How To Get Things Done, Part 2: Prioritizing Tasks
Updated: Dec 14, 2022
Four Prioritization Methods to Master Your Tasks
Let's get real. How much time do you spend wondering what to do next? Do you bounce from task to task, not knowing which one is most important? Unfortunately, all of us have suffered from wasted days trying to figure out what to do next or working on the wrong thing. If we let this go on for too long, our task list grows, and achievement evades us. But the worst part is that the stress and anxiety generated by this lack of focus lead straight to burnout. Sound familiar? Don't panic. I assure you I have the antidote to this all too common problem.
If you’re seeking task mastery, there are a few skills you need to acquire. In part one, I covered everything you need to know to capture tasks effectively. In this article, I share how to prioritize your tasks, so you feel confident that the right things get your attention. We'll explore four of the most popular prioritization methods, and by the end, you'll be primed and ready to tackle your to-do list with less stress!
The Payoff of Prioritization
We all want our future selves to reflect on what we've done with a sense of accomplishment and pride. Whether you're looking back at a lifetime, a year, or a week, success is measured by this one question: "Did you spend your precious time and energy doing the important things that had the biggest impact on reaching your goals?"
It's easy to stay busy, scurrying around, adding, and crossing off to-dos from a long list. You can probably add things faster than you can complete them, meaning it's virtually impossible to ever "be done." When every task feels like a top priority, the temptation can be to multitask in an attempt to get everything done. But research shows that this can decrease your productivity. And taken to extremes can lead to burnout resulting from chronic workplace stress.
Don't mistake activity for productivity. Don't mistake busywork for achievement.
Instead, as Stephen Covey said, "The key is not to prioritize what's on your schedule but to schedule your priorities." In other words, set aside time to ask yourself what's realistic. Don't fall into the trap of checking off recent or the most tasks possible. The real goal is to complete tasks that (1) move you toward your goals, (2) must be done by you, and (3) have to be done now.
To get started, I want to share four approaches designed to help you build a new habit of prioritizing your tasks. Try one, try them all, but choose the one that works for you and achieve more with less anxiety and effort. Your future self will thank you.
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How to Prioritize Your Tasks
By implementing a habit around prioritization, you can feel confident that the right tasks are the ones receiving your time, energy, and focus first. While the individual techniques each of us use to prioritize our tasks can vary, most practices include these five principles.
Adopting one of these methods puts you in control of your destiny. Without one, you risk being a victim of other people's needs. Your email inbox becomes your de facto to-do list, and Slack notifications make you salivate and respond like Pavlov's Dog. You accept every meeting invite popping up on your calendar — and attend them. Trust me, in the end, you'll wonder where the time went as you give up your evenings to "get real work done."
Now let's move on to the meaty stuff — approaches that can help you prioritize your to-do list and end each day with a sense of achievement, satisfaction, and greater balance between work and life. Before you decide on one, you'll need a place to store all your tasks, like Sticky. I encourage you to include everything you need to do, from personal to professional, so you can gain a broad overview of what's on your plate and make the necessary trade-offs. Then you'll need a method to help you with your task prioritization. Here are four of my favorites.
1. Eat That Frog
Also known as Most Important Tasks (MITs) or Do The Hardest Thing First, this strategy helps you zoom in on those high-priority, challenging (but perhaps unappealing) tasks you must complete each day. These tasks are the 'frog.' Sometimes these tasks can get pushed aside while you complete urgent (but not important) tasks. While you might feel a sense of achievement at the end of the day, you still didn't complete your high-priority tasks.
Rather than chipping away at a to-do list of 20 tasks, this strategy relies on identifying your most important task and getting laser-focused on completing it. As you start to become more familiar with this strategy, you might decide to identify three to five important tasks for each day. Once these are completed, everything else you tick off your to-do list is a bonus.
This strategy works best when you plan ahead, so set aside time the day before to identify your most important tasks. Then you can get straight to work the next day.
