Time management: prioritization tools

It’s hard to know how to prioritize, especially when you’re facing a flood of seemingly-urgent tasks. However, it’s essential to learn how to prioritize tasks effectively if you want to manage your time better.The Mind Tools Content Team

Now that I understand the importance1 of prioritization (see Time management: the elephant in the room), I need a method to evaluate the priority of each task from my never-ending-to-do list. While the idea is relatively simple – to determine the order for dealing with each of them according to their relative importance – the actual process is far from simple. Luckily, many techniques are available to help you with this. Too many actually! So, where to start? What about reviewing the letters of the alphabet: from ABC to ABCDE?

The ABC Method

This method, advocated by Alan Lakein, is a classic system for prioritizing a to-do list. The idea is first to assign a priority to each task using the letter A, B, or C; hence, the name of the method. The A items are the most important (the “Must Do”), B next most important (the “Should Do”), and C least important (the “Nice to Do”). Then, the tasks within a group are further ranked using numbers. Thus, task A-1, which is the most important, should be completed before task A-2, which should be completed before task B-1, and so on through all the tasks.

The advantage of this technique lies in its simplicity. All you have to do to make the ABC Method work is to start immediately on your “A-1” task (your frog) and then stay at it until it is complete. However, even if this method may allow you to start your day with a clear list of things to do, already arranged in order of priority, this is what David Allen has to say about it:

The “ABC” priority codes don’t work. Listing your top 10 things you think have to get done, in order, doesn’t work.David Allen


The ABCD system

Like the previous method, the ABCD system of Daniel R Murphy requires first to list the tasks to be performed. Each item will be graded as follow:

A for the most important tasks for which there is a certain degree of urgency.

B for slightly less important tasks or important but not urgent tasks.

C for tasks that are not urgent, but will be essential to the completion of the project.

D for tasks that are not indispensable, those with little added value.

Then, you should number each of the A tasks, B tasks, C tasks, and D tasks in order of urgency or importance. Last, but not least, if you have items that do not fit any of these categories, they should be removed from your list.

According to Daniel R Murphy, by following a priority system like this each day your time is focused on the most important tasks and the ones that get left undone at day’s end are those that are of least importance. James Stroke even refers to the ABCD system as The Next Level in Time Management because, according to him, it combines the best features of the Covey Time Management Matrix, the ABC method, and Allen’s re-prioritization process into one system.

The ABCD system in this manner combines all the best elements of the other systems and allows you the most flexibility.James Stroke

However, from my point of view, I don’t think that adding a “D” (to ABC) makes such a big difference.


The ABCDE Method

Like for the previous two, this method – attributed to time management expert Brian Tracy – prompts you to assign a letter from A to E (A being the highest priority) to each of the tasks on your list. Then, you should give a number to each task; this will dictate the order you will do each task within each letter. Of course, you are not allowed to start on a new letter until the previous letter is fully completed.

Brian Tracy defines each category as:

A Items Are Most Important – something that you must do; there can be serious consequences if you fail to do it.

B Items Only Have Minor Consequences – tasks that you should do, but they only have mild consequences.

C Tasks Have No Consequences – something that would be nice to do, but for which there are no consequences at all, whether you do it or not.

D For Delegate – something that you can delegate to someone else (you should delegate everything that you possibly can).

E For Eliminate – something that you should eliminate.

The ABCDE Method is a powerful priority setting technique that you can use every single day. This technique is so simple and effective that it can make you one of the most efficient and effective people in your field. The ABCDE list is a to-do list on steroids when it comes to learning how to prioritize.Brian Tracy

The ABCDE method is advocated as one of the best ways to prioritize tasks. However, it is, in fact, nothing more than a regular to-do list, only more organized2.

Much advice on how to prioritize work advocates ordering all your tasks by A, B and C or some other number/letter method. Don’t. Why? Because it’s hard to motivate yourself for C tasks — they just don’t seem to matter. In any case, left long enough those C tasks have a nasty habit of becoming urgent issues anyway.Tim Wilson


To be continued…

1 And, more importantly, that it’s not just about pruning your to-do list! ^
2 In addition, as stressed in my previous post, the added two letters (compared to the ABC method) are of no use to me! ^

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