Effective prioritisation can help us achieve our to-do lists and create time to relax, but there are a few traps to avoid along the way.
Bestselling author Stephen Covey has a nice turn of phrase when it comes to prioritisation. His Pickle Jar Theory uses the analogy of rocks, pebbles and sand in a jar. If we fill the jar with sand (our less important tasks), there’s no room for the rocks (the most important tasks). But if we start by putting the big rocks in place first, we can fit pebbles in around those, then pour in sand on top, and even pour in some water before the jar is full.
It's a nice image, bringing to mind an orderly and satisfying process that even ends up with that unexpected extra – the water – at the end. Used well, effective prioritisation can give us all pickle-jar satisfaction, helping us to make sense of even the most daunting to-do lists and the busiest of lives, leaving us happier and with more time for ourselves and our thoughts.
And, as we’ll see below, there are any number of models and techniques we might use to improve our effectiveness when it comes to sifting the important from the less important and taking the right action.
Why is it, then, that so many of us start each day with that empty jar and the best of intentions, yet end it with a jar full of sand and a pile of rocks that have nowhere to go?
Decision paralysis and planning fallacy
Prioritisation is hard because it’s about making decisions, choices about what’s important now and what can be dealt with later – or not at all. It’s about being prepared to say no and not being afraid to make the wrong decision. We may feel so overwhelmed by the range of tasks facing us that we suffer from decision paralysis, unable to fix on any solution or course of action.
We may fall prey to planning fallacy, leading us to make unrealistic assumptions about how long everything will take. We may find ourselves reacting and firefighting instead of following even the best-intentioned schedule.
And, because we’re human, our cognitive biases will also get in the way. Here are some examples we’d do well to acknowledge and confront:
Parkinson’s Law of Triviality: the bike shed effect
Parkinson's law of triviality is about the human tendency to waste time on trivial details while important matters are not given the attention they deserve. It’s also known as bike shedding, because of the story used in 1957 by British naval historian and author, Cyril Northcote Parkinson, to illustrate its effects. He asks us to imagine a committee which spends more time in their meeting discussing the construction of a small bike shed than the building of a nuclear power plant.
Parkinson’s example may sound absurd, but the reasoning behind it is clear: we tend to focus on trivial issues because they are easier for us to understand, they require fewer resources in order to solve, and they don’t require us to take as much responsibility.
Bike shedding is an important concept because it can help identify situations where we waste valuable resources on trivial matters, while also neglecting important issues which require their attention – a real double whammy when it comes to time management. Nor is its effect limited to meetings or groups. We can all be guilty of preoccupying ourselves with the small, easy stuff. Think of the number of times we’ve felt that delusional sense of achievement when we tick off the more trivial items on our to-do lists while leaving the really important – but harder – things untouched.
Satisficing vs maximising
The difference between satisficing and maximising could be summed up by the French writer, Voltaire, who said: “The best is the enemy of the good.”
Let’s start with some elementary economics, the theory that assumes that individuals are rational and make decisions with complete information to maximise how useful they’ll be for that individual. Maximisers are the people who look to squeeze every last drop of utility out of every decision, to make the very best decision they can.
But wait, say the behavioural economists. This maximising behaviour has its limits: it’s simply not possible to achieve maximum utility by examining every available option when making a decision. Back in 1957, US economist Herbert Simon (1957) tackled this impossibility with a model that replaces utility maximisation with satisficing. Satisficers are individuals who will settle for a good enough option, not necessarily the very best outcome in all respects.
It seems that satisficers are less likely to experience regret, even if a better option presents itself after a decision has already been made. The more perfectionist Maximisers are more likely to have lower levels of happiness and self-esteem, and, faced with so many options they’ve unearthed and explored, remain anxious and regretful about potential missed opportunities
While a maximising approach might seem an optimal approach to decision making, our energy may be better spent satisficing and appreciating what we have, rather than what we might have had. In prioritisation terms, we might be better off taking the plunge with a 70% solution rather than waiting for all of the stars to align.
Here’s a cognitive bias that speaks to our tendency to take a small reward today over a big reward next week – with the big proviso that our preference for the more immediate reward diminishes as it moves further away in time. So, imagine the big work task that’s starting to loom large. Do we just get it done now, to work towards the big reward straight away? Or do we put it off, have another distraction cookie and imagine how we’re just going to bash it out tomorrow? That’s hyperbolic discounting in action.
Counterintuitively, though, we might be more prepared to forego that cookie and knuckle down to a task with a longer deadline. It seems that we’re impatient for and prefer immediate rewards in the short term; but we’re prepared to be more patient and wait for better rewards in the longer term.
