Put First Things First: practical tips on how to prioritize work

November 20, 2018

When I am about to start a new project, having a clear list of features to develop usually isn’t the biggest challenge. Generating ideas is easy and because each one seems rational the hardest thing is to focus on essential ones and not spend time and energy on others. Having a good strategy and framework for prioritization means getting more value out of the limited time we have available.

Here are some actionable strategies which I found to be very helpful:

1. Warren Buffett’s “2 List” Strategy

This strategy came from a story which happened with Mike Flint. Mike Flint was Buffett’s personal airplane pilot for 10 years. (Flint has also flown four US Presidents, so I think we can safely say he is good at his job.) According to Flint, he was talking about his career priorities with Buffett when his boss asked the pilot to go through a 3-step exercise.

Here’s how it works…

STEP 1: Buffett started by asking Flint to write down his top 25 career goals. So, Flint took some time and wrote them down. (Note: you could also complete this exercise with goals for a shorter timeline. For example, write down the top 25 things you want to accomplish this week.)

STEP 2: Then, Buffett asked Flint to review his list and circle his top 5 goals. Again, Flint took some time, made his way through the list, and eventually decided on his 5 most important goals.

Note: If you’re following along at home, pause right now and do these first two steps before moving on to Step 3.

STEP 3: At this point, Flint had two lists. The 5 items he had circled were List A and the 20 items he had not circled were List B.

Flint confirmed that he would start working on his top 5 goals right away. And that’s when Buffett asked him about the second list, “And what about the ones you didn’t circle?”

Flint replied, “Well, the top 5 are my primary focus, but the other 20 come in a close second. They are still important so I’ll work on those intermittently as I see fit. They are not as urgent, but I still plan to give them a dedicated effort.”

To which Buffett replied, “No. You’ve got it wrong, Mike. Everything you didn’t circle just became your Avoid-At-All-Cost list. No matter what, these things get no attention from you until you’ve succeeded with your top 5.”

I found this strategy on James Clear’s blog. I liked this strategy because it is oriented towards focus-enhancing mindset. It is important to focus on fewer priorities because each additional priority is adding mental load, thus draining our source of energy.

2. Eisenhower Matrix

What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.

Dwight Eisenhower

This matrix helps in disciminating what is important from what is urgent. Urgent tasks are those that triggers reaction: emails, phone calls, texts, news stories, social media. The best results we achieve from important tasks, as Brett McKay had emphasized:

Important tasks are things that contribute to our long-term mission, values, and goals.

When we are in process of prioritizing goals or tasks, we need to ask ourself which quadrants fits best and place them accordingly:

  • Urgent and Important: Do these tasks as soon as possible
  • Important, but not urgent: Decide when you’ll do these and schedule it
  • Urgent, but not important: Delegate these tasks to someone else
  • Neither urgent nor important: Drop these from your schedule as soon as possible

I came across this strategy here.

The list will be updated according to my personal experience or with strategies which are more emphatic to me.