How to Prioritize When Everything Feels Important

Choose from these nine prioritization techniques to identify your most important work.

Jessica Greene
Jessica Greene / Published July 30, 2019

There's never enough time to do everything you want to do. It's a universal problem. And we all accept that fact and live with its reality until the worst-case scenario rears its ugly head: There's not enough time to do everything you have to do.

When everything on your to-do list feels like it's of crucial importance (or when someone you answer to feels that way), it's time to use one or more prioritization techniques to make your to-do list more manageable and conquerable.

What is a Prioritization Technique?

You have 300 tasks on your to-do list. Which one is the most important?

A prioritization technique helps you answer that question by providing you with a formal method for evaluating the necessity of completing each task on your list. The process of prioritizing lets you make informed decisions about what you need to do, what you don't need to do, and when you need to focus on certain tasks.

Prioritization techniques address two key issues:

  • Should you really go to that meeting/answer that email? If you let other people create your to-do list for you via meeting requests and incoming emails, you'll never get your important work done. It's easier to feel justified in declining a meeting invite or delaying an answer to an email when you know exactly what you need to be focused on and why.
  • Everything is critical! If you feel like you spend your day fighting fires because everything everyone asks you to do is "urgent," a prioritized list can help you regain control of your time and push back against unreasonable last-minute panic assignments.

When I worked in product development, our prioritized lists were our shields against delays and distractions. When stakeholders showed up with new, urgent requests, we simply showed them the prioritized list and asked, "What should we cut in order to accommodate this request?" After seeing the importance of the other things on the list, urgent requests often suddenly became much less urgent.

But it doesn't only work in product development. You can use it to manage priorities with your boss, coworkers, family, and even that part of your brain that's always on the lookout for new ideas for things to do/new ways to procrastinate that deter you from accomplishing important work.

Focus on Your Most Important Work with These 9 Prioritization Techniques

Finding the right prioritization technique is personal: The method you choose has to make sense and feel right. Luckily, there are plenty of prioritization techniques to consider in your quest to find a method that works for you.

  1. Prioritization Matrix
  2. MoSCoW
  3. ABCDE
  4. Scrum Prioritization
  5. Bubble Sort
  6. Most Important Task
  7. Ivy Lee Method
  8. 1-3-9
  9. Two Lists

1. Priority Matrix

The priority matrix technique consists of laying all of your tasks out on a four-box matrix. The x-axis represents one value, and the y-axis represents another. Each quadrant, then, represents priority based on the defined values.

It's a technique that's easier to show than to tell:

Prioritization matrix with four quadrants that's empty

Eisenhower Matrix

A popular example is the Eisenhower Matrix, which uses importance as its y-axis value and urgency as its x-axis value. You evaluate each task based on its urgency and importance and then place each task in the correct quadrant based on your evaluation.

Eisenhower Martix: Top left is important but not urgent; top right is important and urgent; bottom left is not urgent or important; bottom right is urgent, but not important
  1. Important and urgent tasks are your top priorities.
  2. Important but not urgent tasks are lower priorities—things you should schedule for later.
  3. Urgent but not important tasks are good candidates for delegation.
  4. Not urgent or important tasks are things you probably just shouldn't do.

By placing each task on your list into a quadrant on the Eisenhower Matrix, you can determine what you need to work on now, what you need to work on later, what you need to delegate, and what you need to delete from your list.

But you can substitute the x- and y-axis values in the Eisenhower Matrix for any values that make sense for you. Here are a few more examples:

Effort-Impact Matrix

Effort-impact matrix: top left is high effort, low impact; top right is high effort, high impact; bottom left is low effort, low impact; bottom right is low effort, high impact

In the effort-impact matrix, you evaluate tasks based on how much effort they'll require to complete and the impact that completing them will have. The tasks in the two right-side quadrants are your priorities. "Low effort, high impact" tasks are likely your highest priorities because they represent quick wins.

Value-Cost Matrix

Value-cost matrix: top left is high value, low cost; top right is high value, high cost; bottom left is low value, low cost; bottom right is low value; high cost

In the value-cost matrix, the top two quadrants are your priorities. "High value, low cost" items are your quick wins, and "low value, high cost" items are things you should probably avoid doing.

If the priority matrix model feels like the right prioritization technique for you, you can build your matrices on paper or in a spreadsheet, or you can use an app that's designed for building priority matrices like Eisenhower Matrix (free) or Priority Matrix (from $12/person/month, billed annually).

