The ability to prioritize effectively is a critical skill for employees in every organization.
Yet, we often spend our time being reactive instead of consciously prioritizing.
If you’re like me, you probably check email or chat first thing in the morning, often before you officially start work. You think you want the information in those accounts, but it often comes as a distraction against more critical work. Experts call this a recency bias.
A better way to work is to be proactive and consciously decide what actions and projects come first, regardless of when you became aware of them.
Seeing the big picture requires thinking about things in advance — i.e., why should I have this done today instead of next week?
At first, you’ll need to consciously decide where to spend your time and whether you're tackling your work in the proper order. Practice these steps, however, and prioritizing will become second nature.
If you don’t know what matters, you can’t prioritize. So before you even attempt to prioritize, you need to get clear on what you’re trying to accomplish. (Even better, set SMART goals.)
If you’re a marketer, it might be user sign-ups or leads generated. If you a product person, it might be creating value for your users. In sales, closing deals reigns supreme.
This is an easy step to miss, but it’s a critical one. Once you have a clear picture of your goals, you can move on to deciding how to achieve them.
Many experts recommend that you look at every task based on two criteria:
Often urgent, unimportant work gets done first because it seems like it has to. Urgent always takes priority.
But is that unimportant task going to move the needle forward?
Instead, narrow down your options by considering the results you want to achieve. Prioritize work that is urgent AND important, followed by work that is simply important.
Is a task actually not that critical? Lower its priority or send it packing.
It can also be easy to put too much weight on tasks and projects that are large or have personal value.
But the best way to prioritize your tasks is to think of what the task will accomplish, not whether it’s a big or small task, difficult or not.
What’s the expected impact of this work going to be? Is it marginal or game-changing? Will it reveal some critical knowledge, or is it just something you’re doing because you did it last month too?
With the right mindset, process, and tools, you can beat burnout and outpace it with productivity.
However, letting yourself get overrun by too many tasks will almost certainly lead to 1) not being able to finish your work on time and 2) not being able to excel on any particular task.
Part of prioritizing well is saying, “I’m going to focus on this ONE thing right now.”
You have to make tradeoffs. Usually, that’s one priority per day and a maximum of three per week.
Don’t worry. Finish early, and you can always jump on to priority number four.
If something is indeed essential and high-impact, it may also be challenging, a lot of work, or out of your comfort zone.
This can lead to procrastination, stress, and ultimately, missed deadlines.
If it's important work that has to get done, it's better to set it as priority number one and get to it. Put down your email and chat, turn off notifications, and get to work. You'll be much happier with the task behind you.
One of the best prioritization tricks is to cut out tasks entirely.
Now, if your boss gave you a task, you’ll need to supply a rationale why your other work is more important.
Share your thought process around what the urgent and importance of the task is based on its expected impact.
Most of the time, your manager will be thankful that you’re thinking critically about how you’re spending your time. If they agree, they won’t be mad that you pushed back. Instead, they’ll be delighted that you’ve given so much thought to how you spend your time.
Once I’ve done all of the above, there still one mistake I still make. That’s to not leave enough room for extra tasks to come up.
I tend to fill my work week with the amount of work I think I can get done, but invariably, something will come up, adding an extra task to an already full week.
Always leave some wiggle room.
If you don’t need it, great, move on to the next thing. But if you do, you’ll find it a lot less stressful if you feel you have some bandwidth to tackle whatever it is that just came up.
On a related note…
A lot of what we have to prioritize comes out of meetings.
Hugo is software for meetings, notes, and tasks that connects with popular task management tools like Asana, Jira, Todoist, and Trello.
Hugo lets you create tasks right there from your meeting notes for easier prioritization without opening a new tab or app.
Sign up free to better manage your meeting notes and tasks.
How to set personal and professional SMART goals: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-Bound.
Tips and a template for how to give an effective project status update in a meeting.