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Principles of Prioritization

Updated: Dec 18, 2022

For a project, how do you decide WHAT to do WHEN? We propose that there are two main types of projects: Jigsaw Puzzles and Quests. Learn about what these types are and how to best prioritize the tasks that they involve.

Principles of Prioritization

Part 1: Jigsaw Puzzles

A Jigsaw Puzzle has a finite scope; you know what the steps are, more or less. Each piece of the puzzle has to be included in the project, so the question is just what order to do them in. A good example of a Jigsaw Puzzle Project is completing an essay assignment for school, constructing a bookshelf for your room, or making a meal according to a new recipe. There are two guiding principles for prioritizing steps in Jigsaw Puzzles:

  • The Laziness Principle: which steps make future steps easier? Do those steps first because they reduce the effort of the whole project. With a literal jigsaw puzzle, trying to fill in the middle section too early may just waste time and effort; whereas doing the edges of the puzzle first will make the middle easier. You should focus first on the parts of your project that simplify future parts.

  • The Motivation Principle: right now, work on the hardest parts of the project that you have sufficient energy, motivation, or focus to tackle. That way, life will be easier for future-you, who may have less energy, motivation, or focus left to spare. Be kind to your future self! You'll be glad you did. Putting off hard parts makes the work as a whole more stressful.

Since, with a Jigsaw Puzzle Project, all the parts will have to get done at some point, all you're really deciding on is the order in which you complete the project. It makes sense to choose an order to minimize total effort and stress (while maximizing your effectiveness), which is what the two principles above are about.

Principles of Prioritization - Quests

Part 2: Quests

The other type of projects are Quests. Unlike Jigsaw Puzzles, Quests are open-ended projects, both in how long they will take and in what steps should be completed. Good examples of quests include founding a tech startup, getting fit and healthy, or undertaking a big creative project. How do you prioritize the parts of a Quest?

Step 1: Goal. Figure out what you’re truly trying to achieve in your Quest that is of value. For instance, is the goal of your startup, fundamentally, to make people more productive, to make them happier, to reduce stress, to help them have better relationships, or something else?

For external facing Quests, the highest level goal should be framed in terms of the value you are seeking to deliver to your users (and so is based on a hypothesis about what your users truly find valuable). For internal facing quests (i.e. personal projects), the Quest should be framed in terms of what YOU value.

As you get deeper into a project, you'll eventually have subgoals to your goals and sub-subgoals to your subgoals. But you must always remember the reason you're doing the project in the first place. In other words, you must never stop thinking about the value (for your users in an external project, or for yourself for a personal project) that you are trying to create. Many different pressures can push you away from creating actual value: what's exciting, what's cool or trendy, what's socially rewarded, what your investors want, what a committee can agree on, and so on. It's incredibly common to start veering off course from the value you intend to create, and to spend years working on something that doesn't create value at all! Don't make that mistake: always keep the ultimate value in site, even if you are working on a sub-sub-subgoal, otherwise you'll inevitably start adding bells and whistles to your project that don't produce any value.

Step 2: Options. Brainstorm options for next steps of your Quest. There are many things you could do at any moment to work towards your project. Go wide with considering the options for which task you should work on to reduce the chance of missing really good options. To generate ideas for steps, show your intended audience what you have so far, look at related projects, discuss with friends and experts, run surveys, and so on.

Remember, the choice you make for what to work on is only as good as the best option you considered! On the other hand, don't overwhelm yourself by generating 50 different options that you'll then go crazy trying to choose between. You need to strike a reasonable balance between over and under optimizing the steps for your Quest.

Step 3: Score. Rate each potential option for what to work on by how valuable you think it is (for users, if an external project, to you, if a personal project) and how effortful it would be to implement (in terms of time, energy, cost, etc). The best options to work on are those whose value is highest relative to effort (that is, value divided by effort is maximal). This basic approach of scoring options by both value and effort (or, in some cases, urgency and importance) goes by a lot of different names, including the Priority Matrix or Eisenhower Box. What you'll learn below is a somewhat more sophisticated version of this basic idea.

Step 4: Compare. Group these options based on effort and value. This leads to FOUR types of options, as shown in this diagram:

Principles of Prioritization - effort, time and energy

Type 1: Low Hanging Fruit. These are the low effort, high value actions (upper left of the chart). You should do these first!

As soon as you start to run out of this kind of action, do more brainstorming, do more customer interviews, talk to more experts, analyze more data, etc. to discover more. You should always be searching for low hanging fruit, and as long as you have some available, that's what you should be working on!

Type 2 and 3: Quick Wins and Leaps. While looking for more Low Hanging Fruit it’s good to do a mix of Quick Wins -- low value but low effort tasks, such as minor tweaks & bug fixes -- and Leaps -- high value but high effort, tasks, such as new features. When there is no Low Hanging Fruit (and you haven't yet found more), doing a mix of Quick Wins and Leaps in parallel is usually best. If you only do Quick Wins, you'll get stuck in local optimals that prevent you from taking the project to the next level. If you only do Leaps then you won't have the feeling of making progress, and may end up investing a lot of time in something that ultimately has to be thrown away, leading to a substantial period of no project momentum.

For Leaps, you have to be really confident in their value before undertaking them since they burn up a lot of time/energy. Customer interviews, surveys, expert feedback, quick prototypes, data analysis of existing use, and playing devil's advocate on your own assumptions can reduce the chance of wasteful leaps. Gathering more information is often critical before deciding to take a Leap. Meanwhile, Quick Wins and Low Hanging Fruit don’t require as much confidence as Leaps because they are lower effort.

One other thing to keep in mind about Quick Wins, is that as time passes, it can become increasingly costly to not take care of them. For instance, what is now a minor issue with your database system can grow into major data corruption, or some dampness in the house you're building can grow into pervasive mold. We'll call these "Smoldering Quick Wins." Those should be prioritized above Leaps and other Quick Wins, because now they are easy, but soon they could represent a substantial problem.

Type 4: Traps. The 4th type of tasks are Traps - the high effort, low value ones. Avoid these! They are a waste of time. Try to be clear-eyed when evaluating tasks; there is always a risk of getting sucked into traps, for example, because a very small but very vocal group of users wants certain functionality, or by not calculating in advance how much effort certain tasks will take. You will also likely encounter situations where you just feel motivated or excited to work on a Trap for some reason. Resist this temptation!

So, how to prioritize more effectively? For Jigsaw Puzzles, remember to:

  • Decide the order in which you complete the project by minimizing effort and stress while maximizing effectiveness

For Quests, remember to:

  • Get clear on the value you are trying to create with your project, and always keep it in sight

  • Generate a bunch of options for what you could do next

  • Score options based on value produced and effort/cost

  • Bucket your options into the four types: Low Hanging Fruit (high value, low effort), Quick Wins (low value, low effort), Leaps (high value, high effort), and Traps (low value, high effort)

  • Do the Low Hanging Fruit first, and as soon as you start to run out of it, start seeking more by getting feedback, talking to experts, brainstorming, etc.

  • Then do a mix of Quick Wins and Leaps. But remember that leaps require confidence to proceed with, so it is usually wise to gather information before moving forward with them.

  • Be on the lookout for Smoldering Quick Wins that are now easy to take care of, but which could turn into bad situations if not dealt with. Do these before Leaps and other Quick Wins!

  • Avoid Traps!

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