Prioritizing tasks: If it’s not a nine or 10, it’s a one


One of my favorite sayings is, “You can do anything you want, you just can’t do everything you want.” There isn’t enough time to do everything, but there is plenty of time to do what’s important.

The problem is, when you look at your list of tasks and projects, at a certain level, everything seems important. That’s why we wrote it down. To be productive and reach our goals, we need to decide which tasks are the most important and should receive top priority.

Greg McKeown, author of Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, suggests using “The 90% Rule” for prioritizing tasks. It allows you to take a step back and look at your list objectively.

Laura Vanderkam at Fast Company explains McKeown’s method:

You’re looking at a new opportunity. Rank it on a scale of 1 to 10 on how amazing you think it is. Then try this little thought experiment: “If it’s not a nine or 10, then it’s a one,” says McKeown. The goal is to take on tasks that are “a superb use of my time,” he says, “and I don’t mean that selfishly. I mean, is this the best way I can contribute to others, to society, is this my very highest point of contribution?” The point is that “we need to see the difference between things that are good and things that are exceptionally good,” he says. “It’s an important distinction in a world exploding with options.”

Out of ten tasks, one or two are likely to deliver the most value or biggest results. Put those tasks into their own category and put everything else aside. If this sounds like a variation of the 80/20 rule, I agree. And that’s why I like it.

Don’t get hung up in deciding what’s a six and what’s a seven. If it’s not a nine or 10, it’s a one.


Prioritizing tasks: what do I do first?


Many productivity experts today avoid using the term “time management” because in truth, we cannot manage time. The only thing we can manage are our priorities.

If you have a list of tasks (“todos”) that’s longer than Joe Biden’s gag reel, you may be wondering how to prioritize that list so that you get the most important things done.

“What do I do first?” you ask.

Of course only you can answer that question (unless you’re married–just kidding, dear. . .).

The challenge is in looking at everything on your list within the context of a single day. There’s too much to do and it is overwhelming.

I’ve written before about how I use the concept of “MITs” (Most Important Tasks). Every day, I choose three MITs from my greater list and focus on those. If I get those done and I have time for more, I’ll go back to my list and choose another, but if I don’t, I’m satisfied because I completed the three most important tasks for the day.

I also wrote about how I use MITs in my Evernote for Lawyers eBook.

I first learned about this concept in “Think and Grow Rich”. Napoleon Hill tells the story of Ivy Lee who was doing some consulting work for Charles Schwab, the head of Bethlehem Steel. Schwab told Lee that the biggest problem he had was making his managers more effective in the use of their time. Lee said he would give him the solution to his problem and Schwab agreed to try the system for a few weeks and send Lee a check for what he thought the idea was worth.

Lee told Schwab that at the end of every day, his managers should write down their top six priorities for the following day. Then, they should put the list in the order of importance. The following day they should begin with the first task on the list and work on it until it was completed. Then do the second task on the list and repeat this until the end of the day. Any unfinished tasks should be put on the list for the following day.

Schwab tried the system. In a couple of weeks, he sent Lee a check for $25,000, the equivalent of $250,000 today.

Whether you choose three MITs or six top priorities, the idea is the same: select from your greater list a finite number of priorities and work on those first. You may have a large list of important tasks but importance is a relative term–some things are more important than others.

Another popular method of prioritizing tasks, which could be combined with MITs, is the method taught by Franklin-Covey. The idea is to go through your task list and assign a priority to each item:

A—urgent and important
B—important but not urgent
C—urgent but not important
D—not urgent or important

At the beginning of each day, start on your A’s first. If you get those done, move to the B’s, then the C’s.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by everything we need to do. We can reduce our anxiety and increase our effectiveness by prioritizing our tasks and working on the most important things first. “What is the the most important thing you need to do right now? Don’t worry about everything else.