So much to do. So little time to do it.
More than ever, you need to know how to prioritize.
Most of us start the day with a basic to-do list – those daily tasks we must complete to feel a sense of accomplishment. But things rarely go according to plan.
New assignments. Last minute or urgent, must-do-now requests. Tasks with shifting levels of importance, whether driven by you, your team, or those higher up.
Even for the best, most organized individual, it can be overwhelming. The cascading effect of too much to do and not enough time forces you to work from behind, potentially missing deadlines, or producing work that’s subpar.
There’s good news though.
Even when facing the most hectic schedules, you can get done what needs accomplishing and maintain a consistently high level of productivity.
It’s all about learning how to prioritize tasks.
Why Is it Important to Prioritize Your Work?
Before jumping into how to prioritize tasks, it’s first helpful to understand the why.
Of course, everyone wants to be more productive. Get more done, achieve more wins, keep the ball rolling. Whatever you call it, the more tasks and projects you complete, the greater your success.
From a business standpoint, the more you achieve, the easier it is for your business to grow. Knowing what needs to be done and when and the effort required upfront helps you allocate the proper resources towards ticking items off your task list.
Prioritizing also ensures you make the most of your time. Determining urgent and important tasks allows you to address your day’s most immediate needs first. When you allocate your time more efficiently, you’re better equipped to handle emergencies or unscheduled demands on your time.
Short-term tasks receive the immediate attention they require. Long-term projects flex across appropriate timeframes. Everything else works into your daily schedule in more manageable segments.
Ultimately, prioritizing allows you to work smarter, more efficiently and provides you the flexibility to take on whatever hurdles the day may bring.
How to Prioritize Tasks: Step By Step
Prioritizing is very much about good habits. If you genuinely want to improve your productivity, you’ll want to develop a reliable, repeatable schedule. This approach builds structure within your day and helps you determine:
- What you want to accomplish
- How to organize your day’s work and prioritize your tasks
- Which are urgent tasks and which can be deferred
- Where to apply your time and resources
As you continue to improve your prioritizing skill set, the habits you develop will make each day more productive and successful. It all starts with knowing the tasks at hand.
1. Create a Master List of All Goals, Projects, and One-Off Tasks
The most effective way to prioritize is to understand what needs to be accomplished.
From the most important projects to the smallest tasks – professional and personal – you’ll want to develop a master list of everything you need to get done. If you’re familiar with the productivity method Getting Things Done, then you know the importance of getting everything out of your brain into a single master list.
Don’t skimp on what to add either. Even the most mundane of pursuits take time from your day. Whether you type your list or write it down, make sure you can see everything that has to be done and any other task you want to accomplish.
Your first pass at creating a master list doesn’t need to follow any order. We’ll get to that later by assigning importance and urgency and applying time, resources, and context.
Again, how you capture this list of tasks isn’t essential. It’s creating a visual tool where seeing everything in one place allows you to parse them out more easily.
You can divide up essential tasks based on their time frames – daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly (even yearly). As you segment the priorities, the resources needed for specific projects become clearer. Which jobs to delegate and those to take on yourself are simplified.
The goal for your master list is to identify everything that requires your attention for a given day (or week or month). In turn, you can more clearly see how what you need to accomplish on a daily basis will feed into attaining your larger goals.
There are a number of task list management apps that can help you gather everything together into a primary list and then organize your tasks:
2. Prioritize Your Most Important Tasks, Projects, and Goals
Perhaps the trickiest step in prioritizing your tasks is to recognize what deserves your attention first. When you prioritize, you’re identifying your most important goals and tasks and determining what you must do to achieve them.
Are you trying to grow your business by generating more leads? Finish a novel? Code a website? Write an important essay for a class?
Regardless of your objective, pinpointing what’s most important helps you focus on what should receive the majority of your attention.
Urgent vs. Important
In addition to identifying important tasks, you also need to identify urgent tasks.
Too often, we focus on important tasks without considering their level of urgency. Often, you will have tasks that are important but not urgent, achievable in a week or months. On the flip side, you may face many tasks that seem urgent but carry very little importance.
Separating importance from urgency is a key factor in successful prioritization.
The Eisenhower Matrix
One popular prioritization method is the Eisenhower Decision Matrix. Popularized by the 34th President of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower, the matrix sorts tasks based on their combined importance and urgency.
The Eisenhower Matrix is a four-quadrant square with importance running vertically and urgency running horizontally, you can separate your task into four primary groups.
The upper left-hand quadrant is those tasks that are both important and urgent. These are your most critical items that require your immediate attention – projects with deadlines, problems that need quick solutions, crisis management tasks. When you prioritize your tasks, do these first.
The upper right quadrant represents tasks that are important but not urgent. Here, you’re focused on managing tasks to avoid them slipping into the urgent category. Planning, training, or creating long-term projects such as budgets fall here. Approach these items in terms of completing them on a schedule.
