Forget the To-Do List: Here’s a Better Way to Identify Your Priorities

Jun 23, 2014 - Joe Matar
Are you tired of the same old advice on prioritizing, like "Know what's important to you," "Write a To-Do list" and "Use this productivity app"? Well, here's the good news: That's about to change. All you need is a clean piece of paper, a pencil and a place where you can sit back, relax and enjoy some coffee (or whichever beverage you prefer). (Click here to tweet this thought.) On the paper, draw a five-column table. Label the first column "My Priorities" and list everything you consider important to you in that column. Then, label the succeeding columns with the following questions, in order:

Column 2: Why am I doing this again?

List the reasons why the items in Column 1 are important to you. For example, if you're a full-time office worker who freelances on the side, your priorities will include "My Job" and "My Freelancing Side Gig." You can write "Because I need a stable source of income" next to "My Job," and "Because I want to turn my creative passion into a profession" next to "My Freelancing Side Gig." Whatever you do, don't leave anything out. This is important for the next step, which is...

Column 3: Are the "whys" worth it?

In this part, think about whether your priorities are worth struggling for. Going back to the previous example, is the "stable source of income" worth the extra hours you spend at the office? Is your pursuit of your "creative passion" worth the complaints from family and friends that you don't have enough time for them — or for yourself — anymore? If your answer to these questions is "Yes," put a checkmark in Column 3 next to the corresponding item in Column 2. Otherwise, leave the space blank.

Column 4: What's the worst that can happen if I ditch this?

Sometimes, the priorities listed in Column 1 bog you down, to the point that you feel like dropping some of them. In that case, you'll want to visualize the logical worst-case scenarios that can happen from doing so, and list these scenarios under Column 4. This may be a bit difficult, since humans aren't hardwired to think about worst-case scenarios, but you have to do it if you want to psychologically prepare yourself for the worst. It's best if you list as many items as you can in this part, so you can easily answer the question...

Column 5: Am I prepared for the worst?

If the scenarios you listed in Column 4 happen to you today, will you be prepared for them? Under Column 5, put a check mark next to the corresponding item in Column 4 if "No," and leave the space blank if "Yes."

Tally Time

Better take a deep breath first, because this is going to be the hardest part of the exercise. (Don't worry; it's also the last part.) Add up the number of Column 3 checkmarks and the number of Column 5 checkmarks per Column 1 item. For example, let's suppose "My Job" has 12 checks in Column 3, and seven checks in Column 5, while "My Freelancing Side Gig" has 11 checks in Column 3, and two checks in Column 5. Then, subtract the numbers in Column 5 from the ones in Column 3. "My Job" would have five net check marks (12 - 7), while "My Freelancing Gig" would have nine (11 - 2). Based on these final numbers, rank your priorities from highest to lowest, in terms of net checkmarks. Using our examples, "My Freelancing Gig" would have the highest score, and should therefore be your top priority. Voila! You have an instant, organized list of your current priorities. Pretty neat, huh? If there's one thing you should prioritize, it's your priorities. Why not try this exercise today, and let us know in the comments section how it worked for you? Issa Mirandilla writes about freelancing, writing, marketing, careers, and other business-related topics. Give her a nudge on Twitter or visit her website here.