4-Step Prioritization in Effective Ways

The 4-step prioritization method provides fast and effective ways to prioritize and manage essential tasks.

4-step prioritization staircase starting from Evaluate, Prepare, Plan, and to Do.
This 4-step prioritization method takes you through the steps Evaluate, Prepare, Plan and to Do.

Imagine a staircase with four steps where you always have to start from the bottom by evaluating the situation. Depending on the situation you can jump directly to any level!

We’ll come back to how you can implement the steps Evaluate, Prepare, Plan and to Do as categories or labels into your planning and time management system.

Now, we’ll focus on the four steps and see them in action.

The first step of prioritization: Evaluate the importance, urgency, and assignment

Please note, this method is for essential tasks only to help you keep focusing on the big stones in the vase. The less critical gravel, sand, and water will always find their way and fill the gaps.

man in black crew neck t-shirt
Please don’t take it all in, but be firm in your judgment of what’s a need or just nice!

First, you have to evaluate or judge whether the task is vital at all—for you or somebody else? Delete or skip (perhaps archive) if not being vital. Only spend time archiving, labeling, and categorizing things you will use in the future!

If the task is vital, but not for you, then delegate it to the right person. If urgent, please be sure to talk to that person for anchoring.

Remaining steps of prioritization explained

In case it’s your task, and you can complete it faster than it takes to write it down, then do it immediately. That’s what we call a Just Do It task.

If you need more time to complete the task, then you’ve identified an essential and time-consuming task for yourself.

Having all the information, knowledge and competencies to complete the task—considered urgent too— categorize it as ready to be done with Do.

If completion can wait until you’ve finished earlier urgent tasks, then you classify it as Plan. Which means you’ll schedule your effort on it being sure to meet its deadline.

If you need some prerequisites before you’re able to start working on and finishing the task, then you mark it as needs preparation with Prepare.

A final word about Just Do It tasks!

As mentioned above, if you’re able to complete a task faster than you can write it down on a piece of paper—or transfer it to your electronic time management system—then you shall probably do it right away depending on its importance.

Just remember that numerous small—even though very speedy tasks—surely add up during a day!

Also, beware of the pitfall being “superficially productive” continually seeking and completing Just Do It tasks. It might be an excuse for procrastinating other tasks!

Next, we’ll have a look below at a typically hectic day at the office.

Practical examples of 4-step prioritization during a hectic workday

Let’s say you have an unread email from a significant customer, Bob. Bob sent it three days ago, but you’ve just now got a few minutes to spend on it:

First, you skim it for an overview of importance and urgency. You realize you lack information to answer it right away. Furthermore, you judge the importance a bit vague. Now, it’s clear the task needs preparation before responding. Therefore it can’t be a Just Do It task!

A taxi is waiting for you, so you can’t spend more time on that email right now. Finally, you mark it Prepare for its further preparation later on.

Please check out the article 10 Timesavers Managing Emails Effectively to see how you can implement this method into your email system to put emails on a to-do list.

The next morning you enter the office with your boss waiting at your desk. He gives you a high priority assignment with a three-day deadline. Since you’ve got other important and more urgent tasks to complete first, you categorize the new job as Plan.

Ten minutes later, you receive a phone call from your boss’s superior concerning a job to complete before lunch, no matter what! Well, that’s a visible Do to start working on right now.

While you’re finishing the phone call, one of your employee’s approaches. He needs your immediate (low effort) approval in an it-system. His purpose is to solve a critical and urgent problem for your boss.

What to do in which order to be productive?

Well, your system approval sounds like a critical yet swift Just Do It task: You need to login to the system and complete your part in less than a minute.

Then you start working on the task of your boss’ boss and complete it before lunch.

Since you don’t have any other Do tasks waiting for you, you start working on the Plan task from your boss.

After fifteen minutes of concentrated work, you’re almost ready to complete your boss’ task. To finish it you need a technical verification from a specialist. The specialist isn’t available, but you’ll meet him anyway the next day. You categorize it as Do since it’s ready for termination.

After a short coffee break and a chat with an employee, you’re back at your desk to answer some phone calls.

Next, you continue with the email from Bob. Having read it more thoroughly, it turns out Bob is on holiday until next week.

You do have some answers ready to Bob combined with a few questions to him. You prefer to speak with Bob in this situation, which unfortunately isn’t an option due to his vacation. Instead, you choose an email with your current input also asking him to call you when possible.