2. MoSCoW

The MoSCoW method (pronounced like Russia's capital city) is a simple prioritization technique where you assign every task on your to-do list to one of four categories:

  1. M – Must Do: M tasks are things you absolutely have to do.
  2. S – Should Do: S tasks are things you should do, but they're a lower priority than M tasks.
  3. C – Could Do: C tasks are nice-to-dos. You'd like to do them, but if you don't it's probably not a big deal.
  4. W – Won't Do: W tasks are things that just aren't worth doing.

To use this technique, go through your to-do list and assign each task a MoSCoW category. Then, sort the list by category. Your M tasks should be at the top. Those are followed by S tasks, which are followed by C tasks. W tasks should be deleted.

If you're always working on your list from the top-down, you can ensure that you're always working on your highest-priority tasks.

A Kanban app like Trello (free plan available) works well for the MoSCoW method. Create a master list of unsorted tasks and then drag each task into the appropriate category. You can also drag and drop tasks up and down within lists to specify the order in which you want to work on them.

MoSCoW technique Kanban board

But for MoSCoW to really work, you have to make sure all of the tasks you have to do get added to your master list so you can categorize them. An easy way to make sure tasks get added to your list is to use a Zap (automated workflow by Zapier) to automatically move tasks from places like your email inbox and Slack to your master to-do list. Here are a few examples:

3. ABCDE

One thing the MoSCoW method doesn't account for is tasks you need to delegate to someone else. That makes MoSCoW great if you don't have anyone to delegate to, but if you can delegate tasks, it makes it unclear which tasks should be delegated. An alternative is Brian Tracy's ABCDE method from his book Eat That Frog.

Similar to MoSCoW, the ABCDE method starts with putting each task on your list into a category:

  • A tasks are things you must do (same as MoSCoW's M tasks).
  • B tasks are things you should do (same as MoSCoW's S tasks).
  • C tasks are nice-to-dos (same as MoSCoW's C tasks).
  • D tasks are tasks you should delegate to someone else (or automate).
  • E tasks are tasks you should eliminate (same as MoSCoW's W tasks).

The process for ABCDE is the same as it is for MoSCoW: Go through every task on your list, assign it a letter based on its priority, then sort your tasks by letter. Delegate D tasks and delete E tasks so you're left with A, B, and C tasks only, then work from the top down to make sure you're always focusing on your most important tasks.

Kanban apps also work really well for this technique. You'll have one master list followed by additional lists to contain A, B, C, D, and E tasks. Drag and drop tasks from the master list into the appropriate category, then get started on your A tasks.

4. Scrum Prioritization (Ordering)

Scrum prioritization (also referred to as Agile prioritization) is a method of prioritization that relies on ordering. If you have 20 to-dos on your list, you assign each an order, numbered 1-20, based on both priority and sequence.

Scrum prioritization works really well when you have to take sequence into account.

For example, say your highest priority task is to re-tile your bathroom floor. However, you know that you also need to have plumbers run new pipes in your bathroom, and they'll have to cut into the floor to do so. Getting new pipes run may be a lower priority, but since it will impact your highest-priority task of re-tiling the floor, it needs to be completed first.

In Scrum prioritization, you evaluate each task on your list using three criteria:

  1. How important is this task?
  2. How important is it compared to the other tasks on this list?
  3. Is any other task dependent on this task?

Then, using the answers to those questions, you assign each a number 1-n (where n is the total number of tasks on your list). You can't have two tasks that are #1. You have to make one #1 and one #2. Every task gets a unique number.

Scrum prioritization works well on its own, but it also pairs really well with other methods like MoSCoW and ABCDE. After categorizing your tasks by priority (as M, C, and W or A, B, and C), you can begin sequencing the tasks in the order in which you plan to complete them, considering any task dependencies that should impact that order.

Any to-do list app that allows for drag-and-drop ordering works well for Scrum prioritization. However, you can also use a Scrum-specific tool like Yodiz (free plan available), to assign actual numbers to tasks instead of dragging and dropping them.

prioritizing in Yodiz

5. Bubble Sort

I mentioned that a good question to ask when prioritizing using Scrum ordering is "How important is this task compared to the other tasks on this list?" But the reality is that it's a good question to ask for any prioritization exercise, particularly if you're suffering from the "everything is urgent, everything is #1" problem.

Bubble sort is a good method for answering this question. It's a process for comparing the importance of every task on your list to the importance of every other task on your list.

