What we’re talking about 

Priority management is essentially a productivity skill that helps you work out what you should be working on, when. It involves looking at your long-term goals to establish a hierarchy of concerns; from this, you’ll be able to work out which tasks are essential and should be completed first, and which can be delegated or ignored. The aim is to illuminate – and then focus on – the work that will ultimately lead to results. 

Why it’s important 

This is about applying yourself where it really matters; allocating headspace to the tasks with long-term impact rather than getting burnt out answering countless emails. It’s particularly important for small business owners wearing multiple hats who have never-ending to-do lists (sound familiar?). According to professional training company the Development Academy, ‘dealing with whatever comes up’ is the least successful time management technique out there. The widely known Pareto principle, meanwhile, suggests that 80% of results come from 20% of causes. If you can identify your 20% – whether that’s getting to market quicker or generating more revenue – you’ll see better overall business outcomes. 

Plus, if a business is transparent about its priorities, employees have a clearer sense of the ‘why’ behind their work; with more freedom to set their own agendas, you’ll see an increase in their productivity and satisfaction. Ultimately, knowing in which order you’ll approach tasks is far less stressful than being on the back foot all day, responding to issues as they flare up.

Things to note 

• Use the lens of cost vs reward. Splitting tasks into high effort/high reward; low effort/high reward; high effort/low reward; and low effort/low reward will help you identify which to pursue and which to abandon. You can consider all of your tasks through this framework. It may help to plot them onto a matrix, like this one

• It’s not a catch-all solution. There’s no point creating a priority management process if you’re just going to procrastinate all day. To be as effective as possible, you need to also consider how you’re going to accomplish the tasks you’ve put in order. That could look like always finishing one thing before starting another; asking a co-founder or colleague to hold you accountable; scheduling tasks that require more brainpower for certain times of day; or bringing in classic productivity techniques. One example is using the Pomodoro technique to move between deep focus and rest. 

• Finesse your approach to emails and meetings. Communication, whether online or in person, is crucial – but it can also be a massive time drain. Think specifically about how you’ll prioritize meetings and emails. Questions to ask yourself could include: What needs to be shared face to face? Which meetings are most conducive to your business’ goals? When should I check my emails every day? Which emails can be deferred, delegated or ignored? 

• Account for some uncertainty. As you design your priority management process, be aware of sudden changes in the order you should approach things. Urgent things may come up that may require your entire team’s priorities to shift. To prepare for this, try to build extra time into your schedule and spend time establishing threats and opportunities.

How to design a priority management structure

1. Understand your goals. Tap into your overarching vision for the business. What does success look like? Why did you set it up in the first place? How quickly are you looking to grow? Then, write down a list of goals to accompany this. Come up with two to three goals for the present, mid term and long term. They should all be SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, timed). Examples could be building a new product or completing a seed funding round. 

2. List your tasks. Write down all the things you tend to do in a given week at work. Add anything that takes up time – from answering emails, posting on social media and meetings right up to major projects requiring stints of creativity and analysis. Also try to write down the tasks you can predict will form part of your role in the near future – and tasks that will crop up at short notice and require urgent completion. 

3. Compare your goals and tasks. Bring in the cost-reward matrix at this point. Evaluate your tasks in terms of their relevance to your goals – also taking into account factors like speed, impact, enjoyment and effort. Be ruthless about what you personally want or need to do, and what you can delegate or automate. You should be aiming to completely cut most tasks that are high effort/low reward, and some things that are low effort/low reward. 

4. Make a guiding blueprint. Now that you have considered the generic types of tasks you do in a given week alongside your business goals, jot down a blueprint. Unlike your master and daily to-do lists (which come after this step), this will remain mostly unchanged as time goes on. It’s a way of reminding yourself of the kinds of tasks to prioritize, and the kinds you can do in quiet moments. You could make a flowchart, or split the list into different categories (marketing, operations, research and development, etc).

5. Fill out a master to-do list. Time to make a master list to move beyond theory and into practical application. Unlike your blueprint, this should take specific tasks and their deadlines and dependencies into account. It’s easy to organize this on apps like Todoist, which has a colored flag system for ranking priorities. There will be ongoing tasks that you keep in the background for long periods but, in general, you should update your master list every one or two months. 

6. Extract day-to-day work. You can build your priority management process into the fabric of your monthly and weekly work via this master to-do list. Based on what you draw out for your weekly work, you should be able to extract a day-to-day to-do list. Refer to the master list as necessary, adding new tasks once you have completed the old ones. 

7. Find a daily technique that works. There are additional prioritization techniques you can make use of on a day-to-day basis. You could use the Ivy Lee method – writing down the six most important tasks for the following day the evening before, and then accomplishing them in order. Or you could channel the Eat the Frog method whereby you complete your hardest task first thing in the morning. 

8. Ensure your team is on the same page. Your team members are responsible for their own agendas, but, as a founder, you can ensure your approach to prioritization filters down through the whole company. You may want to consider making a company-wide master list, which everyone can contribute to, for the whole business or per project. The app Priority Matrix (see below) can help you scale things up. Otherwise, making your SMART goals viewable should help employees make decisions and provide rationale for delegating tasks. 

9. Reassess as needed. Your priority management process – and how it manifests in your to-do lists – will evolve in line with your business. Allocate a slot in your diary to reorganize your master list every couple of months. On top of this, at regular intervals, evaluate whether you are getting the right kinds of results overall. If not, consider shaking up your priorities and pouring energy into other parts of the business. 

Key takeaways 

• Thinking seriously about your priorities will make your day-to-day working life less stressful, and more in tune with your business’ targets. 

• Sorting tasks via the cost-reward matrix is a quick way to start coming up with an order. 

• Build your prioritization strategy into the fabric of your monthly, weekly and daily to-do lists, and refer back to your template if you ever get lost. 

Learn more

Perspective. For the Harvard Business Review, Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez explains why every organization needs a ‘hierarchy of purpose’. 

Example. This article explores why business owners have to focus their priorities to be successful, with two case studies. 

Tool. Priority Matrix is an app designed to help teams visualize priorities. You can use different formats to sort tasks, keep up with what your colleagues are doing, and assign work elsewhere.

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