While there’s only so much we can do in a given work day, it feels like there’s never not something waiting to be done. Often, we wind up feeling busy, but not necessarily productive.
And when it comes time to make important decisions on projects – like what tasks to focus on next, for example – we often opt for either “winging it” or checking off smaller, random to-dos, rather than the high-impact ones. These tasks easily clog up our hours at work, but do very little to move us forward.
More often than not, we shut down our laptops at the end of the day feeling like we didn’t accomplish much of anything. And as days, weeks or even months go by, and we get continually sucked into busywork, we fail to reach our long-term goals.
Being able to prioritize the tasks we choose to work on – and less reactive and intentional with what we want to achieve each and every day – is the best way to keep that busywork in check. But how do you figure out what tasks to put at the forefront of your focus – and when – when there’s just so much you could be doing? What’s worth putting at the top of your to-do list, and what should fall to the bottom of your priorities?
This article will cover just that. We’ll dive into the best ways to prioritize your do-tos, how to create a prioritization system for incoming tasks, and go over some productivity methods that will help you churn through that mammoth task list in no time.
We hope these tips give you a good place to start. For now, though, let’s quickly touch on…
Why prioritizing tasks is so important
One of the challenges at work is wanting to do everything at once. But, as the saying goes, if you prioritize everything, then you prioritize nothing. When there are likely tons of great ideas circulating among your team at any given time, it’s easy to jump from one task to another – meaning missed deadlines and goals, wasted resources and an overly pressurized and overworked team. The ability to properly prioritize tasks can help you:
- Identify the most important activities to focus on: Diving right into work without any sort of strategy might mean that yes, you might feel somewhat productive in the moment. But with hindsight, you realize you’ve failed to stay the course and prioritize the right things. Which just leaves you feeling guilty and stressed out. Strong prioritization can help you break out of this reactionary way of working, where you feel like your day consists of putting out small fires, rather than making meaningful progress towards your long-term goals.
- Spot any potential bottlenecks ahead of time: No project or task happens in a vacuum. With effective prioritization you can problem solve for bottlenecks, such as a team member out sick, or a big part of the project that has yet to be completed by another department.
- More easily manage expectations: Even if you decided to work 24/7 (please don’t do that!), you might not be able to get to every item on your task list by the deadline set out. Proper prioritization can help you better manage unrealistic expectations from other stakeholders – and avoid burnout – by agreeing on more realistic due dates for certain tasks. It’s always better to push the date and finish ahead of time, than to keep the impossible date and be behind on deliverables.
- Know when to say “no” to things: This might feel rather daunting, but we’ve always got more on our plates than what we can realistically accomplish. In today’s frenetic workplace, agreeing to every piece of work that comes your way – especially ad-hoc activities that don’t align with your team goals and objectives – is neither realistic nor healthy.
Strategies for prioritizing your tasks at work
There are a few different ways you’ll be able to work out which tasks are essential and should be completed first, as well as which tasks can be either delegated or scrapped.
1. Get a complete picture of all of your tasks
This might seem like a simple step, but it’s a crucial one – you can’t prioritize effectively unless you have a strong grasp of everything you need to get done.
Tasks come at us from all angles at work, whether it’s emails with urgent last-minute requests from pushy stakeholders, one-on-one meetings with our bosses, or our own brains. It’s not good to have all of this floating around in our heads. Not to mention, it’s virtually impossible to prioritize what to work on next unless you’ve got all of these to-dos in one place.
So, pull together a master list of everything and anything you know needs to get done – either at the beginning of the month, quarter, or even when you’re kicking off larger, more complex projects for the first time.
Remember the big picture here – ideally, each task should ladder up to a larger goal or objective for you or your team. The last thing you want is to cram your work day full of tasks that aren’t going to make a tangible impact on your end goals. List out everything you need to action on across all of your various projects – the Getting Things Done method is useful to follow here. You can use project or task management software for this like Asana or Timely, or a to-do list app like Todoist.
(Heck, you can even use good old-fashioned pen and paper if that’s what works best for you.)
If you can, be sure to add in additional information, like:
- Estimated time to complete each task
- The task deadline
- How important/urgent each task is (more on that next!)
Sidenote: If you’re not sure how long a task is likely to take, a safer bet would be to take your original time estimate and double it. Over time, using apps like Timely to figure out exactly how long certain tasks take to complete will help you make more accurate estimates.
Recommend reading: How to create a project task list (step-by-step guide)
Now that you’ve plumbed your brain for every task you can imagine, it’s time to put them in order of priority.
2. Don’t get bogged down with unimportant tasks
At work, we often give precedence to the things that are urgent over important – and never more so than when we’ve got a whole bunch of deadlines breathing down our neck.