While our brains might be wired to choose immediate sure-thing rewards over the potential of the future, by acknowledging and understanding hyperbolic discounting, we can learn to make better choices rather than simply going with our first instinct.
Being able to prioritise taps into this conscious trade-off to improve the decisions we make about how we use our time. Because hyperbolic discounting tells us that we act more patiently when decisions are further away, evaluating what the future will look like or making a pre-commitment can improve the choices we make today.
By signing up to pre-commitments – committing to a future action at a specified time – we take out of the equation the wiggle room for delay and procrastination that might otherwise derail us. Breaking down big tasks into smaller chunks, each a reward in their own right, also cuts down the chances of us discounting a reward that seems too remote to impact on our behaviours right now.
Three prioritisation models
While the cognitive odds might be stacked against us when it comes to setting priorities, the good news is that we can all enlist the support of some simple prioritisation models and techniques to help us steer clear of the trivial and to commit to doing the things that will help us to contribute the most at work.
The Eisenhower Matrix
Taking a leaf out of the book of an ex-US president and the supreme commander of the allied forces in Europe during the Second World War might not be a bad place to start. In a 1954 speech, Dwight D. Eisenhower, gave us an insight into how he organised his workload and priorities by quoting Dr J. Roscoe Miller, then president of Northwestern University:
"I have two kinds of problems: the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent."
In essence, this is what we now call the Eisenhower Principle, the basis of the Eisenhower Matrix.
Also known as the Urgent-Important Matrix, this helps us to decide on and prioritise tasks by urgency and importance, sorting out less urgent and important tasks which we should either delegate or not do at all. Prioritising tasks by urgency and importance results in four quadrants with different work strategies.
The first quadrant identifies ‘do first’ tasks, those important and urgent tasks that we need to do ourselves, and should be done today or tomorrow at the latest.
The second quadrant is for tasks that are important but less urgent, and can be scheduled for action at an appropriate time. If we’re up and running with a good time management regime, most of our work will be carried out here: anticipated and planned for.
The third quadrant is for those tasks we can delegate. They’re still pretty urgent, but they can be carried out by others. Make sure, though, that they're delegated properly.
The fourth and final quadrant is called ‘don’t do’, and is there to remind us all that there are some things we shouldn’t be doing at all. There’s likely to be a big overlap here with some of the distractions we might be looking to overcome.
ABC time management
Is time management and prioritisation as simple as ABC? That’s what this model suggests. It involves some simple, straightforward steps:
Step 1: Create a to-do list of the task you need to complete.
Step 2: Categorise each task as A, B or C based on how urgent and important it is:
Type A tasks are the most important and should be tackled straight away.
Type B tasks need to be completed soon, but are not as urgent as the A tasks.
Type C tasks can be left for those days when we have a bit more space in our schedules.
Step 3: Re-order the list by A, B or C priorities.
Step 4: Tackle the A list first, starting with the single most important task. Only move on to B tasks once you’ve completed the A list, and hold off on C tasks until the B list has been tackled.
Step 5: Revisit the list daily as tasks are completed, new ones are added and B and C tasks are re-allocated if and when they become more important.
The idea is to develop the conscious habit of identifying and actioning our highest priority tasks first.
The 1-3-5 Model
Having a to-do list is one thing; getting through the tasks on it quite another. The 1-3-5 model is another way of identifying priorities, this time by keeping daily to-do lists to just nine items. It’s based on the idea that we simply cannot achieve an endless number of things each day. Rather, we should focus on getting one big thing, three medium things, and five small things done instead.
It may sound a bit constraining, but the trick is to be flexible with its use. If you have a day of meetings coming up, cut yourself some slack with fewer items. If you tend to have a lot of unexpected tasks thrown at you, try leaving some of your task slots blank to fill in as things come up.
Making the most of the time we have
It’s also possible to use these – and other models – in tandem, for example, using the Eisenhower Matrix to identify key priorities, and then 1-3-5 to identify that single most important thing that just has to be done first today.
For ancient thinkers making the most of our time assumed a moral dimension, a compunction to spend our limited time on earth to be and do the best we can be and do. Death was never far from their minds; Marcus Aurelius was not untypical when he wrote: “Your days are numbered. Use them to throw open the windows of your soul to the sun. If you do not, the sun will soon set, and you with it.”
That might be slightly exaggerating the importance of next month’s sales report or that big presentation we need to prepare, but the essence holds true. There are only 24 hours in a day; how we use them matters not just for our work, but ourselves. Being able to prioritise our work effectively helps not just to get the work done, but to live our best lives, carving out much needed-time for rest, recuperation and reflection.
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