Are you looking for some guidance on how to better prioritize tasks?
Does it seem as if you’re constantly being bombarded by tasks and assignments on a daily basis?
Prioritizing your work may seem like a skill in and of itself…and it is!
Unlike other skills, prioritization isn’t expressly taught in the classroom or workplace setting.
Learning how to prioritize tasks is something that’s learned on a daily basis as you go through the school of life.
And just like other skills, the more you practice prioritization, the better you become at it.
That’s some good news, isn’t it?
In this post, I offer seven tips on how to prioritize tasks.
Follow these tips the next time you’re confronted with a handful of tasks.
With some careful thought and planning, you can calmly and confidently organize tasks.
Let’s move on to the post!
Take a moment to regroup.
This may seem counterintuitive, but the first step in prioritizing tasks is to stop taking action.
Sounds a bit counterintuitive, right?
This step often throws people through a loop because it seems like they’re not “doing anything.”
Why stop working on a myriad of tasks only to stop and “think?” Ironically, that’s entirely the point.
If you truly want to determine which tasks you should work on, and when, you have to stop what you’re doing and calm yourself down, before you can proceed with prioritizing tasks.
Let’s use a simple example to further illustrate this point. Imagine yourself walking on a well-marked forest path, when all of a sudden, you realize you’ve accidentally strayed from the path. You’re lost.
You get a bit nervous and start looking all around you, trying to find your way back onto the path. You walk down a few feet in one direction, but then change your mind, and promptly turn around. You start walking in another direction, but after several feet, you decide to turn back.
In theory, you could keep walking around aimlessly, becoming even more disoriented. But, you could also stop where you are, take a moment to regroup and calm yourself down, and plan your next course of action.
After a few minutes, you could decide to look for a familiar landmark in the distance back in the direction from which you came and walk towards it, consult the map in your pocket, listen for the sound of car traffic and walk toward it, or shout for help.
This same idea applies when it comes to prioritizing tasks. Instead of wandering here, there, and everywhere, and throwing yourself into every task on your to-do list, you literally need to stop what you’re doing.
You need to stop, rest, regroup, and think. If need be, take a few minutes to stop, take a few deep breaths and sit or stand quietly until your body and mind calm down.
Write down tasks.
The next step in prioritizing tasks is to gather and write down your tasks. Sure, you could try to keep everything contained in your head. But why stress yourself out?
We tend to create all sorts of false stories and beliefs in our minds when it comes to tasks, so it’s just easier to write things down and see them plainly in black and white.
Take a moment to write down each of the tasks you are concerned about at the present moment. Do keep in mind, the list items don’t have to be in any particular order. You just want to get the tasks out of your head and onto a piece of a paper (we’ll talk about prioritizing individual tasks in just a little while).
It’s also important to remember that you’re not listing every single possible task on your to-do list or in your life. You’re just writing down the 3-5 top concerns you have at this very moment.
That being said, putting all of your other to-dos and tasks aside, what are your top 3-5 concerns right here, right now?
Identify task due dates.
Once you’ve got your tasks down on piece of paper, the next step is to identify due dates for each individual task. Part of the problem in prioritizing tasks is that it often feels like everything has to be done all at once…as in yesterday!
Unfortunately, we can’t bend time to our wills. But what we can do is direct our focus and intent on calmly identifying due dates for each of your tasks.
It’s wise to approach individual tasks with an objective eye. This is so you can make sound decisions that are practical and logical.
What you don’t want to have is a quick-response, knee-jerk reaction, as this can cause even more trouble! Whenever you’re in doubt, simply stick with the facts.
Take a moment to look at the first task on your list. When is the item’s due date or time? You may know this off the top of your head, or you may need to find the answer in an email, file, or by making a phone call.
Once you’ve identified the due date and time for the first task it’s time to move onto the next item. Repeat this process until you’ve gone through each of your tasks.
By now, you should have a better idea as to when specific tasks are due. You should be able to see some sort of pattern emerge: some tasks can be put aside aside for a few days, while others will need to be taken care of today.
But what happens if you come across two or more tasks that seem to have the same deadline? Perhaps you have two tasks that are due on the same day or roughly around the same time? This is where your prioritization skills come into play!
Determine which tasks are most important and urgent.
You can make great progress in prioritizing tasks by simply determining which of your tasks are most important and urgent. Right now it may seem as if all of your tasks have equal weight, but the truth is that some tasks are more important and more urgent than others. It’s up to you to identify which tasks are which.
You can use a simple tool that can help you prioritize your tasks and make better decisions called The Eisenhower Box. Here’s how it works: a large box is divided into four separate quadrants, with each quadrant representing a task’s urgency and importance, specifically:
Urgent and Important
Key types: Emergencies, Deadlines, and Crises
Not Urgent and Important
Key types: Planning, Relaxation including Downtime, Vacation, Rest, Exercise
Not Important and Urgent
Key types: Distractions, Interruptions, Meetings
Not Important and Not Urgent
Key types: Wasting Time, Gossip, Trivial Matters
Identifying the importance of any task. Which tasks are more important? That is, how important are tasks in relation to your other tasks? Broadly speaking, you could ask yourself how important tasks are to your professional career, personal life, health, wellbeing, or safety.
