Gain 10x your productivity with this simple prioritization technique!

Making important decisions doesn't have to be difficult. Here's how to simplify the process and get more done.

Franz Wiesbauer, MD MPH
Franz Wiesbauer, MD MPH
9th May 2018 • 6m read

Two young children walk with their dad through a grocery store checkout counter and become enchanted by all of the treats on display. Their dad offers to buy them one treat each and gives them a few moments to decide before they reach the clerk.

The girl, having already planned for this situation, knows exactly what she wants and picks her favorite chocolate immediately. Her little brother, on the other hand, can’t decide.

The boy thinks, Ohhhh, I want all of them. What should I choose? He drapes his fingers along the edge of the shelf.

As they inch closer to the store clerk, his dad tells the little boy that he has ten seconds to decide. Panicking, the boy picks up the chocolate bar closest to him and drops it on the counter. Their dad pays for the groceries and walks out. Following closely behind is the little girl happily munching on her favorite treat. The boy looks down at the bar he chose and feels his stomach sink. In his panic, he had accidentally chosen a bar that he’d tried in the past and disliked. Disheartened, he finds the closest bin and throws it away.

We’re all that little boy. And that chocolate shelf is the world around us.

The girl in this scenario had an array of options available but, ultimately, she made the right choice because she’d already taken the time to think about what was important to her. The little boy hadn’t planned ahead and when the situation arose, he panicked and made a choice that didn’t fit with his long-term goals (for a kid, at least!)—a happy afternoon chomping on his favorite chocolate.

Every day, we are bombarded by choices. Our default is often to make these choices based on how we are feeling in the moment. The trouble with this approach is that, often, the decisions we make don’t fall in line with our long-term goals and values.

In a TEDx talk by a lawyer-turned-philosopher, Ruth Chang proposes that making good decisions can be tricky because the given choices generally cannot be quantified. If we compare the weight of two luggage bags, one could be heavier or they could be equal in weight. It would be a mistake to assume that the heavier bag is necessarily more valuable than the lighter one. Similarly, in life, we don’t make choices based on a single attribute. Whether the decision is conscious or not, every decision we make goes through a mental vetting process and is measured against a bunch of subconscious criteria. Sometimes, this process is automatic and the criteria is preselected based on certain values, as was the case with the little girl above. But we’ve all been in the shoes of the little boy and often end up making bad decisions because of two simple reasons—we either don’t have a clear picture of what’s important to us or we’re using the wrong criteria to make a decision that falls in line with what we want to achieve.

Working out what’s important

Before you can make decisions that align with where you want your life to go, you need to define your values. I know this sounds incredibly fluffy but hear me out for a second. We all think that we know what we value, but it’s often hard to identify in the mess of our minds when decision time comes knocking.

Here are a few questions to ask yourself that may help shine a light on what matters to you most. To stay focused, limit your responses to five each, as per Warren Buffet’s 25/5 Rule.

  1. What do I value most in my life? Try to be specific. Saying generic things like family and health, won’t really help you with this exercise. Instead, try things like being healthy enough to run marathons every year, or spending a full day a week with my family with no screens around. Write down as many scenarios as you can think of and then cut them down to your top five.
  2. What do I want to achieve in my life? Think about your eulogy. It’s a morbid thought but it will help to sharpen your thinking. What achievements do you want listed in your eulogy? What do you want to be proud of at the end of your life? Again, limit these to your top five.
  3. What do I want to spend my time on? With the previous answers still rolling around in your mind, think about the activities that would align with them. The purpose of the first two questions is to help you prioritize the activities that will ultimately help you live by your deepest values and identify what you want to achieve. For example, if you want to run marathons every year (both as an achievement and as a representation of your value of healthy living), an activity might be to run 5 km every day. Once you have a list of these, cut them down to your top five.

The Decision Matrix

Once you know what’s important to you, it becomes easier to develop the criteria against which you can validate any decision that needs to be made. We’re all familiar with a pros and cons list, but they can be pretty limiting. They assume that all factors informing a specific decision are equal and don’t give you a way of comparing the weight of different options. Another way to help you make decisions is to build a decision matrix. Author R.E. Stearns uses a decision matrix to help him decide which stories to write. His method involves listing all possible options in the first column and all of the criteria necessary to help make the decision across the top row. A rating system (1–5) is then used to rate each option against the criteria chosen.

For example, if you had to make a decision about which medical specialization to go into, you would first consider what’s important to you (as defined in the previous exercise) and convert this into criteria points to use in your decision matrix. You could list the specialty options in the first column and list the criteria that will help you to make that decision across the top row (e.g., achievable in a certain time frame, flexibility, work-life balance, financials, etc.). Don’t be shy here. Use as many criteria as necessary to reflect a well-thought-out and considered decision. R.E. Stearns uses 300 just to decide which story to write!

I can hear you saying, This is all great for massive decisions, but how do I make better decisions in my day-to-day life?

Choosing your One Thing

The Decision Matrix is a great way to make decisions about things that will have a major impact on your life, but it’s not a reasonable strategy for the day-to-day decisions we make about how we spend our time.

When you have a growing to-do list, it becomes easy to just keep adding to it as you tell yourself that you’ll deal with it all tomorrow. Reality check. Tomorrow is unlikely to be any different from today. You’re going to be just as busy and just as likely to put it off for yet another day.

A better approach is to choose your One Thing, an approach that author Tim Ferriss likes to use to keep himself accountable. This is a productivity hack that seems simple but is actually quite powerful in practice. The idea is to choose one thing on your to-do list that, if completed, would have the greatest impact and give you a feeling of accomplishment.

Here’s how it works:

  • Every morning (or the night before), write down up to six important tasks to accomplish for the day.
  • Then rank these items according to two criteria:
    • Criterion #1: Is the item causing me stress? Has this item been travelling through my to-do lists from one day to the next and not getting done because of anxiety on my part? If the answer is yes, this is usually a good indicator that the item is important and should be prioritized.
    • Criterion #2: What's the One Thing I could do such that, by doing it, it would make many (or all) of the six items easier or unnecessary? Hint: maybe that One Thing is not even on your list yet!
  • Once you've prioritized the list of six items on the basis of these criteria, start tackling the most important item. Only when you're done that one are you allowed to move to the second most important item, and so forth.

This may seem too simple to work, but it does. Rather than stocking up your to-do list with items that you secretly know won’t get done that day, work through the list consistently and mindfully to prevent yourself from feeling overwhelmed. It helps you to sort the important tasks from the not-so-important ones and prioritize accordingly. It stops you from feeling the need to finish all tasks immediately and, instead, helps you to focus on the tasks that will make the most impact.

Have you tried using the One Thing method to help you manage your daily tasks?