“I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.”― Dwight D. Eisenhower


A combat deployment is a uniquely exhausting experience. After returning from a third trip to Iraq in 2012, I was ready to take a knee and catch my breath. Long days, short nights, and a nagging shortage in key personnel had taken their toll. My boss, unfortunately, had other ideas. “How would you like to be my G-3?”

No job was further from my mind. A G-3 – the operations officer in a senior headquarters – is sort of like a cat herder. You never have enough people to do your job, you’re surrounded by chaos, and everything is a priority all of the time. In our case, this was compounded by the fact that my higher headquarters counterpart had ten people for every one of mine and a commanding general who didn’t set priorities. But, I knew, respected, and trusted the people who would form my staff and was confident that, together, we would make for a solid team.

Prioritizing in a World That Lacked Priorities

I knew from the first day that finding ways to prioritize in a world that lacked priorities would be a challenge. In a strange way, I was thankful I’d spent most of the previous year working with a country team whose sense of priority was as unpredictable as an Iraqi dust storm. That had forced me to develop some tools and habits – survival techniques for working in a priority-less system. Those tools and habits proved vital in providing my own team with a buffer from the chaos, while at the same time ensuring we made steady progress toward what we believed were our top priorities.

1. Make a list.

As a natural “to-do list” person, this is the logical point where any effort at prioritization begins. Call it a “master task list” and break it down by deadlines – what’s due to whom when – on a monthly, weekly, and even daily basis. Then, transcribe everything onto a shared calendar so everyone can visualize the task(s) at hand. It’s a lot of work. It can be overwhelming, even. But it’s the first necessary step toward gaining control over the tasks that might otherwise control

2. Separate what’s hot from what’s not.

My tool of choice for this is the Eisenhower Matrix, a simple four-quadrant system that helps to map out (and separate) urgency among a list of tasks. The Eisenhower Matrix not only helps you to prioritize, it’s a vital tool for determining which of your tasks are truly important and which are just distractions. It’s worth noting, however, that there will be times that those distractions will be prioritized for you. Almost always on a Friday, and usually after everyone else has left for the weekend.

3. Create to-do lists.

I keep three kinds of to-do lists handy: daily, weekly, and long-term. When starting the day, I have a set path that drives where and how I prioritize effort, which puts me in a far better position to manage the “drop dead” tasks that came seemingly from nowhere and become immediately urgent. By making effective use of those to-do lists, I have more flexibility to act early on long-term tasks and delegate more efficiently. As a G-3, those lists helped me to empower my team without losing sight of what was important (and what wasn’t).

4. Focus your productive time.

I’m a morning person – 30 years of getting up and out too early will do that to you. As a result, I prioritize my most important work during the morning hours when I am most productive. Map out your productivity curve and focus your energy and motivation where and when it makes the most difference. You’ll notice an immediate difference in your personal productivity, and if you teach your team to do the same thing, they’ll respond accordingly.

5. Avoid the sunk cost fallacy.

The sunk cost fallacy is a cognitive bias that undercuts progress in many priority tasks. Because we’ve committed so much time and effort to a task, we feel compelled to “power through” when the results just aren’t coming. Instead, it’s important to revisit your thinking and prioritization. You won’t get that lost time back, but you might spare yourself from losing any more.

Systems Help Identify What Is A PRiority

Working in an environment where everything – and nothing – is a priority is never going to be easy. But having a system will allow you to optimize the efforts of your team and finish each day with a sense of accomplishment. None of that, of course, will save you from those dreaded Friday night taskers, but it will make those a little less catastrophic to your overall productivity.

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Steve Leonard is a former senior military strategist and the creative force behind the defense microblog, Doctrine Man!!. A career writer and speaker with a passion for developing and mentoring the next generation of thought leaders, he is a co-founder and emeritus board member of the Military Writers Guild; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options; a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal; a member of the editorial advisory panel of Military Strategy Magazine; and an emeritus senior fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point. He is the author, co-author, or editor of several books and is a prolific military cartoonist.