Do you wonder why you’re less productive no matter how many tasks you complete? Many of us have asked the same question.
We mostly believe that burning both ends of the candle will yield results. But sadly, hard work does not guarantee productivity.
As it turns out, checking off tasks at the wrong time can be as problematic as procrastinating and idling around. That’s why you’ll find yourself still miles away from your goals despite being busy all day.
Your issue is not laziness, it’s poor prioritization.
We lose focus on the things that matter most because we’re chasing deadlines and engaging in unnecessary activities.
Consider a McKinsey study that showed how workers spend their workweek. It reported that 20% of their typical workweek goes to tracking down colleagues for help or looking for internal information. The study also found that employees spend 28% of their workweek attending to emails.
Those numbers show how workers often misplace priorities, and you may be in the same boat.
However, by learning how to prioritize tasks properly, you can turn things around and boost your productivity level.
This article covers the steps to prioritize tasks at work to make the most of your time.
1. Create a Complete To-Do List
The first step in prioritizing at work is capturing all your tasks in one place.
During this stage, you don’t have to worry about order. Your main goal is identifying and listing every task that you must handle.
This process may sound like what you do every day, but it’s not.
It involves adding everything up, from your ideas to planned meetings and conversations.
Collate your tasks from every source, including your boss, colleagues, external departments, clients, and partners. If you’re going to respond to emails or are expecting a project progress report to review, add those activities to your task list.
This way, you have all you need to determine your priorities and order them. Leaving a task out of the list will mess up your schedule and disrupt your workflow when it surfaces later.
This central to-do list repository can cover each day, week, or month. But it’s important that you create master lists for each day to make things easy.
You can use a piece of paper, spreadsheet, checklist app, or project management tool to create the list. What’s important is having access to update the list when new information shows up.
2. Start Categorizing Urgent and Important Tasks
Once you’ve captured your tasks in one place, start categorizing them. Some tasks are important and others are urgent. And you must understand that urgent and important tasks are not necessarily the same.
Understanding Urgent and Important Tasks
It’s crucial to understand the differences between urgent and important tasks in terms of priorities. This knowledge will help you determine which task to drop for the other. That’s because a pressing deadline shouldn’t be the only thing that drives you to complete a job.
Identifying Important Tasks
Identifying your important tasks follows building your master list and is the first step in pointing out your priorities.
Your long-term goals and objectives should help you pinpoint crucial tasks that should be taken seriously.
For example, if your current project involves preparing a new proposal, tasks related to that project should be treated as more important.
Categorizing Urgent Tasks
Urgent tasks have pressing deadlines and need swift attention. There are clear consequences when you don’t handle these tasks immediately, and you often can’t avoid them.
Which Task Should be Handled First?
Urgent tasks are not necessarily tied to your long-term goals and may be work you have to do for colleagues.
However, some important tasks can also be urgent.
In a case where an important task requires immediate attention, it should come first. But if important tasks are not urgent, they can be treated later.
That said, it’s recommended that you favor important and non-urgent tasks over urgent and non-important ones. That’s because you can delegate the latter to free up time for the former.
3. Use a Task Prioritization Technique
Your understanding of important and regent tasks will help you successfully implement the techniques we’ll explain below.
There are different time management and task prioritization systems that will help you identify and order your priorities. Some will work better than others, depending on the nature of your tasks.
So, go through the different techniques and pick the ones that work best for you.
The 4 Ds of Time Management
One of the most effective ways to categorize your task is using the 4 Ds of time management. They’re a series of actions that allow you to group tasks into four different buckets. This way, you can separate them according to importance and declutter the to-do list.
The actions are:
- Do: Urgent and important tasks that you must clear immediately. These tasks should top the list.
- Defer: These tasks can be put off for later.
- Delegate: Assignments and activities that you can hand off to other people.
- Delete: Tasks that you should remove from the list.
Tasks that you must act on are those that are important and urgent. They mostly have pressing deadlines that attract severe consequences if not adhered to.
Deferring tasks is different from procrastination. Putting off some jobs for later helps you clear your schedule to deal with more pressing and critical tasks that require urgent attention.
Delaying tasks in this context can also help you maintain your work flow and current schedule.
For example, if a colleague brings a new job to your desk, you can delay that job if it’s not critical. This way, you’ll not disrupt your original work process and schedule.
