Casual.PM Blog

Task prioritisation techniques: Eisenhower, Tracy, Pareto

Stress and overwhelm, gazillion of tasks and, in the end of the day, feeling like you didn’t accomplish much. Sounds familiar?

I’ve been there as well. I was trying to multitask, learn focusing techniques. It didn’t help much. I felt like I’m doing something wrong. And then I realised, it’s not about speed or quantity. It’s about quality. It’s about WHAT tasks you do and even how you manage your to-do list. I started looking at my tasks list critically and prioritising it.

Where to start?

Before creating a to-do list, select the objective of the day - what you need to reach or achieve. Start your day by adding tasks in your plan according to this objective.

Objective examples:
- Create Specification draft for feature X
- Create Work Breakdown Structure (or it’s part)
- Project performance review
- etc.

After creating objective-oriented to-do list, proceed with prioritising your tasks. Below, I’ve selected for you my favourite and super simple to use prioritisation techniques:

1. How to eat a frog?

In his book “Eat That Frog” Brian Tracy suggests to choose only three tasks of your list that will bring you the most value. To do so, ask yourself:

“What is the one activity that contributes the most value?”

This is the first task you are going to do today. Then ask yourself again:

“If I could only do two things on this list all day long, what would be the second thing that would contribute the most value?”

And finally:

“If I could only do three things on this list, what would be number three?”

Your Three Most Important Tasks list is ready and in the right priority. Note that tasks here are of a bigger scale.

Tasks examples:
- Draft the Project Charter
- Identify project team structure
- Outline communications plan
- etc.

How to understand what are the most “valuable” tasks? Most probably you’ve heard of Pareto Law: 20% of effort spent brings 80% of result while other 80% of effort delivers only 20% of result. It is also known as 80-20 rule. Use it to choose tasks that will give you the most.

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Any estimation here is subjective to certain extent. But the more you practice, more accurate it becomes.

2. In the Matrix

My personal most favourite prioritisation technique is from Dwight D. Eisenhower. I guess, what is good for US President is good for everyone.

Eisenhower matrix serves me to prioritise my daily tasks as well as schedule tasks in the project, make decisions and plan my personal life. It’s easy to understand and practice.

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Eisenhower matrix uses 2 criteria to prioritise tasks: Urgency (on axis x) versus Importance (on axis y). The goal is to segment tasks based on those two criteria and act upon them accordingly:

1. Urgent and Important.
Do it immediately and yourself. This is your first priority.

2. Urgent (but not Important), time sensitive

Delegate it to somebody if they can do it immediately. What if you cannot delegate it? Break tasks further down in two categories:

  • a. Still needs to be done. Level of importance in this quadrant is not always close to zero, it’s just below medium. So I do these tasks anyway after I finish with category #1.
  • b. Can avoid/remove. Some “nice-to-have” also fall in this category, but in tight schedule they can be eliminated. In other words, they have potential to move to category #4.

3. Important (but not urgent), value sensitive.
This is something that you have to do, but can postpone. It brings value but not time sensitive. These tasks you can reschedule if you have time constraints. However, be careful, they have high potential to move to group #1 quite soon.

4. Not Important, nor Urgent:
Do it later. Do it when you have time and have nothing better to do. Purely nice-to-have things. Some of them tend to disappear from the picture over time completely.

This matrix is perfect to systemise your ideas and clear the picture. Use it anytime when you have two criteria to weigh your facts against. However, remember that sometimes you need to consider more than two factors.

3. Tasks from A to E

If you want to go even further and more into detail with prioritisation, follow another Brian Tracy’s technique: ABCDE. This is how it works:

  • Mark it A if this is an “activity that has serious potential consequences. It is something that you must do”. Do it first before anything else. Don’t get to B or C category if you have A undone.
  • Mark it B if it is “something that it would be nice to do. It has mild consequences, but it’s not as serious as an A. Virtually all emails are B tasks”.
  • Mark it C if it is “something that would be fun to do, but it has no consequences”.
  • Mark it D if it is a task to delegate. “What you do is you delegate everything that you possibly can to someone else who can do it reasonably well”.
  • Mark it E if you can eliminate it. Golden rule here: don’t get to B or C if you have A undone.

Hope this simple advice help you to accomplish more without feeling overwhelmed.

About the author: Olga Drobysheva is a blogging Project Manager with 8 years tech projects experience in startups and corporations in Asia and Europe, working with fresh grads and dinosaurs, country-top-CEO’s and basic workers, creatives and conservatives. Team builder and leader. Certified Professional Scrum Master.