How to Prioritize Things

Prioritization is a difficult problem because it involves more than one factor. If only one dimension is important, prioritization is easy: since prioritization is an ordering of things, all we need to do is come up with a consistent (transitive, i.e. if A is “more” than B and B is “more” than C then A will always be “more” than C) ordering of items based on that one factor. For example, if we want to prioritize solely based on how much we want to do something, we’ll do a good job coming up with the order (do it the way we sort a hand of cards — for each item, figure out which of the items already prioritized it’s “more” than and which one it’s “less” than).

The reality is that prioritization involves multiple dimensions: how much we want to do something (both in the short term–instant gratification–and the long term), how long it’s going to take, how hard it’s going to be, how tedious it is to do (which is different from the other three!), etc. We can no longer come up with orderings because we don’t really understand how the different dimensions relate to one another. Which do I want to do first: something that takes a long time but is enjoyable, or something that’s hard but gives me something in the long term (and, of course, the degree to which these factors are at play is also important).

I’ve witnessed many people try to come up with frameworks to handle this problem. We’ve all done it: one-to-ten grades, complex formulae that look like weighed averages (although nobody wants to admit that that’s what they are), forced rankings, baffling heuristics… I’ve tried and failed many times. At the end of the day I feel like something is not quite right.

And this led me to a solution which I’ve been trying out for the past two weeks, with great success. I started prioritizing things based solely on one factor (which is easy), namely based on how anxious not doing them makes me. I think I’m “spawning” a new principle that seems a good one to follow in my life: leading an anxiety-free life (perhaps that’s what happiness is, after all).

I have a short list of problems that I want to tackle in my life. I reorganize this list based on how anxious I feel about each of these problems. All tasks that I have to do that derive from these problems are therefore much easier to prioritize. While this model is much more simplified (it ignores a lot of the factors I mention above), I’ve found it to be (a) very satisfying, and (b) fairly robust (i.e. I can still shuffle some of the tasks around and by and large I feel good about the results). Perhaps this capacity of something to reduce one’s anxiety is a good natural heuristic that combines these factors. Perhaps it works because it addresses a deep feeling, a kind of fundamental utility. Either way, it works like a charm.