Setting priorities is your main ally in helping you deal with work stress, anxiety, and underperformance.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed by a hefty workload and, once you fall behind, it’s an uphill struggle to get back on top of your backlog. Now, prioritization by itself isn’t going to magically cure all your woes. You still have to put the work in. What prioritization WILL do is give you the right mindset, confidence, and path ahead to make each day as productive as it can be.
On paper, setting priorities is easy: take the most urgent task, do the task, repeat. However, the reality is rarely so straightforward. Between balancing importance and urgency, juggling multiple major deadlines, making time for daily tasks, and being available for colleagues in need, there is seldom a clear-cut way to best approach the work ahead.
Let’s take a look at what you can do about it and how to prioritize tasks so you can start managing your workload like a pro. But first, here are 3 principles that should underpin all your prioritization efforts.
3 key prioritization principles from productivity experts
1. Accept that you can’t do everything
If your to-do list looks like a CVS receipt, then you’re just piling on unnecessary stress. Jason Selk, a top performance coach in the US, highlights that one of the most common phrases he hears from clients is “There’s just too much to do, and it’s impossible for me to get everything done”, to which he answers — “that’s exactly right”.
Don’t expect the impossible from yourself. One of the main benefits of prioritization is a de-cluttered headspace with a clear vision of the tasks at hand. If the quantity of tasks you set yourself daily is unmanageable, then setting priorities will only help organize your despair.
2. Less is more
In a similar vein, David Allen, author of “Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity,” talks about cutting your to-do list to a maximum of 5 items. Longer task lists not only mean less time for each task, but they also crowd your mind with distractions as you often have to split your focus between multiple tasks.
Productivity is about efficiency, not quantity.
3. Find a method that works and stick to it
Lastly, if things are going well, don’t abandon your method. Matt Plummer, productivity coach and Zarvana founder, says “the main reason why to-do lists aren’t successful is that people stop using them”. Once you’ve dug yourself out of the hole that is an unorganized workday, it’s easy to get complacent and fall right back in because crossing things off your list quickly becomes routine and fails to generate the dopamine release it did earlier on.
Hold on to what works.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves. First, you need to find what works for you. Let’s do that right now.
7 ways how to prioritize tasks and time for better productivity
There’s no single right way how to prioritize tasks or tackle your work. You can dive in deep and spend half an hour every day arranging and rearranging your tasks and priorities or you can just keep a simple chronological to-do list and watch your productivity spike. What will work for you depends on the type of tasks you do, the size of your workload, and what kind of person you are.
Nevertheless, the overarching structure remains the same — gather tasks, prioritize them, complete them. In what follows, we’ll take a look at 7 ways how to excel at each of these steps.
1) List your tasks
Creating a list of all your tasks can be a very cathartic process because you get a complete overview of what demands your attention. In creating this list, be transparent with yourself — make sure to include things like meetings and anything else you spend time on throughout the day, such as helping others and general communication.
It needs to be as exhaustive as possible. If you have specific tasks and you know exactly where your attention will be needed, then listing tasks is just a matter of writing them down. Extra work, however, is needed from those of you whose tasks are more abstract, e.g. “improve sales”, and necessitate a breakdown into smaller tasks, e.g. “contact 10 leads”, “brainstorm with marketing team”, “review and analyze progress”.
Breaking the tasks down is essential for creating an actionable task list that you can organize your day around, which is the whole point of to-do lists.
2) 3 methods for setting priorities
With your task list at hand, now comes the part where most of us struggle in our day-to-day — assigning priorities. You can go with your gut, or you can use an established methodology — it’s your call, really, as long as you achieve the desired productivity boost. Don’t hesitate to try out different methods to find the one that works for you.
Here are 3 methods to try:
A. The Eisenhower matrix
A productivity method developed by the 34th President of the United States Dwight Eisenhower is a prioritization matrix that helps find a balance between urgency and importance by pitching them against each other. Too often are we distracted from things that matter by supposedly urgent tasks, which, in retrospect, could wait. Eisenhower’s matrix helps solve this issue.
In essence, you’re taking all your tasks and placing each into one of four categories:
- Urgent & important — your top priorities, to be done ASAP
- Urgent, but not important — delegate to someone else
- Important, but not urgent — to be done once the urgent & important tasks are completed
- Neither important nor urgent — if possible, consider deleting these tasks or shelving them indefinitely
This method can help dispel the feeling of urgency created by new emails and let you focus on what really matters. Immediately inputting new tasks in this matrix is an incredible and objective way to deal with incoming assignments.