Understanding the urgency of any task. Which tasks are urgent? That is, how urgent is the matter at hand? Urgency has timeliness built into it. Urgent matters need to be taken care of right away to prevent further problems, emergencies, or concerns in future. Similarly, you can ask yourself how urgent tasks are to your professional career, personal life, health, wellbeing, or safety.
Ultimately, identifying which of your tasks are most important and urgent will be up to you. You can ask yourself some key questions, however, to better evaluate each task:
What would happen if you missed a deadline? This question can help uncover true priorities. What will potentially happen if you miss a deadline? Will the results have a small impact on your life, or will the results have a larger impact on your life?
How complete are tasks? Are tasks 0%, 20%, 50%, or 95% complete? How can you best redirect your energy to complete what’s most important and urgent, and then focus on the next most important and urgent items?
Think about other moving parts. What other pieces need to be considered for a particular task? Are you awaiting materials, feedback, input, or some other key item in order to complete a task?
As soon as you’ve prioritized your tasks, you can move on to the next step which is to…
Reduce or eliminate distractions.
Once you’ve prioritized tasks (and before you take actions on those tasks), you’ll want to reduce or eliminate any distraction as best you can. Remember, now’s not the time to check your personal email, play a game on your favorite social media app, text a friend, or chat with coworkers at the water cooler. It’s time to get to work!
Begin by surveying your immediate environment for any and all items that may potentially be a distraction to you as you work. Which items, materials, or circumstances will prevent or hinder you from completing your work? What steps can you take right now to eliminate or reduce distractions while you complete tasks?
Here’s a few smart solutions to help you reduce or eliminate distractions:
Working on a computer: log out your email accounts, log out of unnecessary windows and computer applications, and log out of social media accounts.
Sitting near a phone or cell phone: let incoming messages go straight to voicemail, consider switching your cell phone to airplane mode, or consider temporarily switching your phone off.
Find yourself in a noisy environment: tell others you are working on a deadline and ask that you not be disturbed, close the door to your office or work area, use a white noise generator, use earplugs or noise-cancelling headphones or earbuds.
If you’re working in a cluttered environment: clean off the top of your desk or workspace, temporarily relocate yourself and your work to a less cluttered room, office, area or workstation.
Stick to your plan.
Once you’ve prioritized your tasks, it’s important that you stick to your plan of action. You can’t make solid progress in your work if you’re constantly jumping from task to task. Besides, if you jump from one task to another, all of your hard work prioritizing tasks will be for nothing!
So, take a deep breath, and stick to your plan. Select your first priority and begin working on it right away.
What if you’re having trouble tracking your tasks or are afraid you’ll forget everything? Write down your tasks and deadlines on a small piece of paper and keep it near you. Once you’ve completed the first task, you can move onto the next, followed by the next, and the next…
Likewise, if you’re concerned about keeping track of time while you work, you can set alerts or reminders to keep you on schedule. Set alerts on your cell phone or computer, set a kitchen timer, or set an alert on your digital watch, smart watch, or fitness tracker.
Okay, so you’ve taken a moment to regroup, write down tasks and due dates, evaluated your priorities, and have even checked a couple of tasks off of your list. You’re feeling great…when all of a sudden, something happens…
You receive a phone call, email, or message. Something new has come up. What’s a person to do? Why, you’re going to have to reprioritize your tasks…
Part of learning how to prioritize tasks is learning, and fully understanding, that priorities can and will change at a moment’s notice. It’s just a fact of life.
As soon as you prioritize tasks, there’s a fairly good chance something else will come along and undo your carefully constructed plans.
Simply being aware of this fact can be extremely helpful in prioritizing tasks in future. Once you understand the changeable nature of tasks, you can be more flexible and forgiving in your next set of decisions and future actions.
Here’s some tips to help you keep your cool and stay flexible when chaos strikes:
Reevaluate your priorities from the very beginning. Yes, a new task will have to be evaluated along with all the other tasks on your list. Carefully start the prioritization process from the beginning. With this new task in hand, ask yourself what needs to be completed, and by when?
Don’t get attached to the order of tasks. Sometimes, you may need to reprioritize tasks several times in one day, or even in one hour! The key is to not get too attached to the order of tasks. If a new task bumps the top task on your old list, so be it. Put aside any attachments and preconceived notions you may have, and get to work.
Understand that this too shall pass. As frustrating as a situation may be, it’s important to understand that this moment, like all moments, are temporary. Things will get better. In the meantime, do the best you can with what you have. And remember…this too shall pass.
How about you? Where in your life do you find prioritizing to be a top skill? What give you the most trouble or problems when it comes to prioritizing? Join the conversation and leave a comment below!