How to Prioritize

May 22nd, 2007 by Steve Pavlina

Virtually every time management system teaches that you must prioritize your projects to make sure you’re working on what’s truly important instead of getting caught up in minor things.  However, few systems explain precisely how to do this.  How do you decide which task is really the most important at any given time?  Is it the one that’s most urgent, the one that will earn you the most money, the one that will produce the greatest long-term happiness, the one that will please your boss the most? If you don’t use an intelligent method of prioritization, you’ll lack consistency and bounce from one task to another with no rhyme or reason.

In this article I’ll share with you a simple and effective prioritization method adapted from the military.

From a pure military (i.e. non-political) standpoint, the goal of any engagement is to achieve victory by inflicting the greatest damage on your enemy with the least amount of resources.  Wouldn’t you say this is the essence of personal time management as well?  You want to make the greatest amount of progress towards your goals with the least amount of effort.

Objective

For prioritization to have any meaning, it’s imperative that you have a clear objective.  For the military your overall objective may be to achieve a decisive victory.  Your personal objective may be a set of goals, your mission statement or purpose, or even a state of being.  The role of prioritization then is to help you achieve this result with as little effort as possible.

Resources

The second consideration is the resources you have available.  Military resources include troops, guns, tanks, bombs, planes, fuel, supplies, etc.  Your personal resources include time, money, your social network, your physical energy, and so on.  Time is generally your scarcest resource because it cannot be replenished.

Prioritization

In order to prioritize intelligently, we need a method that tells us how to evaluate projects in terms of their overall importance.  Which projects will help us achieve our objectives most efficiently?

CARVER

A key component of military strategy is selecting the most important targets to attack.  But how do you know which targets are the most important?  Centuries of warfare have provided us with a reasonably intelligent answer.

CARVER is an acronym for a military method of target selection.  CARVER stands for Criticality, Accessibility, Return (or Recuperability), Vulnerability, Effect, and Recognizability.  I’ll explain what these are in a moment.

For every potential target, we assign a value of 1 (lowest) to 5 (highest) for each CARVER factor, thereby creating a CARVER matrix.  Then by summing the six CARVER values, we can calculate a total score for each target, and those scores represent the targets’ relative prioritization.  The higher the CARVER score, the more “important” a target becomes.

Now lets explore the six CARVER factors, and consider how we can apply them to personal projects.

Criticality.  How critical is the target with respect to the main objective?  Will it move you significantly closer to your goal, or is it a relatively puny and insignificant item?  A low criticality project might be cleaning out your garage.  It would be nice to do, but it’s probably not going to make that much difference in your life.

Accessibility.  Can you actually reach the target, or is it so well defended that attacking it directly is impossible?  Do you have the means to tackle this project immediately, or does it have prerequisites?  Starting a new business might not be very accessible if you work long hours and are living paycheck to paycheck, but asking for a promotion may be very accessible.

Return.  In military operations the term Recuperability is used here, referring to how quickly the enemy can recover from the destruction of the target.  There’s little point in attacking a target that can be rebuilt or replaced with minimal effort.  For personal effectiveness we’ll use Return instead.  How great is the expected return on your commitment of resources?  Developing a new passive income stream may yield a significant return, while watching the news may yield virtually none.

Vulnerability.  How vulnerable is the target?  What amount of resources will be required to take it out?  How vulnerable are the projects you’re considering?  A one-day project will score a high vulnerability rating, while a six-month project will score much lower.  Similarly, an inexpensive project is more vulnerable than an expensive one.

Effect.  If you successfully destroy the target, how widespread will the impact be?  If you successfully complete your project, what effect will it have on your life as well as the lives of others?  Writing a best-selling book may have a significant effect, while completing your tax return will have very little effect.

Recognizability.  Can we see the target well enough to attack it, or is it highly camouflaged or mobile?  Is your project crystal clear or totally fuzzy?  How easy is it to recognize the steps necessary to complete the project?  Have you completed this type of project before, or will you have to figure out the steps as you go along?  Clear goals with clear steps will score higher on recognizability than foggy goals with unclear steps.

Now let’s see how we can create a CARVER matrix to prioritize certain projects.  The 1-5 rankings for each factor are simply for the sake of example, so your own rankings may vary.  Keep in mind that these rankings are all relative to your primary objective, mission, or purpose.

  Criticality Accessibility Return Vulnerability Effect Recognizability Total
Write a book 5 3 3 1 5 3 20
Start a blog 2 5 2 5 4 4 22
Run a marathon 2 4 3 1 4 5 19
Make new friends 4 2 5 3 3 1 18

 

The numbers tell the story.  According to our CARVER matrix, the most important project to tackle next is to start a blog.  While it’s among the least critical items and won’t necessarily produce a great return for the time invested, it’s relatively easy and straightforward to do.  Next comes writing a book, which is a more critical long-term project (at least for our arbitrary person making these evaluations), but it will also require a lot more effort to achieve.  The worst project is making new friends, its main drawbacks being that it’s too fuzzy and ill-defined, so it might be wise to replace that one with a more specific project.

Even though we’re just using simple addition instead of a more complex weighting of these factors, CARVER does a fairly decent job of spitting out an intelligent prioritization of projects.  It’s really good at depicting which projects are worth the effort and which aren’t.  It also shows when you should tackle a piece of low-hanging fruit vs. initiating a really big project.

I used CARVER often when running my computer games business.  For example, my CARVER matrix suggested it would be wise to release an add-on for my top selling product instead of creating a whole new game from scratch.  Although the add-on wasn’t going to sell as well as a new game, it was a fairly straightforward two-week project that produced solid results.

Feel free to adapt the basic concept of CARVER to your specific needs.  You can assign extra weight to certain factors as well as introduce additional factors like enjoyment or financial payoff.  Just be careful not to get carried away.  The point of CARVER is to select a reasonably intelligent project and then get into action.  Don’t lose yourself in hours of analysis paralysis.

For group decisions you can even have each team member create their own CARVER matrix and then average the results.  You’ll quickly discover whether the team leader and team members are on the same page.

By using a simple system like CARVER, you’ll know which projects are important enough to deserve your attention and which are, relatively speaking, a waste of your time and energy.  You’ll benefit from greater consistency in decision-making and better results for your efforts.


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