B. Pareto principle productivity
The Pareto principle states that for many outcomes roughly 80% of consequences come from 20% of the causes. Productivity experts have identified a similar relationship between task impact and quantity, namely that 20% of the things you do generate 80% of the results.
For workload prioritization, it is then recommended to identify what are those 20% of tasks and devote a majority of time to them, tackling them before anything else.
C. Trust your gut
At the end of the day, a lot of these methods might not apply to you. After all, you’re probably not facing the same responsibilities as a US president, nor can you always afford to discard or delegate your tasks. While methods, such as the ones above, can help you think about your tasks in a more structured manner, ultimately we all have to find the balance that works for us personally.
You can still reap the productivity benefits by setting priorities your own way. For instance, with your tasks gathered, you can simply enumerate them per your perceived order of importance. Also, don’t hesitate to reach out to your manager if you’re an employee struggling with prioritization. It’s the manager’s responsibility to get the most value out of you for the company, so by reviewing tasks together you can determine what’s a priority and what’s not.
3) Cut the daily task list down as much as possible
There’s no point in a to-do list if it’s impossible to complete. Prune it as much as possible right from the get-go. And doubly so, when you’re setting yourself daily tasks. If there are more than 5 large tasks on your plate, chances are you won’t be able to give each of them the attention they deserve.
Plus, as paradoxical as it may sound, the evidence says that to be more productive you need to do less. We spend too much time and energy on busy work and not enough on work that brings results. By delegating most of your time to tasks that matter, you’ll achieve more, even if some tasks fall to the wayside.
4) Make space for interruptions and breaks
From colleagues in need of assistance to urgent emails — random tasks pop up all the time and can throw you off your productivity groove. Unless you plan time for these things, then your to-do list won’t be representative of what your day looks like. Of course, blowing colleagues off isn’t an option, so plan for interruptions.
The best way to do this is to use a productivity method called time blocking — assign a certain timeslot for each day which will be dedicated to catching up with emails, helping colleagues, and other miscellaneous work priorities.
What’s more, when laying out your daily schedule, don’t forget about breaks. As mentioned, productivity is about efficiency, not quantity, and taking regular breaks will help you work at top capacity.
So between assisting others and taking breaks, expect to have no more than 6 hours a day to dedicate to your own tasks and you need to prioritize your workload accordingly.
5) Eat the frog
Even with a realistic daily to-do list in front of you, unless you have clear deadlines, you still need to decide how to set priorities for the day itself. Simply going ahead task by task is fine, however, many productivity experts are fond of the eat the frog method for prioritizing tasks.
In short, the idea is that if you eat a frog the first thing in the morning, your day can’t get much worse. Applied to productivity, the idea translates to completing the most intimidating or demanding task ASAP to make sure the rest of your workday is as worry-free as possible. That way, no matter how the rest of your day goes, you’ll have achieved a significant goal and done something productive.
6) Discover and adapt to your productivity patterns
For those of you who really want to take full control of your day, perhaps a more scientific approach than just eating the frog is in order. You can use tools like DeskTime to automatically track how productive you are throughout the day. This can help you identify productivity peaks and dips and plan your day accordingly.
For instance, if you’re most productive between 9–11 am, plan your most demanding tasks for those hours. On the other hand, if you have a post-lunch dip in productivity, fill those hours with meetings and other less essential tasks.
Understanding your own “performance schedule” is key for squeezing the most out of your day, so check out DeskTime and try it for free.
7) Keep a log of your progress & adapt your schedule
Last, but by no means least, don’t expect to hit the nail on the head right away. At first, your to-do list might end up too long and it’s easy to abandon the list if you feel like you’re never completing it. Therefore, you need to constantly adapt and improve your scheduling and task prioritization abilities.
By keeping track of your progress, you gain a better understanding of how much you achieve during the day and this can help plan for the future. It’s this iterative improvement that will help you craft to-do lists that actually work and dispel any work anxiety or stress related to task management and personal performance.
As mentioned, setting priorities won’t magically fix everything. It will, however, equip you with the mindset and confidence you need to make the most out of your day, without having to worry about lost time, unclear tasks, and drowning in your backlog.
DeskTime is an automatic time-tracking app that can be your best friend in helping you stay productive and understanding where your time goes, which is crucial for setting realistic goals and correctly prioritizing tasks. Try it free for 14 days — no strings attached.