How to prioritise – Meta skills part 4

Choose the best thing to work on – effective prioritisation

When you prioritise, you make sure that you’re doing the most important work possible. This means both choosing tasks that are important and focussing on the most important parts of tasks that you’re doing.

Choosing the most important tasks

Some activities have many more times more impact than others. For example, if you’re learning a new skill you’ll improve very quickly at the start as you learn the fundamental skills and then your progress will slow. For example, in language-learning the first hundred words you learn are by far the most useful, often gaining you ~80% coverage. Someone who makes sure they learn the most common words can thus reach conversational fluency several times faster than someone who picks more randomly from the most common couple of thousand words.

Finding big differences in the effectiveness within tasks of the same kind is so common that the rule of thumb has been given a name: the 80/20 principle. It states that roughly 80 percent of your impact will come from 20% of the things you do. This suggests that in general, time spent working out which tasks from a set are most effective will be well rewarded, enabling you to achieve several times as much as you would have otherwise.

Focussing on the most important parts of tasks

Prioritisation also applies when doing tasks as well as when choosing them. Often you don’t need to produce a perfect piece of work – you can apply the 80/20 idea and do 20% of the work for 80% of the impact. For example, if you’re writing a report most of the benefit will come from just covering the main points, not from going into details or polishing the phrasing and formatting. Our natural tendency, however, seems to be to continue with what we’re doing, even if it’s no longer the most effective thing. Resisting this tendency by constantly asking ‘is this the most effective 20%?’ can enable you to achieve several times as much in the same amount of time.

What are the potential problems?

The main cost of prioritising tasks is time. For day-to-day prioritisation, this is low. I estimate the cost of using a task management system as 5% of your time, so the cost of day-to-day prioritisation is a part of this. A larger cost may be prioritisation on the large scale – e.g. prioritising your whole career direction for the next few years. This could take a lot of time, but the potential benefits are huge. We know that some careers have hundreds of times more impact than others, so it’s probably worth spending a few extra hours thinking about which career to pursue.

One thing to be careful of is that the 80/20 rule sometimes doesn’t appear to apply. There are some cases where it’s important to do a task to perfection because there is a disproportionately large benefit to being the best. Most competitions are like this – e.g. competing for a prestigious scholarship. Projects to gain publicity are also like this – producing the one of the most shared TED talks will bring you many times more publicity than just producing an average TED talk.

How strong is the evidence?

There are no studies on the value of attempting to prioritise in general (since it’s such a generic skill). But you can work out whether to spend time prioritising when you reach a new task area. Before you start prioritising you can have a quick think about whether the task area has tasks that differ a large amount in effectiveness, and whether you can work out which tasks are most important in advance in a short enough amount of time to make it worth doing. If it does, then it’s probably worth prioritising.

Our recommendation

  • When you begin working on a new area or project, make a quick assessment of how important it is to prioritise the tasks. Our impression is that it’s usually worth it because the differences in impact between tasks within an area tend to be large.
  • Second, ask yourself whether you can get 80% of the benefit of doing this project by doing only the most important 20% of the work.

Unfortunately, it’s easy to know what’s really important, but to end up getting distracted by less important but urgent day to day tasks.

To help with this we recommend:
1. Having a task management system [link] and when you do your regular reviews (daily, weekly, and monthly) make sure to prioritise your tasks and projects.
2. Also keep track of how well you prioritised over the past week by noting the least important things you did and the most important things you didn’t do.
3. For each time period, set the main tasks that you want to achieve in that period. For example, each day, define three most important tasks to do from your priority tasks for the week, and then do them first. When you choose these most important tasks remember to include important but not urgent tasks. We tend to not do these but they are the sort of tasks that can improve our productivity in the long run.

The full series:

  1. Introduction
  2. Commitment Devices
  3. Task management
  4. Prioritisation
  5. Spaced repetition