tasks with other people.

A popular variant of this method is RICE prioritization in which you use Reach, Impact, Confidence, Effort as criteria. It’s powerful and widely distributed because of its sufficiency for a broad range of use cases. If you introduce your own criteria, you can adjust the importance of specific criteria by modifying the scoring formula.

Example score formula with adjusted weight, in which the cost is less important: Score = (benefit x confidence)/(cost x 0.7)

Do the most important task first (eating the frog)

For daily prioritization.

Use this in situations in which you have many tasks for a day and you don’t know which one you should work on first. This simple method helps you to move forward and is a useful approach to cope with daily procrastination. The “frog” that you are supposed to eat is the hardest task that you have right now on your list.

Very often this method is recommended without giving one important piece of advice: a prerequisite is that you have already prioritized your goals and have at least have a rough prioritization of your tasks. If you focus on the wrong “frog”, eating it will not make you move forward. Instead, you will waste more of your time. Make sure to prioritize your goals and tasks accordingly before “eating the frog”.

Steps:

  • Pick the hardest task of your tasks for the day

Eating the frog keeps you making steady progress and gives you a huge motivational boost because after finishing the most important task you will feel relieved for the rest of the day while working on less important tasks. You can also handle unexpected roadblocks that you might face better because finishing the hardest task usually takes away a lot of pressure for the day. Don’t strive to eat multiple frogs per day. Spread hard tasks evenly over your workweek. Instead of doing five very important hard tasks in one day, you can establish a balance between hard and more simple tasks, which will keep you more motivated during the week, increase confidence in your prioritization and thereby relieve you of stress.