Pretty much everyone feels like they have too much to do and too little time to do it. When your to-do list is full, how do you know which task to complete first? That overwhelmed feeling stems from an inability to prioritize all those seemingly-pressing tasks. If you feel like your to-do list is growing longer by the minute and you don’t even know where to start, here’s how to identify, evaluate, and prioritize your tasks.
Make a List
Before you try to sort your obligations in order of importance, take the time to compile a comprehensive list of everything that you need or want to accomplish. Divide your list into sections for different types of tasks. These categories could include:
- Daily or weekly tasks: These mundane “to-dos” can be personal, such as meal-planning and grocery shopping, or work-related, like a weekly team meeting. If you already follow a daily routine, you’ll be familiar with these tasks; if you don’t, this is a good time to create one. What you include can vary—some people won't need to remind themselves to check email or buy groceries, but others will appreciate the structured reminders to perform certain actions at certain times or on certain days.
- Tasks with deadlines: These need to be done by a specific date and require preparation beforehand. Examples could be a school paper that’s due in three weeks or a party you’re planning for six months from now. These sorts of tasks, or projects, can later be broken down into smaller components. For example, the task of writing a paper might be broken down into reading the relevant books, organizing your notes, writing an outline, writing the first draft, and so on.
- Recurring tasks: These don’t occur on a daily or weekly frequency, but they’re not one-time projects either. Recurring tasks could include dentist appointments or filing your quarterly estimated taxes.
- Self-motivated, necessary tasks: These are tasks or projects that you know you have to do, but no one’s going to make you. They rarely, if ever, have a built-in time limit. They might include improving your small business website or finding a new primary care provider.
- Self-motivated, unnecessary tasks: These are the more enjoyable activities that nevertheless tend to fall by the wayside as other, more obviously necessary tasks crowd them out. Think reading for pleasure or working on hobbies.
- "Someday" tasks: These tasks hang around at the bottom of your to-do list or the back of your mind, but they usually don’t have to be done soon; for example, paint your radiators.
Note: How you physically create this list, whether on a sheet of paper, in a planner, in an app, using an an online calendar, or otherwise, matters less than ensuring that you choose a method that works for you and that you’ll use.
Organize Your List
Once you’ve listed everything that needs to be done, you can figure out what to do first. All tasks can be sorted into one of four categories:
- Urgent and important tasks, or "must-do" tasks, which should be done first.
- Urgent but not important tasks, which, if possible, can be delegated. If not possible to delegate, your schedule should include enough flexibility and extra time to accommodate them when they pop up.
- Important but not urgent tasks, which should be planned well in advance so they do not become urgent.
- Tasks that are neither important nor urgent and can potentially be eliminated. However, if you enjoy them, they should be worked into your schedule so they won’t get crowded out by more demanding obligations.
Limit your daily must-do tasks to three at most. The day can also include smaller tasks that are more routine or of less importance or urgency, but loading up on major tasks can lead to stress and disappointment.
Assess the Value of Each Task
You can judge the value of a task in several ways. For example, consider whether other people are impacted and how important those people are to you—the approval of your boss or the well-being of your children are likely more important than, say, the opinions of a group of strangers you agreed to join at a meetup. However, remember that priorities can change—if your boss needs you to do something now, your previous first priority will probably get bumped down to the second.
You might also assign high value to tasks that you see paying off in the long-term or that you simply find rewarding. One reference you’ll probably encounter when reading about prioritizing tasks is the 80-20 rule, or Pareto Principle, which states that 80 percent of effects come from 20 percent of causes. This is a good reminder to identify what you’re actually spending time on and which of your efforts are paying off.
Allow for Flexibility
A functioning schedule allows for changes and recognizes time constraints. Be realistic when prioritizing and planning your days. When in doubt, overestimate the time a given task will take. If two tasks are due at the same time, choosing which to start with depends on how you work best. Some people prefer to get the simpler task out of the way to concentrate on the more complex one; others will feel reassured if they start on the harder task first, and get some or all of it done before moving on. Remember that you don’t have to take on one task or project from start to finish before moving on to the next—unless, of course, you find working that way boosts your productivity.
Batching tasks is one of the most efficient ways to get those nagging, repetitive tasks done. "Batching" refers to working on the same type of task continuously, such as paying all of your bills at one time or opening all of your mail once a week, before switching to another task.
To batch, identify the tasks you do over and over and then set up a simple workflow for them to follow. Then, you tackle those tasks at the same time using that workflow. Batching allows you to get into a groove doing the same task over and over, so you don't have to waste time figuring out instructions or what you should do next.
Eliminate Tasks When Possible
Once you’ve listed all your tasks and sorted them from most important to least, it will become clear which tasks are at the bottom of the list. Sometimes, you may be able to delegate the tasks to someone else. If that’s not possible, decide whether to schedule a time for them or eliminate them.
You may have tasks on your list that you do not have to do or that you don't even want to do, but you felt pressured to add at some point to you schedule, such as go to the gym or attend a book club meeting. If it relieves pressure from your life, these can be eliminated entirely.
Finally, it's possible that you simply have too much to do. If you can’t get everything done, evaluate your workload to determine whether you just need some more practice at prioritizing or whether you have to tell someone you can no longer continue doing a certain task.