The Burner Method for prioritizing tasks

Rank order projects to maximize effectiveness

As a small business owner, you need to delegate tasks and manage time efficiently. But how can you effectively prioritize without losing track of the big picture? Here’s something to try: the Burner Method. 

Popularized by bestselling author Jake Knapp, who recommends using a single sheet of paper to plot your priorities, the method can be adapted to project management software with the use of color-coding or key words. 

Here's the recipe

Divide your tasks into the following categories:

  • Front burner: These are your team’s top priorities because they have looming deadlines within the next one to two weeks. While Knapp recommends just one project here, adjust as needed to accommodate your team. 
  • Back burner: Some tasks don’t need to be completed for three to four weeks. But while these projects are simmering, they may require some attention before they move to the front of the stove. 
  • Kitchen sink: These are tasks that don’t take top priority. Placing most of your work here allows you to focus on what’s really cooking. Just keep in mind that the dishes will eventually pile up if you don’t tend to them.  
  • Instant cooker: While not part of Knapp’s original method, the instant-cooker category is useful when your team must temporarily pivot to a hot project — such as a lucrative, last-minute request from a valued client. Typically, these tasks must be completed within 24 to 48 hours. 

The bottom line

As employees embrace the Burner Method, its vernacular should become secondhand to the team, simplifying communications. And when they’re presented with a pressure-cooker project, team members may feel more empowered to ask if it’s OK to turn down the heat on the front burner, at least until the urgent assignment is complete.   

What one expert says

“The Burner Method has been out there a while and is excellent — keeps you focused on what is important or on the front burner. Straightforward, easy to grasp and it yields results,” said Charles H. Matthews, Distinguished Teaching Professor of Entrepreneurship and Strategy in the Carl H. Lindner College of Business. 

“Of course, like any shorthand, there are always issues that crop up. For example, all those back burner items simmering can pile up along with those piling up in the kitchen sink, which can be overwhelming at times,” he added. “It is still a good method, especially when combined with the FAT system for staying uncluttered: File it, Act on it, or Throw it away.”

More help for small businesses

The University of Cincinnati provides several programs for startups and small businesses. Offerings include a pre-accelerator program through the UC Venture Lab, prototyping and fabrication equipment in the UC Ground Floor Makerspace and consulting services from the UC Center for Entrepreneurship.

Featured image at top: Adapted from a photo by Kelly Sikkema for Unsplash. 

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