The lower left quadrant features tasks that are urgent but not important. From a personal standpoint, this includes items such as answering emails. However, other tasks that fall here, like booking travel or planning meetings, you can delegate elsewhere.
Finally, the lower right quadrant reflects tasks that are neither important nor urgent. To a certain degree, you might even consider this busywork that serves little purpose, or worse, falls into the category of time-wasting or procrastination. Drop these from your to-do list (if you even have them there).
3. Each Day, Work on Your Most Important Tasks First
Mark Twain called it eating the frog. But one of the most effective methods to addressing the most critical tasks on your priority has little to do with amphibians. It involves taking on your single most important task as soon as possible, before tackling any other of your day’s objectives.
The thinking is that by addressing your most towering, important tasks immediately upon starting your day, you stand a greater chance of seeing it through. You’re less likely to put it off or allow other demands to get in your way. At the end of the day, you’ve done something important even if you didn’t get anything else done.
To make the most of this approach, make a conscious effort to incorporate it into your daily schedule. Plan out ahead of time what task you’d like to complete, and settle on something achievable within one to four hours (adjust as your particular work demands require). Using the time blocking method of scheduling can be quite helpful here.
The task doesn’t necessarily need to be urgent but should at least rate as important within the Eisenhower Matrix. Choose tasks that might be difficult to complete as potential distractions increase or would be easy to put off if you’re not committed to getting it finished. Your initial work session should be deep work, not low value activities like email.
If a task is too daunting or can’t be completed within the allotted time frame, break it down as well, making it your first to do over a week (creating a budget, for example).
The real value of taking on your most challenging tasks first leads back to creating good work habits. Not only are you starting your days with a worthwhile endeavor, but you’re committing time and resources to meet your goals and move them forward.
Tackle Remaining Tasks Based on Importance, Urgency, Energy and Context
Once you finish your most important tasks, you’re left with all those other smaller projects and assignments that fill a day, a week, a month.
Although they don’t rank at the top of your priority scale, they still require your attention and are necessary for meeting your goals.
Items such as responding to emails and texts, communicating with clients, or, in a personal example, checking out new home listings for a move all feed into your larger goals.
Prioritizing isn’t merely about measuring what’s important and urgent and what’s not. It plays a critical role in helping you get stuff done and utilize effective time management.
Break Big Into Small
To this end, once you’ve identified a list of secondary priorities, break them down even further. Determine what’s required to achieve each task, meet each goal, and approach them from a more manageable standpoint.
For example, if a project requires a months-long commitment, create a timeline with regular milestones. Or choose to categorize the lesser tasks based on their own importance and urgency.
Even better, assess the energy and effort necessary to achieve a specific task. Or evaluate the context in why something needs to be accomplished and whether it serves your larger goals. Don’t just prioritize individual tasks, but prioritize your work as a whole.
In the same manner you employ the Eisenhower Method time management strategy for importance and urgency, look at your secondary tasks’ cost and benefit ratio.
High benefit and low cost (or effort)? Do this first. High cost, but also high benefit should come second. For anything else on your priority list that falls into low cost, low benefit, or high cost, low benefit, it’s worth assessing if it needs to be done at all.
This can prove incredibly effective for managing daily tasks as it identifies the things you need and should get done for your day.
Avoid pitfalls, such as sunken costs – where you keep at a task because you’ve already invested time and effort into completing it, but it will ultimately be inconsequential in achieving your goals.
Sometimes your prioritization and productiveness earn a tremendous boost from cutting loose a dead-end task or goal.
Just because you’ve taken steps to prioritize your work doesn’t mean that everything that finds its way onto your list is equal parts urgent and important.
Know when to prioritize tasks and elevate those that rise in importance. Simultaneously, recognize when you may be better served by reducing redundancies or cutting loose those tasks and projects that fail to service your goals.
Regularly Reassess Your Goals and Priorities
Learning how to prioritize is not a one-and-done endeavor. As you would any other aspect of your business, regularly reviewing your goals and priorities is key in keeping your priorities on point.
It also keeps you moving forward towards the goals you’ve set for yourself and your business.
Reassessment helps to keep you focused on the tasks at hand. It holds you and those around you accountable for what needs to be done and how to do it.
Most importantly, when your priorities receive constant scrutiny, it ensures you remain sensitive to changing needs. Maintain a flexible approach to your business and anticipate and plan for changes when they arise.
When you prioritize your work, you’re doing more than simply committing to get things done. Yes, you’re ensuring you meet deadlines and stay focused on the tasks at hand. But more than that, you’re ensure you move yourself, your team, and your company towards both short and long-term goals.
One of the best attributes of learning how to prioritize is that it carries a massive benefit for you. And does so with minimal cost. In fact, upon setting down the list of everything that needs to be done (and we mean everything), you’ll find that prioritizing tasks takes very little effort.
From raising the profile of and commitment to the most important tasks to scheduling, delegating, or altogether discarding those with less urgency and importance, prioritizing is an effortless habit to create. And those individuals with the most success find it an impossible habit to break.