If you’re anything like us, you start your day or week with a long list of tasks.
You know that everything needs to get done, but it can feel impossible to know where to begin. If you don’t create some level of prioritization, you could end up stressed, wasting time, and missing deadlines. So, how do you figure out which tasks to do first?
Use a prioritization matrix.
We’re taking a look at everything you need to know when implementing this strategy for your workflow. Let’s get started.
What is a priority matrix?
A priority matrix (also referred to as a prioritization matrix) is a templated resource that helps you organize all the tasks on your to-do list based on the impact they’ll have and the effort required. By breaking down each task, you can gauge which items to complete first. It helps you stay focused on the work that will have the greatest results.
A prioritization matrix consists of four categories:
Tasks that fall into the high-impact/low-effort category are the ones to do first. Conversely, tasks in the low-impact/high-effort category are probably not worth your time and should be put on the bottom of your prioritization list.
When do you use a priority matrix?
A priority matrix is most effective for large groups of tasks that need prioritization. The matrix makes it easier to visualize the weight of all these tasks in one place—whether it’s your task list or task for a project with multiple stakeholders.
Because it is broken down into four sections, you can readily see which tasks are important or urgent. This strategy is helpful for understanding which tasks need to be done now versus which you might consider removing from your task list altogether by delegating or postponing.
Why is prioritization important for productivity?
Before diving into the nitty-gritty details of how to build the matrix, let’s take a step back and look at the impact prioritization has on productivity. After all, we’re here because we recognize an opportunity for increased productivity through ranking tasks.
How is it possible to fit it all into regular eight-hour workdays? The answer is that it’s not, and that’s why prioritization is necessary. By prioritizing your tasks, you don’t waste time wondering what to work on next or questioning which task will generate the most impact.
Check out some reasons why prioritization is important for productivity:
Understand urgency vs. importance
Not every important task is also urgent. An urgent task is one you need to handle immediately. It requires you to shift your schedule to troubleshoot the problem. An important task also has the potential for significant impact but has a deadline that's further out that you can plan ahead for.
When you’re dealing with a large group of tasks, recognizing the important tasks from the urgent tasks can feel tricky. The priority matrix helps by slotting them into boxes. That said, if an emergency arises, immediately prioritize that task.
Set realistic goals
When you set unrealistic goals, you risk disappointment and potential burnout. By ranking your task list and setting realistic daily goals, you set yourself up with sustainable work habits for long-term success.
The result of not building sustainable work habits is most often burnout. Recovering from burnout will have a far more negative long-term impact on your work than if you create sustainable work practices in the short-term.
Get more time back on your calendar
When you prioritize your to-dos, you work more efficiently. If you aren’t using mental energy to figure out what to work on next, you can focus on doing great work on the task.
Plan a day using time boxing techniques to build dedicated focus time into your schedule. You know which tasks you’ll work on during these time-boxed periods to help with sustained productivity.
Remember how stressed you felt at the start of your work day when you looked at your task list? Simple prioritization methods to organize all your to-do items mitigate this stress and establish healthy work practices.
If you don’t know where to start while working through your task list and find yourself procrastinating on everything as a result, you’ll benefit from prioritization. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by a massive list of to-dos, sometimes pushing off doing the work until the last minute. When you prioritize your work, you don’t have to think twice about what to work on next. It’s a seamless transition from one task to another.
5 steps to make a priority matrix
As you build your priority matrix, keep your daily schedule in mind. How many meetings do you have in a day? How many other projects do you have on deck right now? Once you reach the planning step, remembering the answers to these questions will help you plan a sustainable day or workflow.
- Create a to-do list
You might already have this list on hand. If not, create a master list of all the items on your task list. If you’re working on a larger project, make a sublist of smaller tasks that help you work toward completing it. Consult with project stakeholders and take stock of your personal goals to help you determine your list.
Try to give a timeline for the task list. You could start by listing your tasks for the month or week, then break them down by day.
- Determine their impact
Go through each task one by one and consider their impact. Ask yourself how much effort each task will require compared to the return you’ll get from that effort. In more simple terms, you’re weighing input vs. output. If the input outweighs the outcome, this is a low-priority task. Likewise, if the output outweighs the input, this is a high-priority task.
The more complex of a matrix you build, the more flexibility you have with digging into the nuances of each task.
