Priority matrix: How to identify what matters and get more done

Team Asana contributor imageTeam AsanaMay 5th, 20225 min read
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Summary

A priority matrix sorts tasks or projects by a defined set of variables, like urgency and effort. With this tool, team members can quickly determine what to tackle first. In this piece, we’ll discuss various types of priority matrices and explain how you can use them to accomplish more at work.

Project managers must have many skills to keep teams and projects on track. With so many moving parts, one of the hardest tasks is knowing what to tackle first. If a team member has two clients with high-priority projects, how can you help them prioritize and remain successful?

A priority matrix can help you sort your to-do list by things like urgency, importance, or impact. In this piece, we’ll discuss various types of priority matrices and explain how you can use them to accomplish more at work.

What is a priority matrix?

A priority matrix—also known as a prioritization matrix—sorts tasks or projects by a defined set of variables. Priority matrices can be simple or complex and may include anywhere from four quadrants to 20 rows or columns. 

Complex priority matrices are more precise because they offer more columns and rows to pinpoint exactly which task matters the most. The downside of complex priority matrices is that they may make prioritization slightly more difficult. The goal of mapping your tasks in a priority matrix is to walk away with a clear action plan.

[inline illustration] Simple and complex priority matrices (example)

In a four-quadrant priority matrix, your task may fall into four categories. For example, your quadrants may be:

  • High impact and high effort

  • High impact and low effort

  • Low impact and high effort

  • Low impact and low effort

By mapping your tasks along a priority matrix, you can determine how and when to tackle each to-do.

Manage and prioritize tasks with Asana

Priority matrix vs. Eisenhower matrix

Some people use these terms interchangeably, but a priority matrix is a broader framework that’s more versatile than the Eisenhower matrix model. The Eisenhower matrix is a simple priority matrix that has a time management focus. It maps tasks along a grid based on their urgency and importance.

When using the Eisenhower priority matrix, you’ll sort tasks by:

  • Do

  • Schedule

  • Delegate

  • Delete

In an action-centered priority matrix, you’ll sort tasks by:

  • Investigate

  • Proceed

  • Avoid

  • Consider

When to use a priority matrix

Priority matrices are helpful when you need a quick solution to sort through and prioritize important initiatives. A priority matrix won’t help you solve complex calculations or actually make data-driven decisions, but it will help you create a map to get things done.

Bring out the priority matrix when you need to:

  • Prioritize tasks or projects 

  • Manage your time

  • Get your team on the same page

The priority matrix can be helpful when mapping out work schedules or workflows. It can also aid in conflict resolution, as it’s sometimes hard for teams to decide which projects or tasks to work on first.

How to use a priority matrix

The priority matrix is a versatile tool, and you can use it in various situations. Whether you’re sorting through your own tasks or managing team projects, the steps below will set you up for success.

5 steps to use a priority matrix

1. Create a to-do list

The first thing you’ll need to do when using a priority matrix is make a list of things needing prioritization. This may seem like an obvious step, but many people don’t take the time to define their to-do list. By writing down the important tasks you have in front of you, you’ll have an easier time sorting through them and mapping them out. 

Your to-do list can include:

  • Tasks

  • Projects

  • Team meetings

  • Client calls

  • Trainings

  • Personal chores

You can create separate lists for internal and external work obligations (for example team-facing only and client-facing). You can also keep personal and professional items separate. However, it may be helpful to see how all your to-dos mesh together.

2. Identify your variables

Once you know the scope of your to-do list, determine the variables to measure your items by. To identify these variables, ask yourself: What qualities would a task need to be at the top of my to-do list?

Your answers may be:

  • It’s important

  • It has a lot of impact

  • It requires a lot of time

  • It requires a lot of effort

  • The deadline is approaching

Then, choose two of these qualities to measure your tasks. For example, you may decide that deadlines (in other words, urgency) and effort are the variables that apply to most of your projects.

3. Create your matrix

Before creating your priority matrix, decide whether you want it to be simple or complex. Both matrices will measure your tasks by the two variables you’ve chosen, but a complex matrix can help you get more precise about how urgent your tasks are and how much effort they take to complete.

If you choose a complex priority matrix, you may have five columns and five rows versus the standard one quadrant system of a simple matrix. Give your columns and rows labels so you know where to place your tasks according to their level. For example, you can assign levels of urgency and effort from high to low:

Urgency:

  • Required (5)

  • Significant (4)

  • Moderate (3)

  • Minor (2)

  • Low (1)

Effort:

  • Very High (5)

  • High (4)

  • Medium (3)

  • Low (2)

  • Very Low (1)

[inline illustration] Priority matrix blank (example)

It’s also helpful to assign numerical values to each variable level. That way, you can multiply the corresponding numbers to find your task’s priority level in the grid. Once each of your tasks has a number, you can rank your tasks accordingly. For example, a task that is “required” urgency and “medium” effort would have a priority level of 15.

4. Place tasks in the matrix

Placing tasks in the priority matrix will involve some subjective decision making. Because this tool is a quick solution for getting things done, you’ll need to rely on experience and background knowledge as judgment. Place tasks in their appropriate order along the matrix according to the variables you have selected.

If you have two projects that seem tied in terms of urgency or high effort, dive deeper until you find a reason to prioritize one over the other. This is where other variables may come into play. For example, both tasks may be urgent, but one task may take priority over the other if it’s both urgent and more impactful than the other. 

5. Create an action plan

Once you’ve placed all of your tasks in your priority matrix, you should be able to visualize things more clearly. The matrix will show you what tasks to accomplish first and which tasks you have more time to complete. While this is a good starting point, the best way to expand on your priority matrix is to create an action plan

An action plan does more than show you which tasks to complete first—it helps you outline exactly how you’ll accomplish your goals. To create an action plan using the tasks from your priority matrix, you’ll:

  1. Set SMART goals

  2. Allocate resources

  3. Create deadlines and milestones

  4. Monitor and revise your plan as needed

Use task management software to streamline your action plan in a central source of truth. That way, you can communicate and track items with your team.

Read: 4 tips to create the best weekly work plan

Priority matrix example

We showed a comparison above between a simple and complex priority matrix. Here’s an example of a complex priority matrix using urgency and effort as two variables of measurement. Numerical values and colors are included to make the tasks easy to sort through.

The original to-do list for this matrix may have looked like this:

  • Plan team workshop

  • Finish budget proposal for Client A

  • Onboard new hire

  • Send performance reviews to the department head

  • Write an ebook for company website

  • Edit whitepaper for Client B

  • Sign new hire documents

[inline illustration] Priority matrix filled in (example)

A prioritized version of the to-do list would look like this:

  • Finish budget proposal for Client A (20)

  • Onboard new hire (15)

  • Write ebook for company website (15)

  • Edit whitepaper for Client B (12)

  • Send performance reviews to the department head (10)

  • Sign new hire documents (8)

  • Plan team workshop (6)

Onboarding a new hire and writing an ebook for the company website both have a priority level of 15. Onboarding a new hire would ultimately come first in the to-do list because it’s more urgent than writing the ebook. Urgency is often the most important variable in the priority matrix.

Pair your priority matrix with a task management tool

Using the priority matrix to sort through your tasks is an important step, but only the first one. Now that you know what to do first, it’s time to get to work. When you pair your priority matrix with a task management tool, you’ll feel supported through your workflow from start to finish. Aside from mastering project prioritization, Asana lets you track tasks, delegate subtasks, and set deadlines to make sure projects get done on time.

Manage and prioritize tasks with Asana

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