Effective Prioritization Frameworks


June 21, 2021
Workflowy documents

And how to implement them in Workflowy

One of my favorite quotes about priorities comes from the author Greg McKeown:

“If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.”

Whatever you’re working on now, if it’s not your priority, it’s probably someone else’s. That’s why it’s important to know your priorities and set yourself up to act on them.

That’s the difference between priorities and prioritizing. Prioritizing is an action—one that must be done over and over again—to keep you from spending most of your time on stuff other than your priorities. You need to be able to know all the things on your plate, so you can decide which ones fit with your priorities. Then you need to say ‘no’ as mercilessly as you can to everything else.

The work of prioritization isn’t easy; it is difficult decision-making at it’s most difficult. And the more work you’re responsible for, the harder it is to prioritize efficiently and effectively. You have to say ‘no’ more often—which means you have to be that much more confident in what’s on your plate. You also have to be confident in what’s not on your plate, but what you’d like to be on your plate. That requires making room—again, saying ‘no’ to things.

Below are a few prioritization methods that are simple, yet effective at helping you gain the confidence I mentioned above. They’re simple, but robust, and they’re relatively easy to implement in a system like Workflowy.

Prioritization Prerequisites

There are two practices that should be in place in order to make the most of any prioritization method. 

First, you should capture ideas as they come to you. Whether it’s remembering that you need to pick up milk on the way home or that you need to launch a new version of your website next month—capture those as you think of them.

Second, you need to maintain a master task list. This is all the stuff you need to do, from today to 10 years from now (if you think that far ahead). If you’re reading this blog, I’m assuming Workflowy appeals to you as a place to keep this master list. If you don’t have a master list, it’s fairly easy to build one. Just do a mind sweep—even 10 minutes should go a long way in getting you started if you’ve never put everything down on a list. You can find a great guide on how to do one here.

Once you have a master task list, and you’re confident it has most of the stuff you care about on it, effective prioritization is simply a matter of sorting and filtering that list. There are quite a few methods for doing that, some of the more well-known and easily implemented systems are below.

The Ivy Lee Method

Perhaps the simplest prioritization method is what’s known as the Ivy Lee Method. It’s named for the man who basically invented the public relations industry at the beginning of the 20th century.

An apocryphal story surrounds how he came up with his famed productivity method (which you can read more about here). But it was apparently good enough that Lee asked only that clients pay what they thought it was worth. And steel magnate Charles Schwab thought it was good enough that he paid quite a bit for it.

The method goes as follows:

  • At the end of each work day, write down the no more than the 6 most important things to do tomorrow.
  • Sort those six items in order of their true importance. The first item being the most important, the 6th being the least.
  • Work on the first task until you’re done, and don’t move on to the second until the first is done.
  • At the end of the day, move any unfinished items to a new list of 6 for tomorrow.

Deploying this in Workflowy is fairly easy. Assuming you have a master task list, you can take a few approaches.

  • Go through your master task list and begin selecting the candidates of Ivy Lee tasks by placing a #IL-1 – #IL-6 next to them. 
  • Place a #IL at the top of your task list. 
  • To filter your important items, simply click the #IL hash tag.
  • Create a new list above your master task list for your 6 items. Create mirrors of each item that you want to put on the Ivy Lee list, and paste them in that new list. Re-order them by importance, and as you complete them, they’re taken off of your main task list.

The Eisenhower Matrix

Named for 34th U.S. president and first NATO Supreme Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower, this prioritization tool uses two key categories to help you sort through your tasks: urgency and importance. Tasks fall into 4 quadrants, based on their respective categories, as illustrated below.

Quadrant 1 items have deadlines, relate to short-term or immediate but smaller objectives, and most often relate to someone else’s goals. 

Quadrant 2 items don’t have deadlines, but contribute to medium and long-term goals—goals which are usually yours

Quadrants 3 and 4 represent everything else. They hold the noise that we either mistake as signal (quadrant 3) or is clearly just noise and can be indefinitely deferred (quadrant 4). 

The priority order of items is based on the quadrant number they fall into, from 1 to 4—but it’s not as straightforward as it seems.

Initially, most of your time should be spent on items in the first two quadrants, in order. You’ll balance putting out fires in quadrant 1 with doing some strategic planning in quadrant 2. 

But ideally, you should be spending most of your time and effort on quadrant 2. As Stephen Covey lays out in his 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, the more time and attention we can spend on quadrant 2 items, the fewer quadrant 1 items there will be. Why? Because quadrant 2 items involve preparing, prioritizing, planning, and organization. It is usually a lack of one or more of these things that creates quadrant 1’s urgent situations.

There are many ways to build an Eisenhower Matrix in Workflowy. Perhaps the most robust is to go through your master task list and assign them hashtags: #Q1 through #Q4. Then make one clickable bullet for each, so you can easily identify which ones are which with one click. It’s a great way to start your day by picking some #Q2 stuff to focus on.

Mark Forster’s “Final Version”

Even if you’re clear on which items on your list are priorities, actually getting to work on them is still one of the most difficult things to do. The trick, then, is to combine the process of prioritizing with the process of motivating. This is where productivity writer Mark Forster has done a great job with a system called Final Version

The system helps to strike a balance between the desire to work on what you know is important, and something you’d rather do instead—because we all procrastinate when it comes to the hard, important stuff. Forster suggests following a simple algorithm:

  1. Select the first unfinished task on your list—call it Task X.
  2. Ask yourself the question “what do I want to do more than Task X?” And find the next task on your list that you’d like to do more than Task X. Mark it. 
    In Workflowy, use a #FV-1
  3. Continue this process by asking what you want to do more than the task you just marked. Mark that one.
    In Workflowy, use a #FV-2
  4. Keep going until you reach a task where there aren’t any other tasks on the list you want to do more than the last one you marked.
  5. Your new to-do list is the tasks you selected in reverse order.
    In Workflowy, start with your highest #FV- number and work down.

It’s a quirky system, to be sure, but it does a great job at forcing you to think differently about starting on your work. If you find yourself procrastinating often, give it a try.

The List is the Key

Whichever prioritization method you use, remember that the key is to have a master task list that includes as much of the stuff you need and want to do as possible. Whenever there’s stuff on your mind, but not on your list, it throws off your sense of priority. As a result, your mind knows when it looks at a “prioritized” list that it can’t be trusted. After all, there’s stuff that you didn’t include!

So, make a master task list. Add to and curate that master list regularly. Pick a prioritization method that works for you, and regularly use it to sort and filter your master action list. And go get stuff done!

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2 years ago

could you share your WF examples?

George Reschke
George Reschke
2 years ago

I’m a big Mark Forster fan. Another system I use on occasion is here. I tend to hop around a bit in how I do things.


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