Prioritizing – doing the right things in the right order

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Last week I attended the Arabian Business Women’s forum in Dubai. In one of the panel discussions a number of prominent business women were asked what super power they would choose if they could have one. One answered, “The ability to clone myself” another answered “A time machine so that I would create time” – everyone wanted a super power to tackle their largest problem – lack of time. As I wrote in my previous blog post on time management, we can’t manage time – we all have 24 hours a day no more, no less. What we need to learn is to manage our energy and learn how to prioritize. This brings us to this week’s topic – prioritization.

The problem

No matter what job you have or what role you play, you always have too much to do and too little time to do it. When you get overwhelmed with work, it is difficult to know where to start. Many times you start working on several tasks at the same time, which only results in nothing getting done. Another risk when you don’t know how to prioritize properly is that you become deadline driven – focusing on the task that has the nearest upcoming deadline. This might not be the best way to spend your valuable time.

Finding a method for prioritizing

Since we don’t have super powers and since we will always be overwhelmed with things to do, it’s better to learn how to prioritize effectively. There are a number of different methods and systems you can use. As always, I can’t tell you which one works best, you have to figure that out yourself. But I wanted to give you some good recommendations of systems to use for better being able to prioritize and also share some of my own thoughts on the topic.

Eat that frog

A well-known method for prioritization that was presented by Brian Tracy years back is called “Eat that frog”. The essence of this method is to start with the task which is your biggest and most important task, also known as your “frog”. This is often the task you dread the most and postpone for as long as you can. The problem with postponing important(often uncomfortable) tasks is that you end up having to rush to get it done leading to less than perfect results, and, you won’t perform other tasks satisfactory because you will unconsciously be thinking about the task that you should be doing.

Many times you will find yourself in situations where you have several frogs that need to be eaten. Then you will just have to start with the ugliest one (biggest and most important) and then eat the rest one by one. This method will help you focus on one task at a time and to persist until the task is finished and you can go on to the next one. So make it a habit and start your day with detecting your frog and eat it the first thing you do.

The A-B-C-D-E method

Focusing on your “frog” is good, but since all the things we need to do aren’t big and important it can be useful to look at another complementary method to cover all of your “to-do’s”. A simple method that Bryan Tracy also talks about is the “A-B-C-D-E method”. To use this method, write down all your “to-do’s” and then categorize them using the following categories (to learn how to use categories for tasks in Outlook 2010 see our video Ease your mind with effective task management)

  • A: A task that isvery important that you must do. There are negative consequences if you put this off, for instance other people might be impacted in their work if you don’t deliver or you might lose out on a deal. (Example: finish proposal to customer X)
  • B: A task that is important, but not as important as your “A” tasks. There might be consequences if you don’t do it, but the impact is not as big. (Example: update sales presentation)
  • C: A task that is “nice to do” but not as important as your A and B tasks and there are no negative consequences for not completing it (Example: attend XYZ networking lunch)
  • D: A task that you should delegate. You might be able to delegate to a co-worker or outsource the task. (Example: proof-read marketing brochure)
  • E: A task that should be eliminated whenever possible. This might imply changing a process to eliminate those tasks or simply deciding that you will no longer spend your time doing them. (Example: read monthly ABC newsletter)

Go through your list marking the tasks A1, A2, B1, B2, B3, C1, C2, etc. and then start completing your tasks in that order.

The 80/20 Rule


A good rule to have in mind when you’re prioritizing your tasks using the “A-B-C-D-E method” is the 80/20 rule. This rule is also known as the Pareto principle and it was established by an Italian economist in the beginning of the 20th century.The 80/20 Rule means that 20 percent of the things you do during your day will produce 80 percent of your results. This can be quite shocking to realize and it definitely makes you question why you spend time on tasks that really don’t make a difference to your business.

Start looking at your work with 80/20 rule “eyes”, meaning; identify those tasks that are crucial for your business and focus on these since they will give you the biggest return. By adopting this rule in your daily work you will hopefully start focusing on the tasks that really make a difference and will help you develop and move forward.

How do I prioritize?

For me the biggest challenge when it comes to prioritizing tasks is balancing between short-term important and urgent tasks and long-term, important more strategic tasks. Many times my days are filled with actions that need to be completed in order for others to be able to do their job and for the company to deliver on commitments.

Key for me is to make sure to write everything down as tasks, strategic or not, short-term and long-term. I follow David Allen’s recommendation to break tasks down into sub-tasks, so called “Next Action”. The sense of accomplishment and satisfaction of checking things off my list boosts my emotional energy. Every day I look at the appointments in my calendar and my tasks, I prioritize my tasks and then I schedule time in my calendar for the tasks that are most important. I’ve just hired a virtual assistant for all the “D” and “E” tasks on my list, so now I’m looking forward to spending more time on important and strategic tasks – both short-term and long-term.

(If you have difficulties reading this article, you can access the full article in pdf here)