We all like to feel productive. But this often means we do things that are busy rather than effective.
The result? Nothing really gets done that makes any difference. Genuinely important things get pushed aside until they turn into crises.
Knowing how to prioritize work effectively reduces stress and means you feel on top of things. You do what matters, when it matters.
Step 1 - Know exactly what your work is
The first step is to know what your work actually consists of. Make a list of everything you want to do, along with any deadlines you have. Don’t rely on your memory -- get it down on paper, ideally in your daily planner.
This is for two reasons:
You only need to list things that (a) you want to do but (b) could forget. So, for example, you probably don’t need to remind yourself to have lunch.
As a final check, ask yourself ‘what will happen if I don’t do this?’
Step 2 - Break it down
Once you know what you want to do, organize it, as far as possible, into one day chunks. Every day you’ll have routine tasks such as email, which you can manage so you have an empty inbox every day.
Once you’ve ‘dealt with your dailies’, there are only so many hours left in your working day. Obviously, each day is different, but over time, you should get a rough idea of what one day’s worth of work looks like.
The best way to do this? Aim to do what comes in today... tomorrow. Doing what comes in today on the following day has many advantages, not least of which is the fact that you have a clearer idea of the amount of work you will do.
If you find you have too much to do every day, it’s a commitment issue. You have too much work to do and the only solutions are to cut your commitments or to slow down and manage the consequences of doing so.
Step 3 - Prioritize only the urgent - at first
Most advice on how to prioritize work advocates ordering all your tasks by A, B and C or some other number/letter method.
Why? Because it’s hard to motivate yourself for C tasks -- they just don’t seem to matter. In any case, left long enough those C tasks have a nasty habit of becoming urgent issues anyway.
If things are on your list, you put them there because they do matter.
Instead, start by prioritizing only those things that are deadline driven, particularly if something on your list is for today or tomorrow.
Everything else? Give it equal value and do it according to where you are and how you feel. This gives you a real sense of freedom and flexibility when it comes to the moment of choice.
Eventually you'll get to the point at which you habitually do things as they show up, not when they blow up. Prioritizing by urgency becomes less of an issue because less is urgent.
Make sure the work is yours to do; otherwise, delegate it.
Apart from knowing how to prioritize work by doing the urgent work first, your main aim should be to complete all the things you planned to do on any given day.
Once you have dealt with the immediate issues, it doesn’t matter what order you choose to tackle your tasks in as long as they all get done.
This doesn’t necessarily mean the task or project must be completed that day. It just means that you actually do some work on it.
Do that and you’ll find projects move on surprisingly smoothly, you have fewer last minute deadlines and things that make a real difference get done.