how to prioritise

How to prioritise tasks

By Liz

Photo by Joel Henry

Tasks at work are flying in like 747s at a busy airport and you’ve got to shuffle things to ensure your deliverables are ready for takeoff – but in what order? The skill of prioritising tasks is like the air traffic controller in your brain that keeps your work on schedule. It requires seeing the bigger picture as well as the finer details to avoid missing opportunities while sticking to deadlines.

Why prioritising tasks is important

Learning to prioritise well is essential to managing your time well. The aim is to complete work that represents real progress, and let everything that isn’t important fall away.

When prioritisation is handled well, you’ll feel less reactive and more focused and intentional.

Things to take into account when prioritising

These are macro factors that apply to most of us that we need to weave into our approach to prioritising tasks.

Life lessons

  • You can’t do everything in a day

Be realistic about what you commit to otherwise you’ll create false expectations for those around you, and you’ll constantly feel as if you’re falling behind. The poet David Whyte has a lovely saying about his work that we apply to things like long-term systems projects: “You don’t have to complete a poem in one sitting, you just have to turn your face towards it.”

  • Nobody can multitask

Don’t try, it’ll only end in tears. Knowing this means you can catch yourself when you start to do it and rather appreciate the simplicity of doing one thing at a time, properly.

Company factors

There are some factors that apply to all of us at Pomegranite, which need to be taken into consideration:

  • We are a service-orientated business which means that we communicate a lot and cannot be unavailable for extended periods. It also means that there are always going to be unplanned requests.
  • We are a business built on collaboration so it’s important to consider the full life of a task, i.e. where it comes from and when, where it goes to next and how to prepare it best. This means you often need to set your own deadlines much earlier to ensure that you and others meet the client deadline.For example, within our team, a newsletter brief may be prepared by Nicole, the content written by Mulesa, edited by Sarah, designed by Jesse, approved by project manager Tom, and then given final sign-off by Liz or Sarah.

Individual factors

  • Pick your time of day to do different types of tasks. Some people are better able to do a burst of small things in the morning. Some people prefer to block off time and do work which requires concentration in the morning.
  • Remember your larger goals and be conscious of areas you’d like to grow in. You need to give these space in your day.

How to prioritise in five steps

Taking into account the factors above, these are some simple steps to follow to prioritise your task list.

1. Know what’s on your plate

Make a comprehensive list of everything that needs to be done. Having everything down in a list means that you don’t have to remember it and leaves you with more mental capacity to do the actual tasks.

2. Estimate time

Think about how long it should and could take you. Be realistic with yourself and include extra time when it may be required.

3. Decide non-negotiables

This is just three important tasks that must be done that day. This is the starting point of building the order of your to-do list.

4. Eat the big, ugly frog first

Often we circle around tasks that seem difficult for much longer than it requires to just do the thing. Identifying the thing you least want to do and getting it done first is referred to as eating the frog. It comes from a Mark Twain quote: “If the first thing you do in the morning is to eat the frog, then you can continue your day with the satisfaction of knowing that this is probably the worst thing that will happen to you all day”. This frog is the next thing to slot into your list.

5. Weighing up importance and urgency

For the rest of your list, decide where your tasks fit in the Eisenhower Matrix and order them accordingly. This matrix is really useful for sifting through tasks and seeing what you need to do first.
Eisenhower matrixUrgent and important: tasks should be done first

Important but not urgent: block off time in your diary to get this done, without interruption

Urgent but unimportant: delegate or defer

Neither urgent nor important: remove from your to-do list

It’s often necessary to recalibrate your list of priorities according to new arrivals and new information. Like any day at an airport, there may be storms on the horizon, VIPs jetting in and geese on the runway. Hopefully these tips help you to adjust without any crash landings!