While you were working on the email to Bob, numerous emails appear in your Inbox. They didn’t distract you having all such notifications disabled.

Again you briefly scan through some unread emails answering one of them with a short and clear answer. Another obligation you delegate to an employee. The last message you judge unimportant, although archiving it for future access.

Is Last In First Out (LIFO) your natural priority?

Some people develop a pattern “living” their workdays in the Inbox, and I’ve been there myself! One day I found myself following a service-minded yet very distracting and undetermined Last In First Out (LIFO) pattern. I did choose to change right away and develop a more productive habit.

Being present and helpful is indeed my desired attitude combined with sharp focus and respect for other obligations and involvements.

It’s almost like a law of nature to focus on what seems to be THE most urgent and essential task around us. It can be even more prominent when striving to be extra cooperative and service-minded.

Very easily, we get involved in the feelings of our colleagues or surroundings. Almost by reflex—especially when capable of supporting—we tend to jump directly into the assisting mode.

Often it’s unclear whether a task’s assumed urgency goes before its actual value, especially if served with a lot of enthusiasm or weight.

If we add our feelings too, we may perceive a task as both important and urgent, thus jumping right on it.

Do you satisfactorily own your workday?

We can’t go through the workdays inviting others to throw us tasks. Beware getting too involved, always alert and extremely helpful! Otherwise, you might end up severely stressed with a wrong work-life balance.

Your desired work-life balance depends on your ability to prioritize and plan your schedule realistically.

Summing up: 4-Step Prioritization in Effective Ways

Our modern working environment is hectic and packed with sudden changes in scope and priorities. That’s why we must always observe and take care of our mental well-being and work-life balance.

At Productivity Hints, we advocate a sound foundation for staying both sane and highly productive. We believe in doing the right things in a prioritized and respectful manner.

Hopefully, you’re a bit inspired now to test this 4-step prioritization method in your working environment. If so, you’re more than welcome to share outcomes and experiences with us.

Also, please subscribe for new articles if you find the content useful.


Plan Your Week and Tomorrow Today

If you always plan your week and the following day, you’ll be in constant control of your schedule. These steps are practical and effective ways to be productive and avoid stress.

Use your current knowledge and visualization to plan your week and next day accordingly (Paper calendar closeup)
Try keeping your calendar up to date based on your current knowledge.

Control your calendar with flexible and timely planning

Beware, if you’re not controlling your calendar and priorities, your surroundings might do it for you!

Depending on the type of work and the amount of activities you’re involved in, you might have particular needs for a planning horizon. Some choose to schedule a month ahead with broader strokes. Others don’t plan at all, perhaps finding it flexible to take things as they come.

Plan your week in advance

As a broader planning horizon, a week will typically be reasonable to forecast with sufficient precision.

selective focus photo of brown and blue hourglass on stones
Control your time but don’t stress yourself trying to plan “everything.”

Unless you like to spend time at weekends planning the coming workweek, Friday at the end of the workday will be appropriate. Reserve approximately half an hour for this recurring activity, spending no more than five minutes per workday for a final overall sanity check. Pay particular attention to the first workday.

Plan the next day before closing-time

Our fast-changing working environment often provides numerous unexpected daily interruptions. One might say, “We better expect the unexpected every single day at work!”

Therefore before you end each workday, it’ll be a productive habit to plan the next workday based on your current knowledge. Try limiting yourself to spend less than ten minutes on this!

Remember to schedule your solo activities

Be sure to reserve a reasonable amount of time in your calendar for concentrated effort on your to-dos. We’re talking an essential recurring task when not participating in meetings and conversations, collaborating with stakeholders, or checking new emails.

Experiment with the size and amount of timeboxes over the coming weeks seeking for your very sweet spot. Remember to be honest to yourself regarding your productivity and the scheduled tightness. Don’t get stressed nor hide behind an uncooperative calendar full of “meetings” with yourself.

person holding white Android smartphone in white shirt
Regularly go through your mobile notes and captures of whiteboards

Also, remember to schedule recurring activities like going through your handwritten notes and electronic devices. These could be your mobile phones and tablets containing photos of whiteboard notes.

Summing up: Plan Your Week and Tomorrow Today

Go ahead and use these tips and tricks to develop and fine-tune the way you choose to manage your precious time. Moreover, having gained this kind of discipline and flow, you don’t have to spend much time preparing for tomorrow and next week.

If you’ll like to dive deeper into the topic stress, then the American Psychological Association has a great website to visit.