The Carver Matrix: How to Prioritize Like a Pro

It doesn’t matter whether you’re trying to grow your business, lose weight, or improve your productivity, if you work on the wrong thing at the wrong time you won’t get any results.

The questions then becomes: How do you effectively prioritize all the possible activities?

Well, turns out there’s a neat system for that.

Enter the carver matrix.

The carver matrix was invented by the US army special forces during Vietnam as a way to roughly prioritized the targets they needed to hit (think energy installations, water supply, munitions depot, etc).

All of these targets have pros and cons. Some are easier to hit, but also easier to repair. Others are difficult to hit, but contribute a lot to the overall goal. The carver matrix gave the military an overview of the pros and cons.

Carver is an acronym for criticality, accessibility, return, vulnerability, effect, and recognizability. Let’s go over them one by one.

Criticality

How important is this target to the overall mission? If you want to use it in business, how important this project to the overall goal. It’s something we should do? Or is it something that we need to do?

Accessibility

How easy is it to hit the target? Is it something that we can do now or do we need five other things first? A pipeline is more accessible than the control panel of a nuclear installation.

Return/Recuperability

The third aspect is return. Just how much of a payoff is there? If we take this action, is there a large return or is nothing going to happen? Do we need to keep doing it day after day in other to see results?

In the military version, they use recuperability as a way to judge how easy it is to repair the target. No use in hitting something if can be repaired with duct tape and 5 minutes of work.

Vulnerability

How easy or how difficult is it to achieve this target? What are the costs? Does it only take a day to do or does it take six months to a year to achieve? If it takes six months, you might want to look at other things first.

Effect

Just how big of an effect will it have on your overall goal? In business, setting up a company blog might not have a big effect, but sending a nice personalized cold email to 50 CEOs might get you new business right away. In this case, sending emails has a very bigger effect than setting up a blog.

Recognizability

Just how clear is the target? Do we already know how to do it or do we first need to learn a completely different skill? In the military it’s about how easy it is to recognize the target between all the other stuff.

How do you apply the Carver Matrix in daily life?

I don’t know about you, but I’m not thinking about destroying a foreign nation’s energy installations. What I am thinking about, is how I can figure out what action to take next.

Now let’s look at some examples you can use.

Scenario 1: Growing your business

Let’s say you started a business and you’re looking to grow your client base. You’ve come up with a couple of ideas, but you’re not sure where to start. Let’s use the matrix to judge which one is best.

ActionsCARVERTotal
Starting a blog24252419
Cold email campaign34544323
Advertising in local newspaper22424216

In this scenario, doing a cold email campaign would be the way to go.

Scenario 2: Weight loss

Now let’s apply the matrix to weight loss. Let’s say person A tries to lose 10kg. He’s fairly active, but drinks quite a bit of soda.

ActionsCARVERTotal
Counting calories42435321
1 hour run34342420
Cutting out soda44445425

In this case, cutting out soda would get him to his goal the fastest.

Scenario 3: Keystone habits

Let’s say you’re looking to grow your business or do better in school and you’re looking to build habits that will make you more productive. You could do something like this:

HabitsCARVERTotal
Waking up early44524322
Meditate23332316
Go for a walk every day25453423

In this case, you’d find that going for a walk every day will give you the biggest benefit.

A free Template for you

I’ve made this template in Google drive for you so you can get started right away. To use it, simple open the link and go to “file” -> “Make a copy”. You won’t be able to edit the spreadsheet unless you copy it to your own Drive.

carver matrix template

Working on the right thing at the right time can save you a ton of work.

You have to remember that the carver matrix is a way to quickly quantify which activity or target is more important. It’s not an exact science.

In all honesty, applying all elements of the carver matrix to simple decisions is a bit overkill. I tend to only use 3. Accessibility (How easy is it to do?), return (How big of a payoff is there?), and recognizability (How soon can we do it?).

How do you like to prioritize your work?