Priority = Importance x Urgency
- P = Priority
- M = Importance
- U = Urgency
- t = Time to do the task
- T = Time left to do the task
Don’t freak out.
The formula may look complicated but it’s actually really easy, trust me. Once you understand it, it will help you prioritize your tasks and manage your time more efficiently than this dog protects its flock.
For example, let’s say that you have two tasks: a very important school project due in 14 days that will take 7 days to finish, and a not so important work project that is due in 7 days but will take 3 days to finish.
Which one should you start working on today?
To find the answer simply “plug and chug” the variables into the formula, and it will give each task a rating between 0.000 and 1 — this is called the task’s Priority (P).
Tasks with the highest priority (closest to 1) should be done first.
Continuing the example, the very important school project has a Priority of 0.495 and the not so important work project has a Priority of 0.129, so you should start the school project first.
But don’t take my word for it, see for yourself! I created a free spreadsheet that makes using the formula easier than falling asleep in math class.
Now, let’s go through it step by step and I’ll tell you exactly how I got those Priority numbers for the tasks:
Note: a version of this formula was originally published in Nature and was designed to assess the emergency situation of climate change.
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M stands for importance.
Importance is the subjective number you give to a task between 0.00 and 1 based on how impactful the task is to your life. The higher the rating the more “important” the task is.
For example, studying for an exam that’s 50% of your final grade sounds pretty important, so you might give it a rating of 0.99 (the highest importance rating.)
Sifting through items at the thrift store hoping to find rare baseball cards, however, isn’t likely to pay off so you’d probably only give it an importance rating of 0.01 (the lowest importance rating.)
Be cautious in your ratings, however, because humans are generally very bad at predicting the complexity of tasks and how long it will take to complete them.
For example, you might initially think that importance ratings go something like this:
- Not important task = 0.1
- Medium important task = 0.5
- Really important task = 0.9
When in reality, the actual ratings are probably closer to:
- Not important task = 0.01
- Medium important task = 0.20
- Really important task = 0.99
So I suggest using a standardized pseudo-exponential sequence to rate the importance of tasks. The rating sequence that I put into the spreadsheet found below looks something like this:
Whether or not you use this sequence specifically is of little importance. The key is that your sequence and your ratings accurately value the importance of different tasks, and stay consistent for each task.
U stands for urgency.
Urgency is a way to measure how close a task’s deadline is.
For example, if a task will take 7 days to complete but is due in 4 weeks, then you obviously have some wiggle room. But if the task is due in 8 days you better get started!
Urgency is calculated by dividing the amount of time it takes to do a task by the amount of time left to do the task.
This part of the formula is typically used in emergency situations by responders to determine how much time they have to take action and whether or not they’ve lost control.
When it comes to prioritizing your tasks, you know you’ve lost control if your urgency is greater than 1:
- 6 days to do the task / 5 days until the task is due = 1.20.
- 6 days to do the task / 12 days until the task is due = 0.50.
Priority And Final Tips
To get the final priority of a task simply multiply the task’s importance by its urgency.
See, wasn’t that easy?!
Now, is this formula utterly life changing?
Yes, no, and maybe.
It will give you a good perspective if you have several large, long-term tasks and you don’t know which one you should start first.
It’s only weakness is the importance variable, which is still a bit too subjective for my liking despite using a pseudo-exponential sequence.
So, here are some final tips to help you get the most out of this formula:
- If a task has a low importance (less than ~0.1) and can be done in less than a day, then just do that task immediately. Examples of tasks like this might include washing the dishes, taking out the trash, organizing your desk, and responding to an email.
- Don’t overthink it. This formula works best as a guide and not strict dogma.
- If you don’t know how much time you have left to do a task then use the same number of days that it will take to complete it. This will give an urgency value of 1, which is the most conservative estimation still under your control and will default the priority value to equal the importance value.
Time Management Formula Spreadsheet
So what are you waiting for? Give it a try for yourself!
Note: hit “File” > “Make a copy”
Related: How To Kill Procrastination Once and For All