3 Methods to Set Priorities (That Actually Work)
YOU’VE PROBABLY read quite a few articles on setting priorities. What they all teach you is to clarify your goals, do the high-return tasks first, and create a prioritized to-do list.
But that’s not really what you’re looking for, is it? You already know that you need to set the right goals and work towards them. What you’re lacking is the practical knowledge and efficient methods to create your action plan.
This article’s different from all the other “How to Set Priorities” posts as it equips you with three straightforward and actionable frameworks for setting priorities. Even better – these strategies also enhance everyday decision-making and serve as interesting thought exercises.
Method #1: One Year From Now
Let’s say you have three possible paths to choose from, and you only have time for one. Meanwhile, you’re unsure which task deserves the highest priority. How can you make the right decision?
When facing a difficult choice such as switching jobs (or setting high-scale priorities), travel forward in time and imagine yourself one year from now. You’re a year older, achieved some of your goals, and looking back at the current time.
Distance yourself from the present you with all the worries and distractions. Now, try and imagine which achievements lead to achieving your goals. What went wrong and what went right? Were there particularly rewarding activities that helped you to move at a faster pace towards achieving these one-year goals?
As the economist and former McKinsey partner, Caroline Webb explains in her new book How to Have a Good Day, imagining yourself one or even ten years from now helps to look at your current choices with a completely different vision. You’re more likely to understand what works and what doesn’t. By using this information, you’re able to adjust your priorities and encourage the most productive options.
The One Year From Now method is used by consulting firms all over the world to improve the decision-making process. But you can easily apply it to your priority-setting framework, ensuring that you stay focused on truly important projects.
Further reading: 6 Thought Exercises to Immediately Boost Your Brainpower
Method #2: Thinking Backwards
Usually, when prioritizing stuff, you’re facing a list of activities and trying to figure out which one is the most important. Not with the Thinking Backwards method.
To employ the Thinking Backwards method, you need to start with a single task that you consider your top priority. For example, it might be important to you to complete a project draft by the end of the day.
So you #1 priority is “complete the project draft”. To ensure that this activity really is the most important one, start to compare it to other tasks that are also on your top priorities list. Let’s say your #2 priority for the day is to “review all the business metrics and tweak the schedule if needed”.
Thinking about the long-term rewards and the impact of each activity, compare their possible outcomes and ensure that your current #1 priority really is more important than #2 priority. There might be a team of people waiting for the next project draft. In this case, your #1 priority clearly weighs over the others.
By working backward and evaluating the potential outcome and importance of each priority, you’ll be able to avoid your gut feeling and assess what’s truly relevant to your goals.
Method #3: Balanced Scorecard
Originally invented by two eminent doctors Robert S. Kaplan and David P. Norton, the Balanced Scorecard serves as a method for aligning business activities to a company’s vision statement. Amazon.com has over 4,000 books listed under Balanced Scorecards, so there must be something about this tactic that makes it highly relevant to your priority-setting process.
Balanced Scorecard’s greatest benefit lies in its ability to expose activities and goals that bring value across several domains. If you’re unsure which task presents the greatest reward across multiple levels, take out your pen and paper and start drawing a simple framework.
Note! Before you set your pen on paper, reflect on your goals and the day’s expected outcome. Set realistic expectations aligned with your skill set and the amount of time you have.
Step one: set your perspectives & goals
The first step is all about finding out what’s truly important for your (and your team’s) success. Make a list of the expected goals and outcomes you’d like to achieve by the end of the day, week or month.
For example, as a project manager you might be interested in the following monthly goals:
- Complete project A
- Complete project B
- Increase productivity
- Increase monthly revenue
Step two: outline all your tasks
To find the activities with the highest rewards, you first need to identify all your priorities. Create a table with your goals and tasks that fall under each objective.
Here’s an example:
Step three: create your Balanced Scorecard for priorities
In addition to top-level business decisions, the Balanced Scorecard method can be used for setting priorities. To do that, draw four overlapping circles and write one of your goals in each.
Next, evaluate which activities result in overlapping rewards across multiple rounds, i.e. help to achieve several goals at once.
For example, meeting with a customer can result in accelerated project progress and increased monthly revenue. Analyzing your team’s work leads to an improvement in productivity, and likely a faster completion rate for projects. Meanwhile, outsourcing several tasks might increase your project expenses while also consuming a lot of your time to find the right contractors.
While we like to set priorities for our tasks, we often forget what’s really important. Instead of focusing on urgent but irrelevant tasks, take the time to evaluate which activities return the highest reward.
As Dwight D. Eisenhower put it: “What Is Important Is Seldom Urgent and What Is Urgent Is Seldom Important.”