- Build your matrix
Now it’s time to construct your matrix. For our example, we’re focusing on the most common, a simple four-quadrant matrix. Create a priority matrix template that you can repurpose for daily or weekly use.
This template has four categories: high-effort/high-impact, high-effort/low-impact, low-effort/high-impact, and low-effort/low-impact. Feel free to color code the boxes or give them different names—whatever setup makes the most sense.
- Put your tasks in the matrix boxes
Take your list of tasks and begin slotting them in the appropriate quadrants. Be realistic here. It’s easy to get carried away adding task after task to each box. If you find that the to-do list in a low-effort/high-impact box far outweighs every other box, it might be time to take a step back and reevaluate each task.
Setting up the prioritization matrix is one thing, but it’s another to look at your tasks objectively. It might be a tough call to push work you’ve wanted to do down the list, but it’s a necessary one for sustained productivity.
- Establish a plan for completing your tasks
With your complete matrix, establish a plan for completing each task. Say you created a matrix for one week of work. Place it side-by-side with your weekly calendar and begin slotting in your high-priority tasks first.
Estimate how long it will take to complete each task and block that time off in your calendar. This is time dedicated to deep work, uninterrupted by notifications or shoulder taps. Make sure you don’t plan too much for one day. Tools like Sunsama alert you if you’ve planned more than five hours of deep work to help you stick to a realistic schedule.
Pro tip: If you’re a morning person, plan on working on your high-priority tasks in the morning. The same goes for if you’re an evening or night person. Structure a day that aligns with your work style and schedule, making you more productive in the long term.
5 examples of priority matrices
As we alluded to before, there are a few different types of priority matrices. Below we’ve curated a list of examples as well as frameworks that work well in tandem with priority matrices. Use them individually or together to create a crystal clear picture of your day ahead. Here are some examples.
The Eisenhower Grid is a simple system for effective decision-making and prioritization. The name comes from Dwight D. Eisenhower, who expressed that he had two kinds of problems: the urgent and the important, and two rarely overlapped. The grid helps you make long-term strategic plans using the same core principles as a basic priority matrix by identifying your most important and urgent tasks then plotting them on a four-square grid.
This design works best for big projects or long-term goals where you must look at the bigger picture. It’s helpful for teams dealing with a huge amount of work that needs to be delineated based on task urgency and importance.
Kanban planning is a time management strategy focusing on creating a visual board of all your tasks. It’s one of the best ways to organize a prioritized day after you’ve ranked your tasks. Kanban utilized the same visual layout that makes priority matrices so powerful. It’s usually broken down into days of the week. Using Sunsama, you can order your tasks based on their priority—it works hand-in-hand with your ongoing priority matrix. Use this to time-box tasks into your calendar to help you achieve deep work. Break down a project or your day into tasks with the estimated completion time.
The scoring model assigns a number to each task to help you understand their priority. The process is similar to building a standard priority matrix. You create a list of all your tasks and then assign each a number based on your criteria for importance and urgency. Tasks are then prioritized and worked into your schedule based on their assigned number. It's helpful if you have tasks that seem to be of equal importance and you’re unsure how to prioritize them. Think of the scoring model as the task prioritization deal breaker.
Six Sigma is a technical priority system designed to improve business processes and ensure the team always sticks to best practices. It’s a set of methodologies that decreases workflow variations and increases efficiency. There are five steps: design, measure, analyze, improve, and control. It works best in tandem with another priority system, like the matrix. It can also scale for team-wide use.
ITIL, or Information Technology Infrastructure Library, is a set of practices designed to create team alignment and continuous improvement. ITIL’s core principles are similar to those of a priority matrix. The end goal is to improve efficiency and streamline deliveries. It can work independently or be applied to the standard priority matrix system.
Sunsama sets you up for a prioritized and productive day
With the right tools and resources at work, you can build a prioritized and productive day, no matter the length of your task list. Sunsama is a helpful time management tool that supports integrations with your calendar for quick time boxing.
Turn on Focus Mode when it’s time to work through your high-priority tasks. Sunsama pauses all desktop notifications, so you can engage in deep work and finish your most challenging tasks.
At its core, Sunsama aims to help you establish sustainable working practices. Do more with less time, meet all your due dates, and create strategies for long-term productivity. If you’re ready to try Sunsama, sign up for a free trial and experience the benefits instantly.