Mental Models for Prioritization

A breakdown of mental models for prioritization to maximize productivity.
May 25, 2021
min read

Prioritization is essential for attaining any goal you want to achieve in life.

Particularly in the startup world, prioritization can be the difference between producing as a high level and burning out due to overwork.

In this blog post, I’ll break down mental models for prioritization, from its foundations all the way down to execution.

Keys to Prioritization

Prioritization is the mental model behind “getting the right things done”. It’s NOT how to get the most amount of things possible. 

Why? Because our time is limited. Everyone has 24 hours in a day. We’re never going to accomplish every single thing on our ever growing to do list.

As a result, it’s crucial to make sure that we focus our attention on the highest priority tasks each day. That way, as long as we finish that small list of tasks, we’ll make meaningful progress towards our goals and build momentum over time. 

How do you decide what to focus on? Here are three mental models I use to prioritize what work to accomplish first:

1. The North Star

Your North Star is the overarching principle that guides each and every one of your decisions. For a company, your North Star is your mission. It includes questions like: ”Why are you actually building this?” or “What is the type of impact you’re trying to make on the world?”

You can actually break this down into an equation or statement. This could be a symbol of value that your users are getting out of your product (e.g. conversations between users on a messaging product) or an ambitious mission (e.g. Steve Jobs wanted to put a Mac on every person's desk)

Then for every decision you make, you gut check it through that lens. You can do this by pausing and perform this simple check:

Does this action get this closer to our north star or not?
If so -> do it
If not -> cut it

2. The Golden Circle

Once you’ve established a north star, the next step is understanding what type of work you need to accomplish. A helpful framework for this is the Golden Circle by Simon Sinek.

The Golden Circle by Simon Sinek

Simon, a successful author and public speaker, used the model to map out how great leaders inspire action in their teams by defining a clear “why” to serve as the anchor for making decisions and communication to your team.

To implement the model for prioritization, I mapped each ring to a type of work: 

Why: Strategy

Your "Why" defines your strategy — your north star for a company, project or campaign. 

Key Questions: “What is your company/team/project trying to achieve? What are your goals? How are you measuring success?”

How: Processes

Your "How" defines processes — lists of repeatable steps required to achieve the KPIs (key performance indicators) outlined in your strategy. 

Key Question: “What are the things that need to happen in order to make that strategy function?”

What: Execution

Finally, your “What” defines execution — the day to day tasks that need to be performed to make the machine run. Think writing marketing copy, shipping code or conducting sales calls at a tech company.

Key Question: “When can we have each task done so we can complete the process in a given timeframe?” 

When prioritizing work, first categorize the type of work you need to accomplish using the model. Often, refining your strategy or improving a process will actually make execution work easier or completely unnecessary.

So categorize first, then work through your tasks from highest to lowest priority, always starting with your “why”.

3. Know Thy Time

The final step to prioritization is tracking your time. It’s impossible to prioritize and execute effectively without knowing the amount of time you spend on each category of work.

The Effective Executive by Peter F. Drucker stresses the importance of tracking your time as it allows you to only work on areas where you're uniquely qualified.

To put this into practice each week, keep a goal sheet that tracks your time spent on different tasks (I use Google Calendar to do this by blocking each task I need to accomplish) . 

Then schedule a time at the end of each week to review your calendar and ask yourself:

  1. What types of work did I complete this week?
  2. What things am I uniquely qualified for? Can someone else be doing this?
  3. What things can I delegate to someone else?

The interesting thing about prioritization is that the nature of your work and your resulting priorities may change as your company scales. For example, you may start out as a growth marketer, where 60% of your work is spent writing copy for marketing campaigns. 

At the beginning, you may be the most qualified person in the company to perform this task. But once the company grows to 100 people, you could say — “hey we could actually get a copywriter to do this instead.” And then spend more time on strategy, or building processes for specific channels.

As a result, knowing what NOT to spend your time on is equally if not more important than knowing what to spend your time on.

Next Steps

To recap, prioritization is one of the most important skills to develop to consistently operate at a high level. While using frameworks like the North Star, the Golden Circle and a time tracking sheet can be helpful, it all comes down to being ruthless about the only asset you can never get back — your time.


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