A long and never-ending task list is every worker’s worst nightmare. It seems to grow and grow every single day, and you watch as the former day’s priorities go by unnoticed, living to see another day.
Soon, you start getting e-mails, messages, and one-on-ones with your manager regarding these missed deadlines. What you need to know is to learn how to prioritize tasks.
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Prioritization is key, not only as a soft skill that can be incredibly valued by employers but also for achieving long-term goals. Understanding what you’re really working toward helps you identify the tasks most pertinent to those future outcomes.
By learning some strategies, like creating lists, adopting a prioritization strategy, and improving communication you’ll get things done and improve your productivity levels.
Learn how to prioritize tasks and avoid repeating the cycle of not accomplishing what you initially set out to do for the day.
Let’s start by literally “dumping” every single task and to-do item you have, on paper or on the screen, depending on your preference.
Get everything out of your head and try to do it in some kind of order. This will help you in the long run. For example, you can organize them by daily, weekly, and monthly tasks according to the type of task and deadline.
A meeting or replying to e-mails should follow under the daily group, working on a project milestone or reviewing documents can be weekly tasks, and so on.
There’s also the option of organizing the tasks by their source or channel of request. Keep it all in one place, be it digital or analog. This exercise aims to simplify the workload and make it feel less overwhelming.
Don’t censor yourself when “brain dumping”. You’ll feel your mind much lighter after this and ready to do the work.
Categorizing is an important step and most effective if done even before establishing priorities. Use the 4Ds of time management:
- Do the task now
- Defer the task to a later time
- Delegate the task to someone else
- Delete the task from your list
This framework is incredibly helpful in helping you handle the workload. In your list, there are a couple of tasks you can do right away: sending an e-mail or clearing your inbox. The tasks that have no dependency on anyone else. Go ahead and do these to trim down your to-do list. Others you can delegate: team members and colleagues might also be equipped to handle them.
Another group is made of those tasks that have been on your list for a long time that doesn’t really need to be handled anymore, and that have little value. Delete those.
Finally, you’re left with deferred tasks that are out of your control. You cannot do, delegate, or delete these. These tasks now need to be prioritized.
The prioritization method you’ll be choosing will depend on the nature of your tasks and personal taste.
Learn about some of the most known ones in order to understand which works best for the type of work you do.
This method helps you prioritize tasks based on levels of urgency and importance. Something can be urgent and important, not urgent but still important, not important but urgent, or not urgent and not important.
This technique was created by the former president of the United States, Dwight Eisenhower, for quick decision-making. He used this quadrant organization method to figure out what needed to be done at that moment (important and urgent), what needs some planning (important, but not urgent), what can be delegated (not important, but urgent), and what can be deleted (not important nor urgent).
This technique was inspired by a famous Mark Twain quote: “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning.”
Meaning, if you have complex or bigger tasks or ones that need to be tackled, but you are dreading them, these are actually the ones you need to do first.
Only after that, you can move to the rest of the to-do list. Starting the work day by “eating the frog” will help you feel less stressed.
This method was developed by Dai Clegg, a software engineer who worked at Oracle. It focuses on prioritizing tasks based on outcomes and it’s a great method to use in project management.
You’ll be dividing the project into four categories:
- Must have – outcomes or results without which the project won’t be able to move forward or even exist.
- Should have – outcomes or results that are not super critical but are important.
- Could have – outcomes or results that can be delivered if/when there’s enough time or budget.
- Won’t have – outcomes or results that won’t be delivered.
By categorizing outcomes, you have your priorities supported and organized.
The ABCDE method consists of grading the different tasks you have on your list.
“A” is the highest grade (and most important priority), and “E” is the lowest one (as well as the least important task, that can possibly be eliminated from the list).
With this method, you’ll quickly weigh task importance to help you identify your highest-priority tasks. A and B tasks are the ones to get to first.
For a successful prioritization process, an effective time management technique needs to be put in place.
What’s your current situation in terms of time? What’s your schedule like? Do you use a digital calendar? Make use of it if so, practice timeboxing to block the time you need for each task.
Make use of techniques here as well, such as the Pomodoro. The Pomodoro technique is commonly used to prevent distractions and complete tasks.
Using a Pomodoro timer (Timeular, for example), set timed sprints of 25 minutes. During this block of time, you’ll be focused on the task at hand. Knowing that you only have to focus for a shorter period is actually an excellent way of practicing your ability to focus.
Read: Doesn’t it work for you? Then, you need to know the most reliable substitutes for the Pomodoro method.
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Engage in discussions with your team and encourage them to select the time tracking techniques that best suit their work
By completing the most important tasks first, you are practicing a prioritization technique in itself.
This is especially helpful if you struggle to get daily tasks done, even after prioritizing them in other ways. The most important ones are the first to check off the to-do list.
“Eating the frog”, as stated above, can become a habit acquired for your everyday professional life. Once the most unwanted or unpleasant (for you) tasks are done, there’s nothing worse you’ll have to tackle for the rest of the day.
Putting off unwanted tasks is tempting, but facing those difficulties, first thing will make for a much smoother and happier work day.
As projects shift, work changes direction or goals are redefined, so will your priorities. It’s critical to review and revise project task priorities with some frequency.
Make use of the frameworks and methods explained here, and find the best solution for your current needs.
When you choose to prioritize your work, you can increase productivity, better manage your time, and stay on time when it comes to deadlines. However, keep something in mind: uncertainty and change are given.
Your priorities or the ones of your company will change, and often when you least expect them to. You need to be ready for the unexpected. This doesn’t mean you need to do it all or nothing.
Don’t sabotage yourself from the start; remember that productivity does not exist on a static playing field.
The most important tasks can easily become intimidating, even if they don’t look like that at the beginning, just because you’ll be putting high expectations into them and pressure on yourself. Allow flexibility in your schedule for unexpected situations.
Ask yourself if you have the resources available to accomplish what you need to, and break your tasks into manageable smaller ones.
You’ll still be completing tasks, reaching goals, and feeling more productive overall. Don’t stop trying different prioritization methods until you find what suits you best.
The 4Ds of prioritization work are doing, delegating, deleting, and delaying. The 4Ds represent a system to improve productivity.
The four levels can be interpreted as creating a task list, organizing tasks according to a preferred method, scheduling the tasks in a calendar, and communicating progress with the stakeholders or team members involved.
We can identify three top priorities at work: listing all tasks and things we have to do, organizing our calendars, and keeping communication channels open with our co-workers and superiors.
This is a common occurrence, and to handle these situations, you can take other aspects that’ll weigh in on the importance of each task in comparison to others, such as the due date, resources needed, or if everyone involved is available, etc. This is called relative priority.
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