That’s where the Eisenhower Matrix task-prioritization method comes in handy. Using this system, you can quickly split your tasks into four different categories:
Quadrant 1: Urgent and important (Do). These tasks are your top priority (as in, there are significant repercussions to not doing them), and should be prioritized right away.
Quadrant 2: Not urgent and important (Plan). Schedule in time in your calendar or task management system to complete these, only after you’ve tackled everything in the first quadrant.
Quadrant 3: Urgent and unimportant (Delegate). These need to get done soon, but they’re not so important to you. They can either be delegated to free up your time, or, if this isn’t possible, considered your next priority.
Quadrant 4: Neither urgent nor unimportant (Eliminate). Often being able to prioritize effectively is knowing what to deprioritize. You can scrap these tasks entirely from your to-do list, giving you more time to devote to important tasks.
Of course, you want to be focused on completing the tasks that offer the greatest return on the time you’ve spent. So take the time to assess the importance of each task. Some questions to ask yourself here include:
- Who or what does this task impact? If you don’t complete this task, will it have a significant impact on your team or your business?
- What’s the upside of getting this task done? What value does it contribute to your overarching goals?
- What’s the risk of not getting this task done? Are other tasks depending on its completion?
3. Rank your urgent and important tasks in order of relative priority
Let’s say you’ve got a pile of tasks that fit under your urgent and important quadrant. How do you know which ones to start with? You can try out one (or a combination) of the following prioritization methods to take stock of similarly important tasks and assess their relative importance.
One simple prioritization method worth trying is ABCDE. It involves assigning each task on your to-do list a letter, from A (most important) through to E (lowest priority). Then, you go through each letter category and number each task in the order you plan to complete them in. Keep going until every task has a letter and number assigned to it.
Now, you’re left with a logical order of what you need to work on first, and what can be moved to the bottom of your urgent and important list.
We’re going analog here – all you need to put the Ivy Lee method into practice is pen and paper.
At the end of your workday, write out no more than six of your most important tasks for the next day. Number these tasks in order of importance. Then, you start your work day by tackling the most pressing task first. Keep to the order you mapped out the night before, and don’t move on to the next task until the previous one has been physically crossed off your list. (Single-tasking is central to the Ivy Lee process. We’ve gone into the nitty-gritty of the Ivy Lee method in a previous post, so be sure to check that out.)
At the end of the day, you simply transfer any tasks you didn’t get to finish onto the following day’s to-do list.
By applying one of these methods, you can quickly get your to-do list prioritized in the following order:
- Tasks that need to be completed today
- Tasks that need to be completed this week
- Tasks that need to be completed this month
Pretty much any project or task management software worth its salt should allow you to then set up reminders and notifications for upcoming deadlines, as well as labeling all of your tasks depending on their relative priority (usually, something like low, medium or high priority).
4. Tackle your most important task first each day
By now, you should be left with your prioritized task list. Whew! Here are a few techniques we recommend trying out to keep you focused and productive. Choosing the right one for you is often a matter of trial and error – you probably won’t know what works best for you until you’ve given all of them a proper try.
One good way to prioritize the tasks you need to get done during the day is the Pareto principle. More commonly known as the 80/20 rule or “law of the vital few”, this productivity rule states that 80% of your results come from 20% of your efforts.
Prioritizing tasks is all about being ruthlessly focused on the things that bring you and your team the most return on your time investment. So have a think about the potential outcome of completing each task. If doing one task in particular is going to have an outsized impact on results for your team or business, consider moving that task to the top of your to-do list that day.
Eat the Frog
Icky metaphors aside, Eat the Frog is another relatively simple concept. It’s designed to help you get your most high-effort, important task – something you need a little push to get done – completed and off your plate first thing each day. Here’s how Eat the Frog works:
- Identify your single most important task for the day.
- Do this task first thing in the morning.
While not true for everyone, morning is typically when you’re at your most motivated. If you’re not a morning person, or there are other factors outside of your control at play (like a meeting first thing) then figure out when you’re most productive and schedule that time to work eating your frog.
🐸 Read more on Eat the Frog, why it works, and how you can implement it to tackle your most critical tasks.
5. Be flexible and adaptable with your task priorities
Of course, things won’t always go according to plan. Projects evolve, new tasks are bound to come up that take priority, deadlines will inevitably need to be tweaked. You might need to interrupt the next task on your list in place of more urgent to-dos that crop up last minute.
With this in mind, it’s important to set aside time to review your task list each week and reflect on whether the work you’ve prioritized is really moving you and your team closer to achieving your long-term goals.
No more do-do list that’s an unstructured mess of action items. By following the steps above, you’ll end up with a simple, repeatable process for prioritizing all of your projects and tasks. This is where all your prioritization efforts pay off – now, you’ll be better able to manage your workload to hit deadlines and stay productive at work. 🎉