Knowing how to prioritize work is a key skill that anyone can learn. Once you do it will transform the way you manage your day and you'll become far more effective.
Of course 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.
If you want to reduce stress and feel more on top of things, learn to do what matters when it matters:
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 out of your head and onto paper (or a screen if that's the way you roll now.).
This is for two solid 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?’
Once you know what you want to do, you’ll notice that your list consists of three types of work:
Okay, here’s how to prioritize work that you identify as...
Do These Tomorrow.
Yep, you read that right - tomorrow.
This method of learning how to prioritize work is based on Mark Forster's Do It Tomorrow time management system.
Draw a line under your list of outstanding single tasks. This is your backlog.
Every day, work on your finite backlog of outstanding single tasks.
Start with the tasks that you deem to be most urgent. Chip away at the list daily for as long as you want. With each passing day the backlog will be reduced.
Within a few days you will have cleared it.
From today, schedule any tasks for the following day (unless they are genuinely same day urgent). List them in under the next day’s date in your daily task diary. This will give you a finite list of tasks to do for the next day.
Tomorrow, do those tasks. Based on all the factors at the moment of choice (urgency, importance, time available, location, motivation, energy levels etc.) which task do you want to do first? Do it, cross it off your list, then pick the next one.
Your aim is to always work on that day’s scheduled tasks. If you don’t manage to complete one, add it to the following day’s list.
Repeat until complete.
So, as a rule, single tasks get done the day after they appear.
Doing this means you have a clear idea of the tasks you have to do on any given day.
Your list is also limited to no more than yesterday’s incoming tasks (remember, everything that comes in today gets done tomorrow).
Do what suits you when it suits you.
Some tasks will appear on a regular, even daily basis, such as email, paperwork etc.
Should you bother listing these every day in your task diary?
There is no hard and fast rule here. If it helps you ensure you’ll do them, do so. But you may not feel the need to write the same thing down on a daily basis. If that’s the case, make a weekly checklist of your recurring tasks and simply tick them off as you do them.
Do one at a time (as far as possible).
These consist of anything you consider to be more complex or time consuming than a task.
List all yours, then choose a ‘Current Project’ based on urgency, importance and impact.
Work on it (i.e. the tasks associated with it) daily for as long as you can.
Focus on finishing one project before starting the next.
The key to knowing how to prioritize work such as this is to set aside time each day to work on it. Dedicate some time every day until it’s done before you start the next one.
Much 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 things that are deadline driven, particularly if something on your list is for today or tomorrow.
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.
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 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 matter happen.