Learn How to Prioritize Better

Everyone always tells you not to sweat the small stuff – but how do you know which of the 85,000 things on your to-do list are small?

When everything on your to-do list is a Priority-Number-One-Code-Red-Emergency, it can be impossible to get anything done. Not to mention your stress levels will go through the roof!

On top of that, you probably get regular requests for your time and attention throughout the day, from coworkers, friends, family, and your boss.

On the one hand, you can’t treat every new request or project that comes down the line as the new top priority or you’ll knock tasks that are potentially more important out of the queue. But on the other hand, you don’t want to rigidly continue working on something that should actually be bumped down.

How do you prioritize it all?

As Steven Pressfield puts it in his amazing book, The War Of Art. “I’m keenly aware of the Principle of Priority, which states (a) you must know the difference between what is urgent and what is important, and (b) you must do what’s important first.”

Urgent tasks are the little things that are thrown into your path throughout the day, the deadlines and meeting requests and emails that must be responded to. Important tasks don’t have the 3-alarm siren that urgent tasks do, but they’re the ones that are vital to your work – whether that’s your personal work, or the overall mission of your organization.

You need to develop a system for discerning between them that’s flexible, but still keeps your eye on the prize.

Which leads us to:

Step one: Figure out what the prize is.

Tell me this: What is your work?

In your personal life, what are the things that are most important? Is it your family? Is it your side passion? Is it that cowgirl musical you’ve been tinkering with for years? Ten or twenty years from now, what will you regret having let slide?

In business, what aspects of your role drive the mission of the organization forward? Is it developing relationships with community leaders? Writing funding grants? Developing a vision for the future? When you took this job, what did you think you’d be doing? What core tasks are helping you change the organization for the better?

Every day, you’re building something. What is it?

If you’re having trouble uncovering exactly what your personal “Prize” is, talk to your boss, your mentors, and your friends. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, putting in the elbow grease to find your priorities will help you make sense of it all.

Step two: Figure out which tasks are important to that prize

Many of us confuse the daily tasks we have to do with our work. Answering emails, attending meetings, and checking in with coworkers isn’t our work. All of those things are simply busywork tasks that often do need to be done – but we can’t prioritize them over more important work.

It doesn’t mean those tasks aren’t valuable – they are. But most of them are just tools we use to get at the more important meat of our days.

Many of these tasks may be urgent: Reply to your boss’s email, finish a progress report, or schedule a doctor’s appointment. The problem comes when we mistake “getting to inbox zero” as “doing our work.”

Step three: Prioritize what’s important.

Business strategist Marie Forleo has this tip for prioritizing. When you look at your to do list in the morning, mark each item with a “U” for urgent and an “I” for important. Do the important things first, because if the urgent things need to get done today, you’ll make time to get them done. It’s the important tasks that we so often let slide when we feel like we don’t have time.

If you’re having chronic problems prioritizing your important tasks over the urgent ones, you may need to draw some boundaries at work. It can be hard to say no, but it’s a crucial skill to learn if you want to keep from burning yourself out in the long run.

How do you sort through your priorities each day? I’d love to hear your suggestions – leave ‘em in the comments!

Leave a Comment


Leave a Reply

Brenda Dennis

Nice article and a good job differentiating your important priorities and the priorities reflected in the mission statement over everybody else’s urgencies. Thanks!