How to Prioritize

By Lysa Appleton.

“Defer no time; delays have dangerous ends”.  (William Shakespeare)

Prioritizing is one of the most difficult aspects of time management.  It can be challenging to know which things are most important and what to do first.  How you prioritize is really based on your needs, values, expectations, and external demands; and, it is an essential task if you want to leverage your time to your advantage.

The Glass Jar

To illustrate this, let me share the popular story of The Glass Jar; a time management metaphor that uses a glass jar, rocks, stones, pebbles, sand, and water to illustrate prioritization.  The glass jar represents time, and each item that goes into it represents an activity with a priority relative to its size.

First, you fill your glass jar with rocks. These represent your highest priority values, needs, projects, and deadlines. Next, fill in the space between the rocks with smaller stones. These are next on your list of priorities and get done only after your number one priority “rocks” have been accomplished. And then, fill the spaces between the rocks and stones with pebbles, followed by sand, and finally, with water. Each new item added to the jar is of lower priority than the one added before.

The lesson in this story is clear.  If you do not consciously put the rocks into the jar first, your jar would easily be filled up by the small and unimportant things first, leaving little or no room for the rocks.  If we are not discerning about which tasks we choose to spend our time on, our time will be squandered by trivial and unimportant things.

The 80/20 Rule

So, how do we know what our “rocks” are at any given time?

One way to determine this is by applying the 80/20 Rule to your “to do” list and to your list of priorities.  Also known as Pareto’s Principle, the 80/20 Rule states that 80% of results come from only 20% of actions.

Across the board, you will find that the 80/20 Rule is pretty much right on target.  For most people, it really comes down to analyzing what you are spending your time on. Are you focusing in on the 20% of activities in your job search or business that produce 80% of the results? For example, if you have 10 things on your to-do list, two of them will yield eight times more benefit than the other eight together.

Urgent/Important Matrix

Leveraging your time effectively means spending your time on things that are important and not just urgent (like “putting out fires”). To do this, you need to distinguish clearly between what is urgent and what is important.  Important activities lead to achieving your goals and have the greatest impact on your life; urgent activities demand immediate attention, but are often associated with goals other than our own.

Stephen Covey’s Urgent/Important Matrix is a powerful way of organizing tasks based on priorities.  Using it will help you overcome the natural tendency to focus on urgent activities, so that you can have time to focus on what’s truly important.  This Matrix affords us the time to work on our job search or business goals and not just in them.

  • Urgent and Important: Activities in this area relate to dealing with critical issues as they arise and meeting significant commitments. Perform these duties now. DO
  • Important but not Urgent: These success-oriented tasks are critical to achieving goals. Plan to do these tasks next. DELAY
  • Urgent but not Important: These chores do not move you forward toward your own goals. Manage by delegating them if possible. DELEGATE
  • Not Urgent and Not Important: These trivial interruptions are just a distraction, and should be avoided if possible. They do not feed you or your business. Avoid these distractions altogether. DUMP

Photo 1: Ethan Sykes on Unsplash
Photo 2 adapted from: First Things First Principles or Personal Management by Stephen R. Covey

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