That is The Question: How to Prioritize Your Tasks.
With many managers having an average of 40 ‘open’ projects on the go at one time, it’s obvious
that in business we are coming under ever-increasing time pressure.
Clearly we can’t do absolutely everything, and certainly not at the same time, so it is vital to
have some method for prioritization so we can choose what needs to be done before something
Unfortunately, many people, even among those who think themselves good task managers, don’t ever
really get to grips with what is one of the most crucial aspects of personal productivity.
The Prioritization Challenge.
So, how to tackle our workload when virtually everything we do seems to need doing now because
it’s either tremendously urgent or crucially important?
Most traditional systems seek to give a ‘weight’ to each task. So, traditional To Do list and
time management techniques often suggest using either a letter or a number to designate a task’s
Though having a system that uses 1, 2, 3 or A, B, C to take you from the ‘must do’ 1s and As on
our list down to the unimportant 3s and Cs, may seem like a good idea, it’s not one that’s so easy
to follow in practice.
Particularly when you have either lots of similar items, or such a diverse range of tasks that
they are difficult to compare, it’s often not straightforward to decide whether a task is an A or a
B, a 2 or a 3.
Even when you have done your best to weigh up each one, you can still end up with 10 or 12 A
items, and what do you do then? You are faced with trying to identify the nuances that will make
one job super-important above the rest.
Making such fine judgment calls is far from an exact science, takes time and can become a strain
in itself. And, with more and more jobs clamoring for your time, the problem can only get
Of course, there are times when it is blindingly obvious which task
needs to be done first, but when it’s not, here are some ways to sort the wheat from the chaff.
1. Limit the options.
Limit the number of items you are trying to prioritize between. It is
far easier to decide which project or task to do first if you are choosing only between two or
three rather than seven or eight. Unfortunately, all too often traditional To Do lists quickly
become cluttered with new tasks, ideas and thoughts that crop up through the day.
This not only creates a feeling of overwhelm, but also makes it harder
to prioritize from the tangle of tasks. So, keep your Daily Task lists ‘clean’.
2. Chunk it Down.
Don’t let what task management expert, David Allen, calls ‘amorphous
blobs of un-doability’ get on to your lists in the first place. These are items like such as
‘Organize Photography, or ‘Develop Mail Campaign’ that are too unfocused and bulky to prioritize
between. They fight for our attention alongside more useful items, but just ‘constipate’ our lists
and make us feel that we have too much to do.
These big beasts need bringing down to size. A powerful way to do this
is to ask yourself: ‘What is the Next Action I can take to move this project forward?’ This simple
question forces you to break down the job into do-able small steps, such as ‘Phone photographer,
‘Brief designer’, ‘Meet marketing team’, which are far easier to prioritize.
3. Small Stuff? Just Do It.
Don’t prioritize very small jobs that will take less than two minutes
to complete. Just do them.
4. Trust Your Gut.
Don’t be frightened to use your intuition to decide what at to go for
first. In any event, always take some form of action otherwise you will fall victim to ‘analysis
paralysis’, that will just end in procrastination.
While many tasks are ‘universal’, others can only be done in certain
circumstances or ‘contexts’, which enables you at any one time to focus on the jobs that can be
done, rather than those you’re not ‘equipped’ to do at that particular time. So, look for ways to
filter out larger tasks from your immediate view by prioritizing by context, such as:
Location. While there are many tasks that can be done anywhere,
and increasingly so using technology such as iPads, laptops, Wi-Fi and smartphones, there are still
jobs that are location-specific and so need to be done at our office, home, or on site. These jobs
should take priority when you are in the right place.
Resource. Some tasks can only be done when we have the right
equipment - a phone or computer for instance - with which to do them. If the only thing you can do
while waiting for a plane is to make phone calls, then make this the priority in that
People. Many tasks and projects can only move forward when we
engage or work with someone in particular, such as colleague, boss, husband or wife. Prioritize
these tasks when you are with them.
Available time. If you have little time in which to do
something, then prioritize five or ten-minute jobs you can do in that time rather than starting a
task that’s going to take two hours to complete.
Energy levels. Some tasks require much more focused
concentration and effort than others. So, if you are ‘charged up’, then working on important,
thought-hungry tasks is the way to go. If you are ‘flat’ at the end of the day, then more routine
and less creative tasks could come to the top of the pile.
By using these contexts, it will often be obvious which are the
Unfortunately, most To Do list software doesn’t offer the flexibility
to filter by context at all, which means you need to look instead at the new generation of smart
task management applications which does, ShoutDone included.
Practice exercising your prioritization muscles regularly until being
able to choose what to do next becomes a fast and natural process. This will take time and effort,
but will have a major impact on your productivity by helping you focus on completing high value
items that will maximize your progress and future success.