We’ve all had those days where the dread starts to creep in during your morning commute. While everyone around you sips their morning lattes, all you can think about is the endless to-do list waiting for you at the office. You know that once you sit down at your desk, you’re going to have to make some tough decisions. When every single project and task is deemed ‘most-important’, knowing where to start seems impossible. For project managers, learning how to prioritize can feel a lot like learning how to pick a favorite child.
But project managers need to know how to prioritize. It’s something your team depends on you for, and it helps reduce that dread you feel on your way to work.
Continue reading for:
- A simple but effective step-by-step guide for prioritizing projects.
- Proven methods for prioritizing your tasks.
Let’s dive in.
How to prioritize: A step-by-step guide for project managers
It’s the beginning of the workday, you look at your overwhelming to-do list and the mere act of starting anything seems impossible. Instead of prioritizing and working your way through your tasks, you spend your time overthinking and trying to decide where to start. Sound familiar? That’s “analysis-paralysis” — freezing in the face of decision-making.
Thankfully, there are ways to combat this and prioritize your most important work. To help illustrate each step, I’ll show you how I prioritize when even looking at my workload is too much.
1. Examine your tasks.
The first step towards a more efficient work process is to look at everything you have to do. Trust me, I know this part can be difficult. But, once you’ve laid it all out and it’s not just taking up precious space in your brain, conquering these tasks seems much more do-able.
No matter what project management tools, software — or other methods like sticky-notes and notebooks — you use, gather all of your tasks in one place. You might have some tasks in Wrike, some sitting in Asana, and a few in Basecamp, but a tool like Unito can bring them all into one place. Switching tools means additional effort (and one more task on your to-do list) so having everything seamlessly integrated together instantly reduces your mental load.
Once I can clearly see all of my tasks, I’m able to set realistic goals for completion. I will make a list of my monthly, weekly, and daily tasks based on their urgency. For example, if I know there’s a big advertising campaign due next month:
- my monthly goal will be to have the full concept complete
- my weekly goal will be to have two of the three concepts written
- and my daily goal will be to brainstorm and finalize ideas for these two concepts.
2. Do the easiest task first.
Now that I’ve looked over my tasks, I’m looking for an easy win to keep me motivated. The best way to do this is by completing the easiest task first. This is a strategy I’ve used since my high school exam days, and it never fails.
What’s something on your to-do list that could be done in under an hour? By starting with that, you know that you’re able to cross off at least one task from your list. This approach uses this principle from the One Task Method:
“…take one task from your to-do list and make that the only thing you plan to accomplish that day. The goal of the one task method is not to do less work; it’s about doing the same amount of work — and maybe more — with less stress.”
Instead of multitasking and switching between more difficult tasks, I’m able to dedicate my time and energy to completing one task at a time.
I’ve found this is also helpful when applied to your email inbox. I’ve made a rule for myself that if I receive an email and my response will take less than five minutes to send, I answer it right away. If I know it requires a longer or more thoughtful response, I will add it to my to-do list. With this approach, I’m able to more specifically prioritize the task of answering emails. Instead of a general “answer emails” task, I can use “answer Anne’s email regarding the upcoming ad campaign.”
This helps clear some of the mental clutter that comes with a crowded email inbox, and gives me time to devote to writing more effective emails overall.
3. Consider the ROI.
Now that you’ve got the easiest task out of the way, it’s time to decide how you’re going to prioritize the rest of your work. This is the most important step when it comes to prioritizing effectively.
Before starting any task, I need to know two things: the payoff and my project management priorities. In simplest terms, I want to determine the ROI by comparing the expected outcome of a task with my professional goals and the goals of the business.
For example, maybe your to-do list includes tasks like:
- Run a retrospective workshop on the most recent ad campaign.
- Determine next year’s freelance budget with CFO.
- Assign graphic designer and art director to CEO’s international conference presentation.
These tasks are all important, but you still need to prioritize them. Here are a few basic principles to consider:
- Which task will impact the most people?
- What’s the seniority level of the stakeholders?
- Which task will cost the most — in time and resources — if failed?
- Which tasks contribute most to the success or detriment of the business?
With these ideas in mind, the highest priority task on the list above is assigning a graphic designer and art director. An international conference is likely a great opportunity to raise positive sentiment and brand awareness for the business, thus increasing revenue. Plus, it’s something that the CEO presumably requested.
The Hierarchy of Purpose
To help make these types of decisions easier, the Harvard Business Review has a method called The Hierarchy of Purpose. Under this framework, any act of prioritizing should consider the purpose of the business. Ask yourself these questions:
- What is the purpose of the organization and how is that purpose best pursued?
- What is the strategic vision supporting this purpose?
Once you have this core idea in mind, it becomes much easier to determine which projects align with the business’ key objectives.
The Eisenhower Matrix
When I’m looking for a bit more guidance on how to prioritize my tasks, I turn to the Eisenhower Matrix. This framework helps you prioritize tasks based on urgency and importance, using a table with four quadrants:
- Urgent and important: The “Do First sector.” Items that need to be done today or tomorrow.
- Less urgent and important: The “Schedule sector.” Items you need to schedule in your calendar.
- Urgent and less important: The “Delegate sector.” Tasks that you can assign to others and monitor.
- Less urgent and less important: The “Don’t do sector.” Items you should erase from your to-do list.
When trying to prioritize, I’ll write out my own Eisenhower Matrix table and categorize each item on my to-do list. This helps me quickly recognize what needs my attention right away, and what can be eliminated from my to-do list altogether.
Confident you know how to prioritize your tasks?
The next time you’re overwhelmed and don’t know how to prioritize your work, follow the steps above for a dose of instant clarity. When you take a look at your collective tasks, work on the easiest task first, and, most importantly, consider the ROI, you’ll be crossing items off of your to-do list in no time.