How to determine what should get moved to the top of your list
Tell me if this sounds like you: You’ve got tons of work to do and have no idea where to start. Deadlines are getting closer and closer, your team is relying on you, and stress levels are sky high. And why does it seem like your to-do list just gets longer and longer?
You’re stuck, and you need solutions. Then it hits you, “I need to learn how to prioritize.” So you get online to figure out where to start.
“Make a list and organize it by importance!” They say.
“Try grouping items based on urgency!” They say.
But something tells me the whole reason you’re here in the first place is because you need to figure out how to identify those exact kinds of tasks from the huge list of things you absolutely need to get done. What really comes first?
How are you supposed to move the most important items to the top of the list if it all seems important?
What if everything is urgent?
How are you supposed to make a list of priorities if you don’t know how to prioritize?
It’s not that helpful to jump to the finish line when you’re still stuck at square one.
The good news is you’ve come to the right place. Here’s everything to consider when figuring out task priorities.
It’s true, part of effective prioritization is gauging the level of your work’s importance and urgency. But there’s a lot more to it. And each part of prioritizing takes practice. So, here’s how to sift through the tasks on your list and clarify what you should move to the top:
Deadlines are an obvious giveaway for determining where tasks should sit on your priority list. So, what are your due dates? Schedule your deadlines in your calendar to clarify the amount of time you actually have available to work on your tasks before they need to be completed. Arrange your priority list so items can be done in time for when they’re due. If it’s not time sensitive at all, it should take a backseat to the items with defined deadlines that are approaching soon. If it’s due sooner, most of the time that means it should get done before tasks due later.
Once you have a clear picture of the amount of time you have before it’s due, you should also determine how much time you actually need to get the work itself done. This is where it’s useful to create a time budget. You’ve figured out the amount of time you have until things are due, so, considering how long each task needs to be finished, how should your time be prioritized? Things that take up a lot of time should be higher on your priority list, since you’ll need to start tackling them sooner to get them done on time.
Another helpful tip for prioritizing your time is to make lists of tasks that take similar amounts of time to complete. For example, all the tasks that take 20 minutes or less can go together. When it’s the end of the day and you’ve finished your other work, you can turn to that list and knock out a few of those tasks to keep up momentum on your projects. Instead of starting a new project and having to stop in the middle of your flow, bring those low duration tasks to the top of the priority list.
Does any of your work rely on getting certain tasks completed first?
If some of your tasks are dependent on others, then you should get those out of the way. The more you wait to complete the tasks other work depends on, the more your projects are held up.
Even if the tasks wouldn’t be high priority themselves, if they’re holding up more pressing work, that means they need to be prioritized. Move those tasks toward the top of the list ✅
Task dependencies can also include others on your team who are relying on you to complete the tasks you said you’d complete. The proposal your coworker can’t finalize until you look it over? Move that task up on your priority list. If someone else’s high-priority work is on hold until your tasks are finished, that’s a key indicator those tasks should be prioritized. If it’s a lower priority task for them that just needs to get done eventually, you can measure it against your other priorities to see when it makes sense to get it done. You might not need to do it before everything else, especially if more important tasks on your agenda should take precedence.
Now that you have a better sense of how to determine a task’s urgency and importance, let’s take a look at some ways people channel prioritization into productivity:
Numbered lists are great for organizing your priorities. It’s like a ranking system for your tasks so you can visually identify what’s priority number one and get everything done.
While you can use a notebook or some kind of other paper tool, I recommend going digital with a tool like GQueues instead. Managing priorities online is more dynamic so you can pivot when life happens. It’s way easier to adapt to changes when you can update your list with a few clicks instead of a bunch of messy notes and markups 🖊
Another great technique is the ABCDE method. This method helps you group your priorities so you can work more efficiently and further refine your task list.
The idea is to group your tasks in the following categories:
This can be a great approach if it’s already clear to you what’s important to get done and what can be eliminated. After you’ve organized your priorities, you can use the ABCDE approach to better refine your list. If you’re managing your priorities in GQueues, create a tag for each of the categories above so you can see all the stuff that needs to get done ASAP, or trash the tasks you don’t need that take up space and cause unnecessary stress.
Most noteworthy approaches to prioritization include this famous solution: The Eisenhower Matrix.
Created by former president Eisenhower to aid him in decision-making in battle, this matrix consists of four separate quadrants:
The idea is to group your tasks by what’s urgent and important, what’s urgent and not important, what’s important and not urgent, and what’s neither urgent nor important.
Urgency is based on your timeline. When is the work due? The closer the due date, the more urgent. The higher the consequence the longer you don’t have something done, the higher the urgency.
Importance is based on how other work, other people, and your business are affected. If high priority tasks can’t be completed until other tasks are out of the way, the tasks that need to be cleared first are higher in importance. If others rely on your work to be done in order to move forward with their work, it’s higher in importance. And if the work is crucial to your business, like finances or development, it’s higher in importance.
Using the matrix above, the items in the green zone (urgent and important) should get done first. The items in the yellow zones (urgent and not important, and important but not urgent) should be prioritized next, and the items in the gray zone (neither important nor urgent) can be last on the list, delegated to others, or eliminated entirely.
This is a great system if you already have an idea of how to prioritize so you can group your tasks accordingly. If you’re using GQueues to organize your work, create a tag for “Urgent” and a tag for “Important.” Then create a Smart Queue for tasks that have those tags so you can always see your most crucial tasks grouped together.
It’s good to know where you excel and where you aren’t as strong so you can get everything done when you have a lot of high priority tasks.
You can approach your priorities in one of two ways:
The option you choose probably just comes down to preference. Or maybe it depends on the situation, like what you have the energy for or how your schedule looks that day. Regardless of the approach you choose, either can be effective! What’s most important is to recognize which tasks are coming easily to you and which ones will take a little more effort. That way you can comfortably take responsibility for your workload and delegate to others who have more experience in that area or with more time on their hands when necessary.
Items outside your skill level or ones that aren’t essential for you to do yourself can be assigned to someone else. And it’s good to take some time to figure out the priority of your work before delegating so your expectations are clearly communicated and everyone’s on the same page.
Figuring out how to prioritize makes working effectively a breeze. You aren’t as stressed out because you know just what needs to get done and you can get right to work. No more cramming before a deadline, and no more getting stuck wondering where to start. And now that you know how to prioritize, you can easily apply your new skill to any innovative technique you come across, whether it’s following the footsteps of Eisenhower, using catchy acronyms, or taking things digital with a helpful app.
When I'm not writing blog posts and help articles, I'm chatting with customers. I help you get the answers you're looking for so GQueues runs as smoothly as possible for you and your teams. And who would I be without my oatmilk latte in the morning? ☕️