Do you prioritize top-down or bottom-up?

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April 16, 2021

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When it comes to setting priorities, there are two ways of arriving to them:

  • Top-down prioritization: In a blank page we define what is most important over this specific period of time and from this big picture, we break down the tasks of what we’re going to do every week.
  • Bottom-up prioritization: We unburden everything that’s on our minds by putting it on paper and, out of this list, we prioritize what is important over this specific period of time.

Each one of us has a preference for one of these approaches. Signs that you prefer top-down thinking is that you have multiple to-do lists that go into oblivion. You feel perfectly comfortable with moving on without reconciling the lists because your eyes are on the big picture. On the other hand, if you are able and willing to describe your to-do list process (because you have one!) you prefer bottom-up thinking. You take care of your list by adding, reconciling, archiving. 

While we may have a preference, neither one of these approaches works well on its own. Folks with a preference for top-down thinking run the risk of being too abstract, not building enough direction. For example, someone who puts a revenue target for the quarter. That’s a clear goal for the quarter, but it says little about the strategy to get there. We know we have something too abstract when the goal stays similar quarter after quarter. Folks that rely solely on the bottom-up approach, on the other hand, run the risk of being overwhelmed by a growing to-do list and may lose sight of the big picture. The more tasks they identify, the more work they find themselves triaging. They can become busy managing the to-do list really quickly, without driving actual changes.

Achieving balance

Like with everything in life, the key is in balance. Here is one way of achieving it:

  1. Bottom-up: Make a list of priorities for the next few months. This will be grounding and give you a sense of direction.
  2. Bottom-up: Take a step back and identify what requires your attention for the next couple of months. What are the priorities you are likely to drop if you don’t bring focus to them?
  3. Top-down: Erase everything else from the list.
  4. Top-down: On a weekly basis, identify steps you can take to move forward with your priorities. Every week, archive the previous to-do list and create a new one.

This keeps priorities close to execution without becoming overwhelming. Steps 1 and 2 help us settle and build direction. The OKR methodology (Objectives and Key Results) is one of the best ways of accomplishing step 2. OKRs help us identify true outcomes out of the many competing priorities at any given time. Steps 3 and 4 help us operate in a lean and focused way.

In sum, use bottom-up thinking for establishing the big picture and top-down thinking for executing on it. 


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