Prioritization: 10 Techniques You Should Know
Probably you know this feeling. Every day starts with a full to-do list and you already know that it will be hard to keep up with all of these tasks. But what to do about? Prioritization is the key to success here. We’ve asked a bunch of prioritization experts on their best tips on how to prioritize your daily tasks.
Best Techniques for Prioritization
#1 Knowing where you are going
The key to prioritization is to know where you are headed. If you take the time to dream and get a really clear picture of the future you want priorities becomes a lot easier.
For instance, if you know what you want to do for work, how you want to spend your time, where you want to live and your future family situation you can set your plans easier.
Also when you know your future dreams you can know whether things that come at you are truly priorities or if they are distractions.
Shawn McBride, Owner at McBride For Business, LLC
#2 Eating the frog
My best technique for prioritization is to Eat The Frog. As Mark Twain said “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.’ The “frog” is the least desirable activity on your to-do list. If you get it out of the way first, you free up mental energy knowing that the worst is behind you.
I clear out the desirable task on my to-do list first thing in the morning. This morning that task was determining the proper balance and interest on a complex loan arrangement for one of our clients. It took a lot of work – over three hours – but now it’s done and behind me and I can spend the rest of the day on easier tasks.
Before I leave the office in the evening I will write tomorrow’s frog task on my yellow legal pad so it’s waiting for me first thing in the morning. I don’t have to think about what to tackle, I just dive right in.
The trick is to only accomplish ONE frog task per day. You might feel the momentum coming off a successful frog task and want to accomplish another one right away. I’ve found that I usually lose steam when I do this. I have more success by following up on a frog task with work that is fun, creative, and less mentally taxing.
Julia Kelly, Co-founder at Rigits
#3 Classifying your daily tasks
I find that the use of prioritization matrices (such as the impact/difficulty matrix, or the urgent/important matrix) can be really helpful in deciding, say, which of 2 urgent items should be done first, or whether a particular project’s impact will be worth the effort/complexity.
However, on a daily basis, I teach the following framework. If you’ve got a list of the stuff you’ve got to get done today, do it in this order:
1. *Must do * – Do the things that have to be done today first. It seems simple, but what we often do instead is start the day with email and then get sucked into the vortex of other people’s priorities, never making enough time for our important items. A must-do is something that will be disastrous if left till tomorrow. Think running payroll.
2. *Blocked by* – Once you’ve done the must-do items, reach out to people who are blocking you on your other projects so you can push these along. Go extract the info you need to move forward.
3. *Quick Hits* – Once that’s done, do all that little stuff that takes between 2 and 10 minutes each. Return that phone call; follow up on that proposal. You get a nice little dopamine hit every time you cross something off the list.
4. *Nice to have *- Finally, do those items that were your aspirational, nice to do, items. These are things where it would be great if you could get it done today, but if not, it’s no big deal.
5. *Reprioritize!* – Finally, reprioritize anything you didn’t get to for the future. Since that’s when you’ll do it.
Alexis Haselberger, Productivity, Time Management, and Leadership Coach at Alexis Haselberger Coaching
#4 Using the 5 Whys technique
Prioritizing is an essential skill to learn for any complex work, especially if you own a business and have a lot on your hands..
I rely on the 5 Whys technique to make sure I get to the bottom of each item on the prioritization list. If there is a business decision to take, I make sure to create a document in which I keep asking why (usually 3 times is enough, but it can be up to 5), until there is a clear answer why the item is important.
5 Whys technique originates from the Japanese industrialist who had founded Toyota Industries. It was conceived in the 1930s but got widely popularized a few decades later, in the 70s. The main benefit of this technique is its simplicity and the hands-on approach to problems. It was designed as a way to interrogate the cause of a problem by asking the most involved people (within Toyota factory), rather than in the room filled with executives who don’t understand the issue from the technological point.
Understanding the root problem of any occurrence or possibility in business helps with understanding the priority of it.
The less the questions are asked, the more self-explanatory the priority or problem is. If you need to ask many times why usually the benefit is not that important for the business. Sometimes, of course, it is the complexity of the choice that requires repeating why.
Tony Arevalo, Carsurance
#5 Breaking down your daily tasks
You have to be extremely careful when it comes to prioritizing important tasks that need to be completed in a timely manner. My favorite activity is to create a list of all the things I need to get done.
On that list, I have a second column for when the tasks need to get done. Instead of being overwhelmed by looking at ALL of the tasks as a whole, it’s easier to break it down by days and times.
If something is time-sensitive I add ASAP or TODAY so I know to get that done first. If something isn’t as important I add the day it should be done, usually a few days from the more time-sensitive items.
Clare Bittourna, Codal
#6 Using a to-do list as a basis
My first prioritization technique would be to have a to-do list. All my other prioritization methods are based around this one technique. A to-do list lets me view the tasks I have that day, and can allow me to put them in the order I need them in so I can complete them chronologically. Aside from that, I find it so satisfying to be able to check off a to-do list.
As a leader and business owner, I have to know when to prioritize and when to postpone tasks. For starters, I think about the importance of a task at hand. If there’s another task on the to-do list that holds greater value, I choose to do that one first. This can be as simple as a matter of having a meeting and having a one to one with someone beforehand about something regarding the meeting. Talking to that individual first would be your priority if you want them to know something before the meeting. These types of things take a little thought on what the outcome would be if you switched the order of the task, and it helps the decision-making go so much more smoothly.
