How to Prioritize Tasks and Do Only The Work That Matters

How to Prioritize Tasks

You’ve got a ton of work to do right now.

Your to-do list is an unstructured mess of action items, and you’ve only got a faint idea how to prioritize tasks.

Luckily, there are a few (almost automatic) ways to quickly get your to-do list prioritized without much effort. In fact, you can apply one of these methods within 5 minutes and know exactly what to do next. There have been a number of methods over the years, and all have their own quirks and considerations.

Which is right for you?

In previous chapters of my task management guide, I’ve taken you all the way through from writing, organizing and planning your to-do list. Go and check out those if you haven’t already.

Now, let’s look at at 4 different ways to prioritize your tasks.

Slot your tasks into 4 boxes — Urgent vs Important

Here’s a task prioritization method from former U.S President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

In 1954, he said:

“I have two kinds of problems: the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.”  — Eisenhower
It was this quote that created the Eisenhower Matrix; a 4-box system for organizing your tasks by urgency and importance, then getting them done.

Eisenhower Matrix

The Eisenhower Matrix puts tasks into 2 categories, then prioritizes them for you. It’s a fast way to get everything in order at the start of the day.

Action: Get into the habit of quickly categorizing tasks by using this checklist on your to-do list:

The ‘Important’ Checklist:

It will effect many people or projects if incomplete
Other tasks depend on its completion
It contributes a lot of value
It’s low effort-high results (80/20 principle)
The ‘Urgent’ Checklist:

It is overdue
 It is due soon
It demands immediate attention
 The consequences of not doing it are immediate

To apply the matrix to your to-do list, use tags to denote which quadrant of the matrix it falls into. From top right to left, you’ve got:

  1. Urgent AND important
  2. Important NOT urgent
  3. Urgent NOT important
  4. NOT urgent OR important

When I check this against my semi-fictional task list in TaskPaper, it’s easy to see what’s a priority and what isn’t:


The Eisenhower Matrix saves the day.

When you have two frogs to eat, eat the ugliest one first

In slight contrast to the Eisenhower Matrix, Brian Tracy’s method of consuming amphibians focuses on your feelings towards the tasks on your list.

In the words of Mark Twain, if you eat a live frog each day for breakfast, nothing worse can happen for the rest of the day. And so, the idea is to eat the worst frog as early as possible then breeze through the day. Replacing frogs with tasks, how does this method work?

You categorize tasks into 4 boxes, of course.

1. Things you don’t want to do, and actually don’t need to do.
2. Things you don’t want to do, but actually need to do.
3. Things you want to do and actually need to do.
4. Things you want to do, but actually don’t need to do.

The logic is, that if you don’t want to do a task, it’s probably because it’s hard. You know it’s important but you’re procrastinating. Get the biggest, ugliest task out of the way as soon as you can, and the rest will come easily. 

Frog vs Frog

You can use the same tagging method of 1, 2, 3, 4 like I demonstrated above, or you can apply this methodology to one of the 7 task management lists I’ve previously outlined.

Use the ABCDE method for precise prioritization

Another prioritization method here from Brian Tracy, this time a little more mathematical. I love how it takes into account that different tasks can take the same priority level. Instead of randomly doing equal-priority tasks as they come along, the ABCDE method has two levels of priority. Here’s the steps to take to prioritize your tasks with this method:

  1. Going through your list, give every task a letter from A to E, A being the highest priority
  2. For every task that has an A, give it a number which dictates the order you’ll do it in
  3. Repeat until all tasks have letters and numbers

So, for example:

ABCDE task list

To make sure there’s point in categorizing them so strictly, you’re going to have to be hard on yourself.

You’re not allowed to start on a new letter until the previous letter is fully complete.

If you reference this against the other two methods I’ve outlined already, your A tasks would be your … urgent and important frogs.

The simplest method: pick your 1-3 most important tasks

True to form, the simplest way to prioritize your tasks comes from Zen Habits. In the book Zen to Done, Leo Babauta says:

“At the beginning of each day, review your list, and write down 1-3 MITs [most important tasks] that you’d like to accomplish for the day. That’s your whole planning system. You don’t need any more than that.” — Zen to Done

Using the other methods in this article, you should be well equipped to pick your 1-3 MITs quickly, and get on the path to hitting to-do list zero.

The beauty of this method, however, is that it relies on your intuition. After you’ve been on a few projects, or swamped by an overpowering to-do list enough times, you instinctively know which tasks are your most important.

In the end, there’s not a complete mathematical formula for working it out, but there are some ways to make prioritizing your tasks a habit, and a skill you can hone to get work done faster.