2. Getting Things Done® by David Allen
This work-life management system is based on the theory that we're much better at processing information than storing it. If your head is filled with what you need to do, you'll likely start to feel overwhelmed, worry that you've forgotten something, and have trouble completing those tasks. Getting Things Done (GTD) relies on five steps:
Capture: Noting down everything you need to do
Clarify: Processing each task into action steps
Organize: Deciding when each task needs to be completed. Adding deadlines to your calendar, delegating tasks, and sorting out your reference materials fall into this step
Review: Go over your list and update it as necessary. You might decide to complete small daily reviews for short tasks and longer weekly or monthly reviews for more significant tasks made up of sub-tasks
Engage: Getting things done! Now's the time to engage with your tasks and get them completed
This system helps to stop you from storing everything in your brain and allows you the mental capacity and clarity to start processing information instead.
3. ABCDE Method
This simple yet effective technique helps you separate all your tasks into different categories, so you can instantly recognize which ones need completing first. Once all your tasks are listed out, separate them into these five categories:
A: Priority tasks with serious consequences for non-completion
B: Important tasks with minor consequences for non-completion
C: Minor tasks with no consequences for non-completion
D: Tasks that can be delegated to someone else
E: Tasks that can be eliminated or deleted
If you've got more than one task in each category, break them down into A1, A2, and so on. A1 is your most important task, and that's the one you start with first. Once all your A tasks are completed, you can move on to B tasks, but these should never be completed before A tasks. C tasks are your 'nice to get done but not urgent' items that can wait until everything else is finished.
This method prevents you from becoming distracted by new tasks as they come in. Instead, you'll set them aside and prioritize them once you've completed your current task.
4. Eisenhower Prioritization Matrix
Named after President Eisenhower, this matrix helps you prioritize tasks using urgency and importance. In our fast-paced world, everything coming at you often feels urgent, and the temptation can be to drop what you're doing and complete those tasks first. This familiar feeling is backed up by scientific research: it's called the 'Mere-Urgency Effect.' The result, however, is that your important tasks often get forgotten. By the end of the day, you might feel like you've been “busy” — but you haven't checked off any of those important tasks.
The Eisenhower Priority Matrix helps you distinguish between urgency and importance by splitting your tasks into four different quadrants:
While you should complete urgent AND important tasks immediately, these are often the 'fire-fighting' tasks that need a crisis mode response. Spending too long on these tasks can, over time, lead to feelings of stress and burnout. So while they need to be done — don't let them distract you from the important tasks that don't have the same sense of urgency.
These important but less time-critical tasks help you achieve your longer-term goals. That's why it's vital to schedule time for these tasks. Making sure you prioritize the tasks you've deferred helps you accomplish your goals and carves out time where you can get deep, meaningful work done. The goal is to spend more of your working day in this area, and over time, you'll decrease the number of tasks in the top right quadrant.
Your tasks in the bottom right quadrant — the urgent but less important tasks — can fool you into a sense of productivity without moving you closer to your long-term goals. Spending all day in meetings, getting interrupted by colleagues, or checking every email or Slack notification can give you a sense of urgency, but most of these tasks aren't essential. If they're not very important to you but are for your team or organization, you can use delegation or automation to help you. As for the bottom left quadrant? Consider whether you can simply delete these tasks.
Get into a groove—build a new habit to mind what matters
Finding the right method to suit you can take experimentation. If one strategy doesn't feel quite right, try another or a combination and see if you prefer that instead. The one element that any method relies on is the ability to quickly and easily capture all your tasks in one place. Once you've got your master list, you'll be able to break all your tasks down into different levels of prioritization before getting to work and ticking them off one by one.
Mastering prioritization can completely change the way you work. Moving from “reactive overwhelm” — where everything on a never-ending to-do list needs to be completed now — to a structured method of prioritization can help to reduce stress, improve productivity, and give you that sweet feeling of accomplishment.
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