Ever had one of those days? You’ve got so much to do:

  • A to-do list a mile long.
  • An inbox stuffed with emails you haven’t read.
  • Voicemails you haven’t listened to yet.
  • And a nagging feeling that you’re forgetting something …

Yeah, me too.

But not as often as I used. These days I’m pretty organized.

My calendar is current. Tasks and commitments are organized by project and deadline, in an online project management system (currently Flow). My goals are written down. And each day I look at everything I could do and decide on the handful of tasks that are most important.

That daily decision is the most critical thing I do to stay productive and effective. So how do you decide what’s most important and valuable? How do you decide what to do today and what you could do another day?

I run a marketing and copywriting consultancy, so here’s what my daily quandary often looks like:

  • Do I start working early on that client project, which I know will bring in income once I complete it, but isn’t due for another two weeks?
  • Do I reach out to that potential high-value prospect I’ve been courting for three months? She’s been responsive, but I haven’t gotten work out of her yet? Is it time to follow-up?
  • Do I write a blog post or send an email newsletter to my list of clients and prospects, hoping someone will have a need and I’ll show up in their inbox just as she or he is wondering how to get a project done?

None of those questions are easy. All of them come with unknowns, and the potential for big returns, or no returns at all.

But there are ways to evaluate them and make decisions. My No. 1 tool for that is a simple chart that can be applied to any goal or priority in your life.

Use this to prioritize your potential tasks.

On the vertical axis you’ve got value. You might measure this in a very concrete way (potential revenue for your company) or in a more abstract way (how happy something will make you).

On the horizontal axis you’ve got effort. How much time, energy or money does a particular activity require?

Prioritizing becomes a lot simpler:

  1. First do tasks that require low effort but have high value. If your goal is to be healthier, maybe this means buying apples instead of cookies during your weekly grocery run.
  2. Second, do tasks that require more effort, but still have a high value. If you’re growing a business through networking and referrals, this might mean investing time in a new professional group in a different city.
  3. Third (if you even get to these) are low-value tasks that require little effort. Training for a marathon? Buying a fancy moisture-wicking t-shirts while you’re at Target is not going to make a huge difference, but it’s also just a few bucks and a few extra minutes.
  4. Fourth are low-value tasks that require a lot of effort. Avoid these. They will actually hurt you by sucking time, energy and money away from more important things.

So, the next time you’re pondering what to do and wondering what’s the best way to use your time and energy, rank your choices 1 through 4 and start with the ones.