Lastly, my final favorite prioritization technique would have to be to think about the task I want to do the least, and then do it first. It’s better to get these types of things over with sooner rather than later. It takes some will power but it helps avoid the anxiety and distractions that go into thinking about that task all day. Also, if you do these tasks first, you can do the easy tasks last. What better way to end the day checking off those easy tasks?
John Rampton, Founder and CEO of Calendar
#7 Working with due dates and estimated completion times
Running a small business means lots to do, and figuring out how to prioritize all those small and large tasks can be a chore on its own. My tried and tested method for prioritization is to assign due dates and estimated completion times for everything I need to work on. With both of these data points in hand, I’m able to write up an approximate schedule for myself based around my preferences and my most productive times of day.
By estimating the time it should take me to complete a task, I know approximately how much of my focused time I need to dedicate to that activity. And by giving it a hard due date I create accountability for myself to get things done on a particular time table. I typically schedule six hours per day using this method, so that I have enough wiggle room for issues that arise suddenly that need to be taken care of right away or if something takes longer than expected.
Keeping track of all the tasks (simple or complex) is a project management tool like Asana also helps me track my progress, stay on schedule, and visualize my responsibilities using a helpful timeline. The notifications that a task is coming due are also helpful reminders that ensures nothing gets forgotten in the rush of small business life.
Else Beth, Head of Content at Tekcompare
#8 Make your inbox your agenda again
Some of the best advice on prioritization I ever heard was ‘Remember that, by and large, your inbox is composed of other people’s agendas, not yours. ‘ (Source) That advice came from an interview with an Associate Professor of Leadership & Entrepreneurship at Northwestern, Carter Cast. Until I read that my email inbox was essentially my to-do list, and every email was another task to tack on to a never-ending list. By reframing my perspective of my inbox and modifying my interactions with it, I’m able to be more productive and prioritize my responsibilities more effectively. My whole team knows that I only check my email at certain points of the day and never first thing in the morning. If they have something truly urgent that requires immediate attention, they know to contact me via Slack to address the issue. This simple action also confirms that the items in my inbox are other people’s priorities, not necessarily my own, and do not need to bypass my other responsibilities and jump to the top of my list. Only checking email a few times a day also cuts down on distraction from sales pitches, FYIs, and other emails that easily pull focus and attention away from more pressing tasks.
Henson Wu, Co-founder and CEO, FeedbackWhiz
#9 Write out your daily tasks and manage your time
As a Project Management Supervisor, my mantra is never be a stopper. I ask myself daily, what is the least amount of work I can do to push this and my team forward? My prioritization techniques can be broken down into three parts:
1. Writing out daily tasks
2. Using a meeting notes tool
3. Automating reminders
Writing out daily tasks: Although a millennial, I prefer hand-writing out my daily tasks in a notebook. I literally create a hand-written checklist. I get that it may seem archaic, but I get obscene amounts of joy from crossing out executed tasks and writing with super colorful pens. It’s the little things. At the end of each day, I start tomorrow’s to-do list on a fresh page. This technique makes me enjoy my to-do list rather than resent it.
Using a meeting notes tool: Google Keep is my best friend. This tool is a dream for anyone who considers themselves Type-A and includes color-coding, share permissions, and tagging capabilities. Google Keep is a lesser-known notes feature within Google Suite that is accessible on any web-connected device. I create separate check-lists for all my recurring meetings and plop agenda items as they come up to discuss in upcoming meetings.
Automating reminders: How do you manage your inner-control freak? Set reminders for sent emails and pre-schedule emails to be sent. This is an easy way to make sure you stay on top of all projects, unanswered questions, and (most importantly) give people room to get their job done.
Dana Abram, Project Management Supervisor at Situation
#10 Do the shortest tasks first
Do the shortest tasks first for momentum for the rest of your list. The way I determine what my next, most important priority is for the day is honestly to find the items that will take me the least amount of time to do. Those items go at the top of the list. The reason for this is once they are done, I start seeing the items on my to-do list get crossed off, and I use that momentum to propel me forward to knock off the rest of the items. Next, I think about my clients and what they need the most, and that’s the next thing on my to-do list for the day. If there is a backlog of customer service emails or social media updates I need to address, those have to be taken care of before I can move onto something else. Then, after that, I
ask myself what task will help me make more money or increase my brand’s reach. Those items are then added to the next slots on my list.
The way I choose to lay out the rest of my to-do list honestly depends on where I’ll be that day, and what appointments are already scheduled. For example, if I know I’m going to be in an area without WiFi or low signal, I’ll use that time to write articles, clean up and edit blog posts, brainstorm new ideas for digital products, etc… If I have a podcast interview, I’ll make sure that everything I do that day is done at least an hour or two before the interview, and then use the time just before we start the interview process to prepare for the questions I’m going to be asked. Prioritizing what to do each day is all about thinking about the bigger picture and all the moving pieces you need to complete to push your business forward.
Lauren McManus, Co-founder/Full-Time Blogger at Create and Go