Divide & Conquer

When you have a long list of things, it can be hard to figure out what is most important, especially when many items seem to have the same priority.

Part of the problem is that priorities are always relative, and we don’t really know what the priority of an item is until we compare it to other items (your house being on fire is your highest priority…unless you’re having a heart attack).

To prioritize more effectively, it helps to break long lists into shorter lists. This allows us to leverage our working memory to compare and prioritize items against each other.

An effective technique is to divide your list into two sub-lists: Higher & Lower.

Look at each item on your list and place it into one of these two sub-lists. If you’re spending too much time deciding where some items go, create a third list called In Between to contain these.

Divide & Conquer Again

If you have too many items in a sub-list, you can repeat the process to further refine your priorities.

For instance, repeat the process with just the items in your Higher list, and then again with just the items in your Lower list. You’ll wind up with four lists: High Higher, Low Higher, High Lower and Low Lower.

Keep dividing and conquering until you have a manageable number of items in each list.

If you’re dividing into groups of 3, try using the labels High, Medium, Low for your first round, then High-High, Medium-High, Low-High, High- Medium and so on, for your second round, giving you 9 levels of priorities in total.

Note: Many productivity systems are fractal. You can go through multiple cycles, reapplying the system at each level.

For instance, recently the Anything But Idle podcast discussed how the Urgency-Importance Matrix (aka Eisenhower Matrix or Covey/Merrill Matrix) can be reapplied in each quadrant to create a matrix of 16 categories.

Go through multiple cycles whenever you need smaller chunks to work effectively.