How to Prioritize Your Tasks

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So you have all this stuff to get done every day and your to-do list is full — how do you know what to do first, second and third? 

Pretty much everyone feels like they have too much to do and too little time to do it. Often, 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.

1. 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 are mundane “to-dos” that can be personal (meal-planning and grocery shopping) or work-related (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 will see no 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, obviously, 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 — often called projects — can later be broken down into smaller components — for example, “write 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 doing your quarterly 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. Think about improving your small business website or finding a new primary care provider.

Self-Motivated, Not Necessary 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, or ever. Example: paint your radiators.

2. Organize Your List

Once you’ve listed everything, you can figure out what to do first and organize your schedule. (How you physically do this — on a sheet of paper, a planner, an app, an online calendar, or otherwise — matters less than that you choose a method that works for you and that you’ll use.) Here are some criteria to think about:

Urgent or Important

All tasks can be sorted into one of four categories. Urgent and important tasks should be done first, as soon as possible; urgent but not important tasks can be delegated if possible, but if not, your schedule should include enough flexibility and extra time to accommodate them when they pop up; important but not urgent tasks should be planned well in advance so they do not become urgent; tasks that are neither important nor urgent can potentially be eliminated, although if you enjoy them, they should be worked into your schedule so they won’t get crowded out by more demanding obligations.

Assess Value

You can judge the value of a task in several ways. One might be whether other people are impacted, and how important those people are to you (the approval of your boss and the well-being of children who depend on you being more important than, say, the opinions of a group of strangers you agreed to join at a meetup.) 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% of effects come from 20% of causes. This may or may not prove true for you, but it’s a good reminder to identify what you’re actually spending time on and which of your efforts are paying off.

Timing and 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.

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 will probably lead to stress and disappointment.

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. That’s all the more reason to build more time into your schedule to allow for flexibility.

3. Batch Tasks

Batching tasks is one of the most effective, efficient ways to get those nagging, do-all-the-time tasks done. Batching simply means you work on the same type of task over and over before switching to something else. The first step is to identify 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 requires completing similar tasks that require similar resources in “batches" to improve efficiency and productivity. Here are some examples:

  • Pay all of your bills at the same time
  • Open all of your mail once a week and action it rather than letting it stack up each day and never getting to it

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.

4. Eliminate Tasks

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. These can be sometimes delegated to someone else, but if that’s not possible, you have to 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 even want to do, but you felt pressured to add at some point (go to the gym, attend a book club.) These can be eliminated entirely.

Finally, it is possible to 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.