You just read chapter five. Download the entire ebook for free

Task Management

This guide will teach you how to manage your tasks, prioritize properly, and get a ton of important work done.

You’ve heard it all before. You have the same amount of hours in your day as anyone else…

…But what good are those hours if you’re not managing tasks properly?

I’ve improved my productivity threefold since I started researching and writing this ebook, and it’ll help you too change bad habits and put you on the path to productivity.

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Benjamin Brandall

Benjamin Brandall is a content marketer at Process Street, and runs Secret Cave on the side. Find him on Twitter here.


I took a seminar once on the priority matrix but it had an additional component to it that helped prioritize tasks even more, I just can’t remember how to do it. Say you have 10 tasks in Q1, how do you know which one to do first? Somehow they had you compare tasks in each quadrant to one another and assign them numbers. Is Task1 more important to you than Task2? Is Task1 more important than Task3? And so on. When you were done you had a whole list of prioritized tasks and the perfect order to do them in. Does anyone recognize this? I’m trying to figure out how to do the second part…..

Hey Elorah,

Is this something like the method where you assign letters to the task after they’ve been put into broader categories? Example:

  • Clean the coffee pot [1A]
  • Wash the dog [1B]
  • Transcribe notes [2A]
  • Buy a new swimming pool [3A]

So, where the numbers denote broadly how important the task is, the letters filter it down even more. Obviously, you can see from my example that it doesn’t work well on a small task list but would be a great way to sort through a huge list.

Does that help?

I love this! Great post!
I added one piece to this so it’s easier to rank. Stealing from Scrum, I added a Fibonacci rating so I can collaborate with others and agree on task, then adding them we get an overall ranking. Been testing it and it makes it totally stress free. Here is my add:

Immediate = 1
Now = 2
Soon = 4
Overdue = 8
None = 16

Low effort/High results = 1
Lot of value = 2
Blockers = 4
effects others or projects = 8
None = 16

Pick one from each category add up results and lowest is the MIT (Most Important Task)

E.G. Story: “Update website to show attendance at conference”
Urgent: Now = 2
Important: Effects other people or projects = 8
Total point count is 10.
(This one is interesting because it does not contribute a lot of value, effort is low but not huge payback, its not a blocker, but it does effect people who’ll go to the conference.)

Note: Urgency or Time is always one selection, but Importance may have more than one.
I toyed with stories that have two “Important”’s. It looks like the simplest form is to just force yourself to pick one. (I found if I do pick two of them, I just remove 1 point from the lowest Importance and it works)

Hope it adds.

Hi Mike, I love that method! While it does require extra processing, I bet that it becomes second nature and makes tasks more quantifiable. Attaching such a range of numbers to the tasks reminds me of a method I found for managing tasks in the command line, and then filtering lines of the text files with different commands that reference the different brackets of priority. Can’t find the source, but I’ll comment back if I do — it might be interesting for you

Benjamin, I spend about 25 minutes first thing in the morning on this and it’s been working great. I write down all the things to do, then ask myself their urgency and importance. Pop in numbers and get a rank. Works really good for collaboration since it removes the “I think this will take this long”. We’re all really bad at estimating time but think we’re good at it.

If you get that link, I’d read it, but again want to thank you for collecting and simplifying all the noise in GTD in this post.

Blockers are things like: “This task assigned to me is blocking others from working on their task if I don’t finish it or give it to someone else” which is a higher priority that effecting others or other projects because its not “effecting them” its stopping their work. You’re an immediate blocker to others and their URGENCY tasks

I know this is an old thread, but I just want to say how glad I am to have found this. Just started using this today, so it’s a little early in the game to say if improves my prioritization, but it’s the first method I’ve seen that really feels like a practical fit for me. And I desperately need a good fit, so thank you!

I like this method and the thing is we can apply this in Google Sheets and Excel and create a template where we can manage our to-do list based on rating. Thanks for the inspiration.

Thanks for your post! We’ve uses Asana app with eisenhower matrix method for our performance management. They help us organize and manage work process so effective.

Is there some way to practice this process. (I.e. worksheet) People process things differently and I’m trying to help my 17yo son. Trying to figure out how he process things that are important in his life. This is his senior year.

Hey Benjamin,

Thanks for compiling these techniques.

I’ve not tried last two but Urgent Vs important has been working for me. I’ve been phasing my tasks/to-do list in 4 phases so I can decide tasks to delegate.

This has been very effective method for me. Thanks for the article.

Btw do you have any article on efficiency vs effectiveness?

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