The important thing about the ‘defer’ process is accurately identifying tasks that you should complete later.
So, regardless of how interesting or easy a project seems to be, you should ideally defer it if it’s not important.
While delegating tasks sheds your workload, it’s a sensitive undertaking.
You may have to deal with the anxiety of not doing the job yourself, as the thought of errors can be frightening.
That’s why you have to be careful about delegating tasks.
But how do you hack it?
CEOs and managers use the 70 percent rule to identify tasks that others can handle, and it’s been effective.
According to the rule, you should handover a task to someone who will have at least a 70% success rate at executing it. The goal is to forego perfection while maintaining an acceptable level of quality.
That said, you should only apply the 70% rule to tasks that are suitable for this performance level. You have to handle those that require a 100% success rate yourself.
Some tasks are unnecessary and end up being time-wasters. So, you have to get rid of them. This action is another way to clean up your to-do list and make time for meaningful work.
While the process may seem self-explanatory, you may encounter challenges when identifying tasks you should delete.
The best way to use the “delete” technique is to look for ineffective and dispensable activities in your schedule.
For example, are you scheduled to attend meetings that you don’t have to join? Can the entire meeting agenda be covered in 20 minutes instead of 2 hours? And do you really have to organize a meeting for project reports when you can send and receive updates via email?
It would be good to take your time and reanalyze your work routine. You’ll discover tasks that you can delete or significantly shorten.
The Eisenhower Matrix is a task prioritization technique developed by Dwight D. Eisenhower, a World War II general and the 34th President of the United States.
The matrix is a straightforward tool that helps you simplify decision-making when scheduling and prioritizing tasks.
It’s a quadrant that helps you differentiate levels of importance and urgency. That’s why it’s also called the Urgent-Important Matrix or Priority Matrix.
Tasks are split into four different boxes to allow you determine what comes first and what you should eliminate.
It’s different from the 4 Ds of Time Management because it clearly categorizes jobs according to importance, not nature.
Let’s break down the four quadrants.
Quadrant 1: Urgent and Important Tasks
These tasks have the highest priority level in the quadrant. You’ll incur serious consequences if you neglect them for other tasks. So, lump tasks that you have to complete as soon as possible into this category.
Quadrant 2: Important and Not Urgent
This quadrant is considered the most productive of the litter. Since they’re not urgent, you can easily decide to put them off. However, they provide more value in the long run when you get them done. So, they should ideally follow the important and urgent tasks in your schedule.
Quadrant 3: Urgent and Not Important
These tasks tend to cause confusion and drag down productivity. Most of the time, they’re interruptions that disrupt your workflow and remove your attention from what’s important.
They’re mainly tasks that you do for others and don’t concern the core aspect of your work. Yet, they have pressing deadlines.
You can get rid of these tasks by delegating them using the 70 percent rule as we explained above.
Quadrant 4: Not Urgent and Not Important
These are tasks that you must always avoid. They’re the same as those that fall into the delete category in the 4 Ds of time management.
Order Your Tasks with Precision Using the Relative Priority Technique
No doubt, the Eisenhower Matrix is a great task prioritization model that has worked for many. But, what if many tasks end up in the first quadrant?
The same goes for the Do category in the 4 Ds of Time Management. What happens when multiple jobs have the same level of importance and urgency?
That’s where the Relative Priority technique becomes beneficial.
The technique helps you weigh the importance and urgency of each task against another to determine which should come on top.
It involves assigning a number, from one to ten, to each task. There can only be a single number one, two, three, and so on.
Now you know how the technique works, but how do you weigh tasks with similar priorities?
First, use each task’s deadline to determine where to start from. Then, check their dependencies.
For example, if a task must be completed to put others in motion, then you should increase its rank.
Focus on Your Most Important Tasks
What if you struggle to get through your tasks after prioritizing them? The MIT method can help.
Zen Habits’ Leo Babuta made the technique popular when he explained how it helped his work process.
How does it work?
Choose three of your most important tasks and complete them first. Then, you can breeze through other jobs as a bonus for the day.
This way, you’ll get other jobs done without the added pressure. And things will also be easier since you’re relishing the high of completing your most important tasks.
Use the Pareto Principle
The Pareto Principle complements the MIT method and helps you find a way to schedule a successful work day.
