How to Prioritize, Military-Style (Part I)

Alyssa Gregory

militaryOne area that I have always struggled with is visual prioritization. In fact, I really don’t have an effective system of prioritization when it comes to my task list. If you took a peek, you would see about 75% of my tasks marked “showstopper” priority, and the rest marked “major” (these are two of four levels that are defaults within my project management system).

There is nothing on my list with a low priority. We all know that is a bunch of bunk, especially when you consider that I use my task list for everything from work to-do’s, to volunteer tasks, to family reminders. If my task list priorities were accurate, then sending client invoices would have the same importance as cutting my son’s fingernails. Hmmm, not quite.

Mentally, I have a good handle on my priorities, hence the reason I’m able to remain (relatively) sane. But visually, I have a mess on my hands that tends to stress me out. So one of my goals as part of my business spring cleaning this month is to rework the prioritization process for my task list.

Let’s Make an Example Out of Me

Prioritization is a very personal process, and it can change at any time as your goals, situation and responsibilities change. But for the sake of argument, we’re going to use my task list as an example and apply a military-based system to see if it can help me reorganize my visual priorities.

My goal is to create a prioritization system that is realistic to what my true priorities are and reflects what I know to be most important. Hopefully, it will help me become more productive and less stressed every time I look at my to-do list.

The CARVER Matrix Explained

The CARVER Matrix is a system that was developed by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War to assess specific threats. The goal of the CARVER Matrix is to determine what assets should be applied to neutralize a threat, using as few resources as necessary to do it.

The acronym, CARVER, stands for Criticality, Accessibility, Recuperability, Vulnerability, Effect and Recognizability. You can see the complete military explanation of each of these factors here.

As a threat is assessed, each CARVER factor is assigned a number that represents the desirability of attacking the target. After all targets are placed in the matrix and the cumulative values are assessed against other independent criteria, the target with the largest number is identified as the highest value target, making it the most advantageous to focus on.

See this post on Giajinass for more on the CARVER Matrix and how it can be used as a tactical assessment tool. (Giajinass is also credited with inspiring me to see how I can use CARVER to improve my prioritization system.)


While I am not aiming to defuse damaging threats (well, sometimes I guess that does apply!), I can still use the CARVER matrix to help me assess and then visually assign the real priorities. My next post will take a handful of my current tasks, apply the CARVER Matrix factors with revised and more applicable definitions, then move each task back into my project management system with a new visual priority.

Is prioritization a challenge for you, too? How do you manage it?

Image credit: John-p