On Prioritization

I think we have all heard the phrase “when everything is a priority, nothing is a priority.” But when it comes down to it, clients, coaches, and other leaders struggle to identify the right things for their teams to focus on. I have found that many leaders lack a system or framework to assist with prioritization.

Instead, they rely on intuition and experience. While it is irresponsible to entirely ignore lessons from the past, there are proven methods that the best leaders use to compile relevant data and effectively prioritize. This essay highlights some of these strategies.

The 90% Rule

The 90% Rule has been popularized by Greg McKeown’s great book Essentialism. The general concept is to ruthlessly focus on the top 10%. For example, start by ranking a task, goal, or idea on a scale of 1 to 10 on how amazing you think it is.

“If it’s not a nine or 10, then it’s a one,” says McKeown. The goal is to take on tasks that are the best use of time. This means identifying those with the highest level of contribution towards a target outcome and allocating almost all of your time towards completing these tasks. Using this system is helpful because it narrows focus and removes the distractions that often pull teams in different directions.

Warren Buffet 5/25 Two List System

Many know Warren Buffett as one of the most successful investors of all time, but I believe he is one of the great thinkers and strategists as well. His annual letters include a treasure trove of wisdom on helping folks in business think, strategize and manage.

Of all of the things that I have learned from Buffett, maybe the most important is his extreme focus on the long-term. Similar to Jeff Bezos, Buffet does everything he can to ignore short term incentives when making decisions.

A useful strategy to support his long-term focus is Buffett’s 5/25 Two List System. This system recommends an individual or organization make a list of the top 25 things they would like to accomplish in a given period of time. This can be a few years or even an entire lifetime. As Buffett instructs, build a list of 25 accomplishments, pick the 5 most important items and forget about the rest. Focus all of your efforts on those 5 things, and do not look back.

The Law of the Vital Few

The Pareto Principle or 80/20 rule has become incredibly popular in management circles over the past decade. People like Tim Ferriss and Ray Dalio have championed this approach, and a quick Google search reveals many who have used this approach to better manage their focus.

The principle states for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.

Economist Vilfredo Pareto pioneered this concept in the context of the distribution of income and wealth among the population in Italy during the late 1800s. The key insight from a prioritization perspective is a focus on input vs output. To effectively use this principle, prioritize your tasks and activities by identifying the 20% of efforts needed to achieve 80% of what you want to accomplish. Then do your best to focus the majority of your effort on that 20%.

The One Thing

Entrepreneur and author of the book The One Thing, Gary Keller advocates a more narrow focus on the vital few. Keller recommends that when making a decision on priorities that we ask ourselves the focusing question:

What’s the ONE Thing I can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?”

This concept is difficult for many to comprehend.

“How can I focus on one thing?” “I have so much to do!” is a routine mantra from busy workers.

The reality is most of us are overextended, we have too many competing priorities and spend too much time doing things that others want us to do. Solving difficult problems requires deep work. Asking the focusing question re-enforces what is most important and highlights areas where we can most effectively contribute.

Over time, a lot of progress can be made by prioritizing one thing.

The Equation

So you may be asking yourself, many of these theories are easy for strategist and executives to implement.  Then you look at the backlog of priorities in your office job and are confused as to where to begin.  While I think there still is great value for anyone in any role to in step back, reflect, and narrow focus, there also are more straightforward algorithms that can be used for prioritization.

Theorists, leaders, and entrepreneurs have spent a lot of time over the years attempting to figure out a perfect equation for prioritization.

In the book Algorithms to Live by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths discuss equations and how they relate to scheduling (prioritizing) workload. To them, the fundamental step is making goals explicit, and developing a metric to track towards the goals.

One way to do this is using a density equation.

This strategy includes scoring each task with a number to quantify the burden of finishing each task (e.g. how difficult is it to complete?), and duration of each task (e.g. how long the task takes to complete?). To do this you can use a simple 1-5 scale, with 1 being the low end and 5 the high.

Having these values outlined will allow you to calculate the density of each task or in other words the highest resulting performance per unit time. The highest density items should be the ones that are completed first.

Bringing it All Together

The common theme with all of the strategies above is the idea that we are not capable of accomplishing everything.

We need to focus on what is most important.

The ability to effectively prioritize can be the difference between winning and losing. The most important part of any prioritization strategy is actually doing it. When you write down everything that you have going on, your tasks, your goals, and deadlines it will inherently make you look at your workload more strategically. At the end of the day taking time to do any of these activities will help you reflect, and reflection is a powerful tool to help you prioritize more effectively.

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