Project management

Setting priorities - 5 proven methods

Do you feel like you're drowning in a flood of tasks? Then it's high time to prioritise. Get to know five effective methods for identifying important tasks & avoiding pitfalls in order to work more successfully.
Setting priorities - 5 proven methods

What is important and what is not? What do you spend your time and attention on and what remains undone for the time being? Prioritising is an essential step in working productively and effectively. Why? If you don't prioritise, you run the risk:

- to be overwhelmed by the multitude of tasks,
- not making progress, even though a lot of work is being done,
- get into stress and
- to lose the overview or develop burnout symptoms.

In short: without the ability to prioritise, you are doomed to fail in many areas of your working life or at least be exposed to avoidable overload. Consistent prioritisation helps you to focus your time and energy on the really important things.

Why should you prioritise?

Prioritising is an effective strategy for avoiding procrastination. By prioritising your tasks according to their importance, you gain clarity about the next steps to take. By focussing on essential tasks, you prevent distractions caused by secondary activities. Such a clear focus makes it easier for you to get started with your work quickly and reduces the tendency to avoid it.

The ability to prioritise is a decisive factor for success and happiness, both in professional and private life. A lack of prioritisation often leads to procrastination, missed deadlines, poor decisions and ultimately just degenerates into stress. See setting priorities not just as an organisational measure, but as an absolute necessity. Due to limited resources such as time, money and labour, you have to make decisions every day on how to make the best possible use of these resources.

Setting priorities, but how? 5 Methods

If you're wondering where all the time has gone again, you should start prioritising. But how exactly do you go about it? We present five tried-and-tested methods that will make it easier for you to organise your tasks hierarchically:

5 methods with which you can set your priorities.

Method 1: Eisenhower matrix

Appointments, meetings, minutes - your to-do list is long, but time is short! If you recognise yourself in this situation, you sometimes no longer know where your head is. Which task should you tackle first? The phone call with the customer? Or would it be better to answer Mr Dringlich's e-mail first? What is important anyway?

Prioritising is often difficult, especially when you are under time pressure. In such situations the Eisenhower matrix - named after former US President Dwight D. Eisenhower - can help. With this method, you divide tasks into four categories:

1. important and urgent
2. important, but not urgent
3. urgent, but not important
4. neither important nor urgent

By assigning your tasks to these categories, you can decide which should be completed first, which you can delegate or which to-dos you can cancel completely. This gives you a clear focus on your project schedule so that you are not distracted by unimportant tasks.

Eisenhower matrix for categorising tasks

Method 2: MoSCoW method

You will always have project objectives that are considered extremely important. But do all objectives necessarily have to be considered as such? Probably not! During the course of the project, situations may arise in which you have to make decisions that may influence the project objectives. In order to prioritise these in a meaningful way the MoSCoW method to.

- Must have (mandatory requirements)Tasks that must be fulfilled. These are decisive for the success of the project and are non-negotiable. If these requirements are not met, the project is deemed to have failed. Example: In a software development project, the application must have a secure authentication function. Without this basic requirement, the entire project is jeopardised.

- Should have (target requirements)Important, high-priority tasks that should be completed whenever possible. Failure to complete them can jeopardise the success of the project, but in the worst case they can be postponed to a subsequent project. Mandatory requirements always have priority. Example: When implementing a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system, integration with existing business applications should be prioritised. The success of the project will be jeopardised if this important task is neglected.

- Could have (optional requirements)Fulfilment is strived for, but the success of the project is not measured by them. Often labelled as "nice to have", they can be neglected or postponed in the event of time or resource conflicts. Nevertheless, they should be considered more closely if they can be implemented without great effort, as they often make a big difference to stakeholder satisfaction. Example: For a marketing project, the integration of social media functions into the campaign platform might be desirable. Although this is not crucial, it could significantly increase stakeholder satisfaction.

- Won't have (Will not be implemented)These requirements are clearly defined and should not be implemented as part of the project. This serves to clarify what is not (yet) intended, but could be important for future collaboration. Example: When developing a company website, it is decided that the integration of online games will not be implemented (at least for the time being), as this does not correspond to the main objectives of the project.

The term "MoSCoW" was originally written as "MSCW". To make pronunciation easier, the "o "s were inserted and deliberately written in lower case, as they have no meaning in terms of content.

Method 3: Pareto principle

Also the Pareto principle helps you to differentiate between important and less important tasks. This method, also known as the 80/20 rule, formulates a basic statement that you can apply to numerous contexts:

With 20 % of effort, 80 % of effect is already achieved.

