How to prioritize
How to Prioritize: A Complete Guide to Getting Your Most Important Work Done
How to prioritize

How to Prioritize: A Complete Guide to Getting Your Most Important Work Done

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 definition of prioritization
  • A simple but effective step-by-step guide for prioritizing projects.
  • Proven methods for prioritizing your tasks. 
  • Bonus prioritization tips

Let’s dive in. 

What is prioritization?

Whether you’re using a work management tool, a [to-do list] app, or pen and paper, you usually start your day with a mess of tasks. Unless you go out of your way to note how important each one is, it can be tough to know where you should start. That’s where prioritization comes in.

With prioritization, you determine when and how you should tackle each particular task. This can be done in a few ways, like determining how important a specific task is for reaching your goals, how much time it takes to complete, or how many people depend on this task being done. You turn a pile of tasks into a plan of action.

Now how do you prioritize your tasks? Read on.

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:

  1. Run a retrospective workshop on the most recent ad campaign. 
  2. Determine next year’s freelance budget with CFO. 
  3. 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. 

5 methods for prioritizing tasks

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. 

Eat the Frog

Eat the Frog might be the simplest prioritization method there is. It’s derived from this Mark Twain quote: “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.”

How’s it done? Simple. Look at all your tasks. Find the one that gives you the most anxiety — like eating a frog might. Make that the first task you do in your day. Don’t tackle anything else until it’s done.

It’s dead simple, and it’s one of the best ways to fight procrastination. It might not be the best method for breaking down a long list of tasks, but if you frequently have big tasks you push to later, this is a great method for taking care of them.

Find your 20% tasks

Ever heard of the Pareto principle? Here’s the basic premise. In any endeavor, 20% of your input — the “vital few” — are responsible for 80% of your output. In economics, this usually means the richest 20% of a population group has 80% of the income for that group. In project management, it means 20% of your tasks are responsible for 80% of your results.

How can this be applied to prioritizing tasks? Look at your task list. Can you think of the tasks that fit in that 20%? Tasks that already seem like they could really help the business hit its goals?

Note that it’s not always easy to tell. For example, can you really know which blog post in your calendar will bring in the most traffic? Not necessarily. But keeping this principle in mind can at least help you eliminate the tasks that are definitely not in the 20%.

Critical, medium, and low priority

With this method, you can use a simple three-point scale to determine how your tasks are. No need for a complicated formula, a graph, or anything like that. Just look at a task, ask yourself if it’s critical or low-priority — and save the medium priority for tasks where it’s not so clear.

If you use a work management tool, this is especially easy to do. Just use labels to mark each task’s priority clearly. Red, yellow, and green are great colors for this.

The strength of this method is that it’s super easy to roll out to different teams. Everyone can grasp it pretty quickly, as opposed to something like the Eisenhower matrix.

How to prioritize: a few more tips

Whichever method you choose, there are steps you can follow to make prioritizing tasks just a bit easier for yourself. Here are more general tips for people looking to learn how to prioritize.

Use tools

Pen and paper can only get you so far. To save yourself some work when it comes to prioritizing tasks, you should familiarize yourself with tools that make the job easier. Work management tools like Trello are great for laying out your tasks efficiently. [To-do list apps] also usually have features that help you prioritize your work.

Have a backlog

Does your task list keep growing with no end in sight? Instead of pushing them day after day, start using a backlog. Based on the product backlog from Agile methodology, think of the backlog as a repository for everything you need to do. No due dates, no time pressure, just a place where all your tasks exist. Then, you check in regularly — usually every two weeks — to add important tasks to your plate. It’s also a great place to send requests from other teams when you don’t have time for them.

Remove distractions

Your workspace is full of potential distractions. Slack notifications, new emails, and task pop-ups make it too easy to lose track of what you’re doing. It’s best to try blocking off some time, either at the beginning of the workday or the night before, to prioritize your tasks. Turn off notifications, stay focused, and get it done.

Find your most productive hours

Some people get up at 5am and crush the day in those first few hours. Others need three coffees to get through their morning commute but obliterate their tasks long after everyone else has gone to sleep. There’s no shame in doing one or the other; in fact it’s best to know when you’re at your most productive. That way, you can make sure your most important tasks are slotted for whatever your magic hour is.

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.