Time Management & Prioritisation: If It Doesn’t Hurt You’re Just Making A List!

by Ben Richardson
4th August 2020    
Lady writing a list on a whiteboard

Listmaking, as opposed to genuine prioritisation, is a common trap that people fall into when working on their time management.

If you are listmaking you’ll continue to be overwhelmed with demands on your time, albeit just in a more controlled fashion!

If you are prioritising, then you will see a genuine improvement with more time to think deeply and focus your time and energy on your most important goals.

Let’s take a look at how to distinguish between the two, and how to avoid the trap of listmaking rather than true prioritisation. Getting this right will take you a long way towards truly effective time management and is a big part of what we teach on our courses about managing your time.

List-making VS Prioritisation

The difference between list-making and prioritisation is one small but crucial step.

Listmaking is really a symptom of someone who lacks real motivation to make the difficult decisions that prioritisation requires.

The process for prioritisation, put simply is as below:

  1. Gather a list of all of your current projects.
  2. Review the list of impact and inputs (time, money etc)
  3. Order the list by impact and / or return.
  4. Understand how much of that list you can effectively deliver on with the time and energy that you have available.
  5. Delegate / Ditch / Delay those projects that you can’t deliver on effectively which offer the lowest return for your effort.

People who make lists only complete the first 4 steps on this list. They skip the most difficult and most valuable part of the process which is the refocusing of their time on their highest impact tasks by taking some lower impact projects off their list.

People who don’t have good control of their time often start these processes stressed. They know that they have multiple projects which they’re unlikely to deliver on time and feel out of control.

They find the process of getting their commitments clearly laid out and prioritised is a very good way to reduce their stress levels. Having done that they now feel back in control of their workload.

At this point, the planning fallacy (humans’ natural tendency to under-estimate how long something will take) combined with their reduction in stress often kicks in to make them feel relaxed in a way that they haven’t for a long time. They now feel that they now don’t need to remove some items from their list as they feel relaxed about their work load. This is not the same as having a clear plan to focus their time on their most important tasks. For more on this see the section on hyperbolic discounting in our post Time Management: Managing Meetings.

Sadly they have done most of the work but will get almost none of the return.

Producing a list that ranks projects by their impact is just the preparatory work. They now need to deal with the lowest return projects effectively.

If you don’t deal with the low return projects all your effort is for nothing. You’ll be back in the same place, namely feeling out of control and stretched too thin, again before long. You’ll never find a long term fix to your time management issues.

Given the feeling of relaxation that a proper prioritisation exercise can bring it’s the equivalent of planning a holiday but never actually taking it!

Avoiding The List-making Trap

Prioritisation is uncomfortable. If it wasn’t everyone would do it automatically.

So before you start on this process you need to accept that you will need to make some uncomfortable decisions and trust that doing so will be worth it. You also need to build up your enthusiasm for sticking with the process through the more difficult times.

The best way we know of making sure people follow through with the whole process is:

1. Think clearly about how your poor time management is impacting your life currently.

How does it impact your most important relationships? How does it impact your health? How does it impact your performance at work?

It is really important to understand clearly what the current cost to you of not getting this right is. This makes it clear why you need to do something and what the true reality of your current situation is.

2. Think clearly about how your life will improve once you have proper control of your time.

How will your performance at work improve? How will your improved focus and energy manifest itself in your performance? How much more will you enjoy your time with family and friends? What new hobbies will you be able to take up?

This is the other half of the equation. In the previous step, we got clear on why you need to make change and what you need to leave behind.

This is building a clear picture of something that you can enthusiastically move towards. Something to motivate you and develop your enthusiasm for developing a time management practice.

3. Clearly understand the process, that it is an ongoing process and COMMIT to it.

Time management and prioritisation are not ‘one and done’ processes. They are ongoing.

Think of them like cleaning your teeth. You brush your teeth every day without thinking about it. Prioritising your workload is an ongoing practice and, to do it properly, you need to complete all five steps regularly. Again, you wouldn’t only clean half of your teeth, would you?

If you are new to prioritisation and think that step 5 will be difficult, take heart you are not alone! Accept that you are learning a new skill and building a new habit, start small and commit to it.

Perhaps start by just delegating one thing knowing that you will build up over time.  As you start to see the benefits that it brings to your time management you will naturally want to do more of it.

The most important thing is that you commit to it and stick with it. Understand that it is an everyday habit that you are going to incorporate into your life.


Learning to prioritise properly isn’t straightforward or easy. It is something that most people find an ongoing challenge. However, it is integral to delivering high performance and so a skill that you need to commit time and energy if that is your goal.