For the average worker, endless tasks scream for your attention every day – non-stop emails, requests from colleagues, phone calls to and from customers and suppliers, reports, you name it.
What’s more, each task seems to be equally important. With time, these tasks can quickly become overwhelming and sap your productivity.
To avoid getting overwhelmed by all the tasks you must complete daily, you must learn how to prioritize your work. Prioritizing tasks properly makes you more productive, helps you meet deadlines, and can prevent stress and burnout.
In this guide, we’ll look at priority management and its importance, how to prioritize tasks and projects, some common mistakes that lead to ineffective prioritization, and how to avoid them.
Priority management is the process of arranging your tasks and projects in order of importance and urgency. It helps you figure out the essential tasks that need to be completed first and the less essential tasks that you can complete later, delegate, or ignore.
Prioritizing tasks makes it easy to determine what you should be working on at what time. It helps you manage your time better and makes you more efficient.
Here are a few reasons why you need to prioritize your tasks and projects:
It helps you spend more time working on high-value tasks instead of meaningless tasks with little or no impact.
It helps you meet deadlines by working on the most urgent tasks first.
It leads to better utilization of time and scarce team resources.
It prevents stress and burnout by allowing you to schedule a limited number of tasks that you can realistically complete within a given time frame.
It leads to a better work-life balance.
It prevents time wastage.
Here are some common mistakes that can make it difficult for you to prioritize your tasks.
Prioritizing tasks is also a task by itself. You have to dedicate time on your schedule to prioritize your tasks. Since it affects how you complete your other tasks, setting aside some time to prioritize and schedule these tasks should be your first priority.
In practice, this could mean spending the first 15 minutes at work each day sorting and scheduling your daily tasks by priority or spending an hour every Sunday evening planning your week. Basically, you need to create time to plan how you’ll accomplish your tasks.
When prioritizing tasks, people often ignore the seemingly small stuff – such as responding to emails, answering phone calls, and responding to requests from colleagues.
These activities look like a trivial part of your day; therefore, it might seem like there’s no point in giving them any priority or scheduling them in your day. However, such small tasks often take lots of time from your day, and sometimes, they affect your ability to complete your top-priority tasks.
For instance, the average American worker spends 28% of their day on email. In an 8-hour workday, that’s over 2 hours every day. The seemingly small stuff actually takes a significant chunk off your day.
The best way to deal with this is to completely avoid these small tasks that are not scheduled. Alternatively, you can prioritize and schedule them into your day.
A lot of times, people only prioritize tasks based on their urgency, which looks at the target completion date. However, it is often better to prioritize tasks based on their importance, which looks at the impact of a task on a project or an organization.
Let’s say, for instance, you have two tasks – delivering a weekly report that is due in a day and working on a client’s project that is due in a week.
Here, the project has a greater impact than the report, and if the project is running behind, it makes much more sense to prioritize the project over the report, despite the report being more urgent.
It is impossible to prioritize tasks properly when you don’t know the scope of what you need to do. Therefore, the first step to prioritizing your tasks or projects is to develop a master list of all the tasks you need to work on within a given period. For instance, you could create a list of all your tasks for a month.
Having a clear idea of everything you need to do allows you to determine how much time you need for all the tasks and evaluate the urgency, importance, and effort required for each task.
The Eisenhower Matrix is a prioritization tool that was developed by Dwight Eisenhower, the 34thpresident of the US. The matrix helps you prioritize tasks by their urgency and importance by dividing them into the following four categories:
Important and urgent
Important but not urgent
Urgent but not important
Not important and not urgent
Go through your master list and sort your tasks into these four categories. Tasks that are important and urgent should be given the highest priority and done first. Tasks that are important and not urgent can be scheduled for later. For tasks that are not important but urgent, you can delegate them to others.
Finally, if there are tasks that are not important and not urgent, these do not add any value and should be done away with.
This prioritization technique borrows its name from a quote by Mark Twain: "If you have to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning.”
The idea behind this prioritization technique is simple. Identify the most difficult task on your to-do list and tackle it first. From there, tackle the second most difficult task and go down the list of tasks by order of difficulty until you complete them all.
The Pareto Principle, also referred to as the law of the vital few, states that 80% of outcomes are driven by 20% of the causes. In the workplace, this means that 80% of your impact comes from just 20% of your tasks.
To prioritize using the Pareto Principle, you need to identify the 20% of tasks that have the greatest impact on your day’s success and then give the highest priority to these tasks.
For instance, you’re a web designer who needs to finalize and deliver a client’s website, send a quote to a prospective client, research new web design practices, and respond to internal emails. Here, it makes more sense to prioritize delivering the client’s website before moving on to the other tasks.
The MoSCoW method is an effective prioritization technique that works particularly well for prioritizing project outcomes. The idea behind the MoSCow technique is to divide project outcomes into four categories:
Must have: These are the critical outcomes in a project. Without accomplishing these, the project is considered a failure.
Should have: While these outcomes are not as important as the must-haves, they are still necessary to complete a project successfully.
Could have: These are outcomes that could improve the quality of a project but are not a key necessity. These can be implemented if time and budget allow.
Won’t have: These outcomes do not add any value to the project and therefore don’t need to be included.
When prioritizing using the MoSCoW technique, you should prioritize the must-haves followed by the should-haves.
Could-haves should only be given attention after the must-haves and should-haves have been completed, and only if there’s enough time and budget to complete them. Finally, the wont-haves should be completely ignored since they are detractors.
As a manager, it is your responsibility to guide your team and help them improve time management by prioritizing tasks properly. Below are some tips on how you can do this.
Professionals spend a lot of time in meetings, and oftentimes, these meetings end up being a waste of time. Learning to prioritize tasks in meetings can help make them more productive and reduce time wastage.
Here are a couple of things you can do to improve task prioritization in meetings:
Ensure every meeting has clear goals and objectives.
Prepare a meeting agenda for every meeting. You can easily do this using Airgram.
Use time management tools like time trackers to ensure agenda items don’t take more time than necessary.
Only invite attendees who can make a useful contribution to the meeting.
End the meeting with clear action steps and timelines for these actions.
While it is not an absolute necessity, using software tools and apps is a great way to get better at prioritizing tasks and projects. Here are five tools that can help you with task prioritization:
Google Tasks: This is a to-do list app built into Gmail. You can use it to organize your tasks into lists, set completion dates for tasks, and track task completion.
Todoist: Another popular to-do list app that helps you schedule your tasks and break them down into subtasks for easier completion.
Airgram: Aigram is a meeting productivity app that helps you prioritize tasks in meetings by creating meeting agendas and timing discussions during meetings.
Trello: This project and workflow management tool helps you create task lists and organize them by priority.
Evernote: This is a popular note-taking app that’s great for creating and organizing simple to-do lists in the form of notes.
Learning how to prioritize projects and tasks is crucial for anyone who wants to boost their productivity, manage their time better, and constantly meet deadlines.
In this guide, we’ve shared five techniques you can use to become better at prioritizing tasks.
Besides these techniques, you can also use the tools and apps shared above to improve your task prioritization.