It was named after Vilfredo Pareto and is also called the “Law of the vital few” or the 80/20 rule.
The principle proposes that 20% of your tasks determine 80% of your work day’s success.
But the tricky part of the technique is identifying 20% of your work.
So how do you go about it?
Look at your MIT.
Choose tasks from your to-do list that, once completed, will make you feel accomplished for the day.
Once you identify these jobs, start working on them and focus on one at a time.
Tips on Executing Prioritized Tasks and Sticking to Schedule
You’ve done the bulk of the work if you’ve prioritized your tasks and figured out how to move from one to another.
But it’s one thing to know your priorities and it’s another to execute them on time.
The tips that follow will show you how to manage your priorities and go through your daily schedule with ease.
Track Your Time
Most of us are victims of the planning fallacy – a situation where we underestimate how much time it will take to complete a task. As a result, we end up chasing deadlines almost every time.
This situation happens because we don’t measure time.
When you frequently measure time, you begin to really understand and appreciate each task’s difficulty level.
That’s why you should use a time tracking application to assess your performance.
Time trackers monitor how much time you spend on a task, application, or website. Once you complete the job, you can check the detailed analysis to understand the time it consumed.
Time tracking also motivates you to do better since it shows you apps and websites that distract you. Also, knowing you’re on the clock improves your sense of urgency and focus.
Break Large Tasks Into Smaller Chunks
“There is only one way to eat an elephant: a bite at a time.” – Desmond Tutu
Breaking up large tasks into smaller manageable pieces allows you to prioritize better and avoid procrastination and mental fatigue.
And studies have shown that procrastination has a negative impact on performance and costs workers a huge chunk of their salaries.
To avoid the overwhelming feeling that comes with looking at a large task, break it down.
To do that, make up a to-do list out of the large task and assign deadlines to each. Then, integrate those tasks into your schedule.
You can also turn these tasks into milestones, so you can keep your eyes on the big prize. This way, you get a sense of satisfaction each time you inch closer to your objective.
Multitasking is the merchant of distractions. And distractions are deadly to productivity and performance.
You’ll hardly get a lot done if you decide to tackle two priorities simultaneously. A study tested 200 people in dual- and single-tasking conditions and found that 97.5 percent of people find it hard to multitask.
So, make sure you stick to the Relative Priorities technique explained above and cross off each task at a time.
The following tips can also help you avoid multitasking:
- Focus on your work when at your desk
- Remove potential distractions from your workspace
- Turn off unnecessary notifications
- Block distracting applications and websites using app blockers
Map Your Time
Time mapping is a time management system that helps you move from task to task with ease.
After ranking your priorities, you may be swayed by distractions or impromptu tasks. By using a time map, you always know what to do next, keeping you grounded and focused on your schedule.
The time map shows you an overview of your entire day, week, or month. This way, you’re able to see how you move across the map.
Creating a time map is easy. You can use a sheet of paper or digital calendar to create a time block for each task. Then use color codes to categorize these tasks and activities according to type and priority.
Distractions can make you take your eye off the ball and fall behind schedule. According to a University of California, Irvine study, it can take up to 23 minutes to get back to work after an interruption.
So, try avoiding distractions to focus on your jobs and clear off your tasks when you should.
So how do you reduce distractions?
- Block access to social media and other distracting websites to reduce cyberslacking
- Take short breaks
- Delegate non-work related tasks, especially if you work from home
- Use visual reminders such as sticky notes to tether yourself to work
- Plan your day the night before and stick to your schedule
- Declutter your workspace
- Then off notifications
The Pomodoro Technique Can Help
The Pomodoro Technique is an efficient and popular time management method that improves concentration and reduces mental stress. Pomodoro is the Italian word for tomato and this technique is named after the tomato-shaped kitchen timer that was originally used to alternate short work bursts with breaks.
Here’s how it works:
First Step: Set a 25-minute timer for your first task
Second Step: Work on the task and stop once the time is up
Third Step: Take a 5-minute break
Fourth Step: Repeat, then after the 4th pomodoro take a longer 20- to 30-minute break
Now you know that you can do 20% of the day’s tasks and still be productive. The secret is knowing the right items to cross off your to-do list. Continue refining your process to discover the best way to prioritize your tasks and execute them.