In other words, there is a significant linear imbalance between effort and result. In practical application, always ask yourself the question: What is the relationship between the effort invested and the benefit achieved? For each task, you should weigh up what this ratio looks like and then decide on this basis whether the task should really be completed immediately, how thoroughly you should complete it and whether you should complete the task at all. The figures 20 and 80 per cent only serve as a rough guide. It is only important that you categorise your tasks into "high effort" and "low benefit" when setting priorities.

Method 4: Action priority matrix

The basic principle of the Action priority matrix should be familiar to you by now. As with the Pareto principle, ask yourself two crucial questions:

EffortWhat effort does this task require?
ImpactWhat benefit or effect do I achieve with this task?

The evaluation of the tasks is clearly presented in a matrix and you derive specific recommendations for action based on this:

Action priority matrix for effective prioritisation

Quick Wins: "Quick successes" - These are particularly attractive tasks that achieve a high impact with little effort.

Major Projects: "Larger projects" - These represent the more demanding tasks in everyday working life that should rarely be neglected.

Fill-ins: "Pause fillers" - Tasks with little effort and low impact. These often need to be completed and are suitable for phases in which full energy is not required.

Thankless tasks: "Ungrateful tasks" - Tasks that require a lot of effort but have little effect should be carefully scrutinised.

The Action Priority Matrix thus offers a structured method for evaluating tasks and acting in accordance with their priority.

Method 5: ABC analysis

Would you like to focus clearly on the essentials and set effective priorities? Then the ABC analysis could be the right method for you. The ABC analysis helps you to focus on the essentials. Elements are divided into A, B and C classes in order to prioritise them.
Data is classified according to defined criteria such as turnover, consumption or profit. Three main classes are created:

- A-elementsThese are the few particularly high-quality elements with a significant value share. Identifying these elements is crucial, as this is where the greatest leverage for success lies.
- B elementsThese elements form the centre field with a moderately high number and a mediocre value. Depending on the situation, it may make sense to take a closer look at them or to disregard them for the time being.
- C-elementsThese are the many elements that occur in large numbers but only have a comparatively small influence on the overall picture. Focussing intensively on these elements has only a limited impact and can often take a long time.

The ABC analysis is used in various business areas such as logistics, purchasing, customer analysis, time management and, of course, project management.

You should avoid these mistakes

Even if you have managed to set your priorities sensibly thanks to the tried and tested methods, there are always a few pitfalls that could trip you up. These are the most common mistakes when setting priorities:

1. priorities do not get time:
Priorities should create order, facilitate organisation and save time, energy and stress. It is crucial to invest enough time to set the right priorities. Prioritisation itself should be seen as the top priority. If this is ignored, the wrong tasks will take precedence even before the order of priority has been established. The work starts flying blind.

2. goals are lost sight of:
Prioritising is not difficult in itself: you decide which tasks should be completed first and work through the list item by item. But then new tasks are addedand the overview of projects and open construction sites is lost. It is therefore very important to keep an eye on the big picture. With a long-term perspective, the many small tasks can be better organised and put together like a jigsaw puzzle.

3. priorities are not adhered to:
Even the best priorities are ineffective if they are ignored. People tend to deceive themselves. Constant distractions from phone calls, noisy emails or colleagues can mean that good intentions are quickly forgotten. It is important to remember that priorities are set for a reason and to focus on them.

4. tasks are not delegated or are delegated incorrectly:
Prioritising means not only organising your own tasks, but also considering whether someone else is better suited to take on part of them. This not only speeds up results, but often improves them too. However, delegating does not mean losing sight of the task at hand. Even if a colleague is taking care of the task, progress should be monitored or the task assigned to a more suitable candidate.

5. new information is ignored:
Priorities are not fixed laws. It is permissible and even advisable to regularly scrutinise, redefine or adjust them. New information or circumstances in particular should be taken into account, as they may shift existing priorities. Priorities require flexibility in order to adapt to changes.

Effective time management with ZEP

Setting priorities efficiently is crucial for structuring the working day and minimising stress. Putting off tasks that need to be completed promptly, also known as procrastination, is a widespread phenomenon. The causes of this behaviour are manifold, and you are probably familiar with the associated effects such as stress or a burdened conscience. Although there is no universal cure for procrastination, there are numerous methods, tips and tricks at your disposal to counteract this tendency. You can read more about procrastination here.

In this context, our ZEP software can help you to utilise your time more efficiently in order to increase your productivity and reduce stress. Under the motto "Work smarter, not harder", ZEP supports you throughout the entire project management process - from the dynamic project planning about the Resource allocation until the Accurate recording of all project times. This way you can set your priorities, pursue your project goals and not get lost in unimportant things! Get your free, no-obligation consultation here. 30-day trial version of ZEP!

Tanja Hartmann CEP

Tanja Hartmann

Content Marketing Manager at ZEP

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