You start by laying every task out on a horizontal grid:

bubble sort step 1

Next, you take the first two tasks and evaluate them against each other by asking, "Which task is more important?"

bubble sort step 2

Whichever task is most important gets moved to the left. So in this example, if Task 2 is more important than Task 1, the two tasks switch places.

bubble sort step 3

Next, you compare the next two tasks. Which is more important? The more important task stays on/gets moved to the left.

bubble sort step 4

You continue this process until you get to the end of the list. After that, it helps to start from the beginning and ask those questions again for each set of tasks. Continue the exercise until every task that's more important is to the left of a less important task. Your priorities are now listed left to right.

bubble sort prioritized list

Unfortunately, I wasn't able to find any tools designed specifically for use with the bubble sort technique, but you could easily get around this problem using a Kanban, to-do, or project management app that allows for drag-and-drop prioritization. You'll just need to work on sets of tasks from top-to-bottom instead of left-to-right.

6. Most Important Task (MIT)

Most Important Task (MIT) is an exceptionally simple prioritization method from Zen to Done's Leo Babauta. Instead of trying to prioritize your entire to-do list, start every morning by picking 1-3 MITs—things that you must do that day.

At least one of your MITs each day should be related to your goals to ensure you're doing something daily to help you reach your goals. And while you'll most likely complete more in a day than only your MITs, selecting your MITs in the morning and setting a deadline ensures you're dedicating time every day to working on important, high-priority tasks.

The nice thing about MIT is that you don't technically even need a to-do list to use the technique. However, free Chrome extension Momentum offers a nice way to keep your MIT top of mind. It prompts you to choose a focus for the day the first time you open Chrome, and then it shows you that focus each time you open a new browser tab.

Momentum Chrome extension

7. The Ivy Lee Method

The story behind the Ivy Lee Method is that Charles M. Schwab once hired a productivity consultant named Ivy Lee to help him improve efficiency at his steel corporation. Lee asked for no upfront payment for the consulting. Instead, he told Schwab to wait three months and then pay him whatever amount of money he felt was appropriate based on the results.

Three months later, Schwab wrote Lee a check for $25,000.

The Ivy Lee Method is simple (and similar to the MIT method):

  • At the end of every workday, choose the six most important tasks on your list to work on tomorrow.
  • Then, order those six tasks in terms of priority.
  • When you get to work the next day, work on task number one until it's complete.
  • Then work on task number two until it's complete, number three, etc.

Continue until all six tasks are complete, and repeat the process every single day.

Again, any to-do list/Kanban/project management app works well for the Ivy Lee Method. However, if you find that you're struggling to complete your six tasks because of meetings and other distractions, you might want to consider building your to-do list in a time blocking app that lets you schedule time for that work on your calendar.

8. 1-3-9

The 1-3-9 priority technique feels a little like a blend of MoSCoW and MIT/Ivy Lee. It encourages you to focus on important tasks, but it also gives you a method for prioritizing the less important tasks you'll inevitably need to work on.

Every day, you plan to complete 13 tasks:

  • one very important task (an M task from MoSCoW or A task from ABCDE)
  • three somewhat important tasks (S from MoSCoW or B from ABCDE)
  • nine low-importance tasks (C from MoSCoW or ABCDE)

You could even pull from an Eisenhower Matrix:

1-3-9 in an Eisenhower Matrix

Order your lists of 3 and 9 tasks in terms of priority, then work on and complete your 1 task first, followed by your 3 tasks in order, and finally your 9 tasks in order.

In an ideal world, we'd all be able to work only on our highest-priority, most important, goal-meeting tasks, but work rarely works that way. The 1-3-9 method addresses that reality by giving you a way to make sure you're at least working on the most important of your less important tasks.

The priority matrix apps mentioned before—Eisenhower Matrix or Priority Matrix—work well for the 1-3-9 method, as does a Kanban app with a master list followed by subsequent lists for your 1, 3, and 9 tasks.

9. Two Lists

Two Lists productivity technique

Warren Buffett's Two Lists technique is another really simple approach to prioritization.

First, you write down a list of 25 things you want to accomplish. When the list is complete, circle the five most important items on that list.

When you're finished, compile the results into two lists:

  • The first—containing the five tasks you circled—becomes your to-do list.
  • The second—containing the 20 tasks you didn't circle—becomes your don't-do list.

You shouldn't spend any time on tasks in the don't-do list until you've completed everything on your to-do list.

The Two Lists technique is really designed to be done on paper, but you could accomplish the same thing with any to-do app that lets you move tasks from one list to another. Or if you want to get really creative, you turn your 25 goals into a doodle.

Picking the Perfect Prioritization Technique

Every technique on this list gets you to the same goal: Ensuring that you're always working on your most important tasks. So in the end, it doesn't matter which technique you use. It doesn't matter if you use multiple techniques. And it doesn't matter if you blend parts of the different techniques to make your own custom method.

Pick something that makes sense and feels natural, and get to work.

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