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How To Prioritize

  • Published on Tuesday, 23 February 2010 00:35
  • Written by Amanda Suzzi
  • Hits: 2283

Is your to-do list overflowing with tasks? Do you end up rushing from one thing to the next, dealing with whatever’s most on your mind at the time – and shoving everything else aside for another day? How many times have you thought to yourself “I have so much to do today, how am I ever going to get it all done?”  Failing to prioritize your work load usually results in being extremely inefficient and extremely stressed out.

So how can you start concentration on what really matters, instead of on what seems most pressing? Regardless of whether you are a student, work at home mom, a web designer, or a CEO of a Fortune 500 company, prioritizing your work is critical to your success. When you prioritize, you’re determining what needs to get done, and in what order you should perform those actions.

Hearing all the women at the second Unconference talk about needing a time management workshop again was a great inspiration for me. As a continuation of one of the conversations, I'd like to provide you with my methods of organizing and prioritizing my activities.

First, set your life goals. Think ahead for the next ten years and decide what you want out of life. Do you want to travel the country? Do you want to have a beautiful vegetable garden in your backyard? While it is certainly important to get your day- to-day things done, it’s also important to schedule in time for activities that will help you achieve the ‘higher level’ goals you’ve set for yourself.

Second, start a master list. Make a list of everything that you want to accomplish, in no particular order. You don’t need to list routine tasks (like lunch) or menial tasks (like checking your email). The master list is a holding place and a reference so you don’t forget any activity and so that you’re not trying to remember everything that needs to get done. This may seem obvious but you’d be surprised at how many people try to organize their activities in their head. You’ll feel a lot better with everything on paper so that you can see it in one place.

Next, assign each activity a level of urgency and importance.

  1. Urgent and Important (eg. “My big report is due in three hours”)
  2. Important but Not Urgent (eg. “I’m delivering a presentation next month”)
  3. Urgent but Not Important (eg. “My library books are due back today”)
  4. Not Important and Not Urgent (eg. “I’m watching YouTube clips”)

Generally, it’s not too hard to decide where a particular task or activity fits. The key is not to confuse a task’s urgency with its importance. For example, it might be annoying to be fined $2 for your library books being overdue, but it’s not really an important consequence in the grand scheme of things. On the other hand, missing the deadline with your big report might have huge negative consequences on your career.

These levels of urgency and importance are not set in stone. Your activities will change in priority over time. Just because you assign a medium priority to one of your activities today, doesn’t mean it has to stay a medium priority. It may turn into a high priority or a low priority in the future. Also remember that “important” is a matter of perspective. Be honest with yourself about what’s important to you. Important tasks are ones which enrich your life: they don’t have to be ones that involve making money or advancing your career.

Finally, focus on completing a few activities a day. Choose some from each of your urgency and importance levels, and you’ll get more done each day. I recommend you choose three high priorities, two medium priorities, one low priority. Get rid of your “not urgent and not important” activities. So each day, you’ll have a total of 6 activities to focus on.

You’ll be able to stay on track by making a daily or weekly schedule. Use a tool, such as my time management worksheet to plan your week. Because I'm a WAHM (work at home mom), I like to balance my home life and work load, which you'll see reflected in the worksheet. Schedule in time for each of your priorities, leaving some free time throughout your day for getting daily things done (dusting, cooking, etc.) and relaxation.

When scheduling, remember how your body functions at different times in the day. I find that I’m most productive when I start my day with an activity based on achieving my ‘higher level’ goals (like getting some exercise or learning a new language). This allows me to move on to my urgent and important activities, and get them out of the way. Then, it’s pretty smooth sailing the rest of the day. However, some people are able to better focus in the afternoon or the evening, so high priority activities are sometimes better left for this time of day for some people.

There will be days where you’re invited out for lunch or a meeting and you can’t get to one of your accomplishments. You can always move things around and push certain tasks to tomorrow. I try to do this with the less urgent priorities. Of course, while I do allow for flexibility in my schedule from time to time, I don’t make a habit out of doing this.

Most of the time, I stick to getting my priorities accomplished unless something very palatable arises that is important enough to me to push some of my originally assigned activities to tomorrow or another day. If you did not accomplish one or more of your activities from yesterday, those priorities should be on your list the next day, along with other activities from your master list to take the place of those activities that you did manage to accomplish yesterday.

In order to keep your ongoing list small, say NO to people sometimes. You are not other people’s gopher. Do your work and help other people with theirs when you have something to offer, but don’t do their work for them. Also, learn to delegate things to the people that are supposed to be doing them. Why book your plane tickets when you can hire someone to do it for less than your time is worth.

To summarize: Set your life goals. Start a master list of everything that you want to accomplish. Assign each activity a level of urgency and importance. Focus on completing a few activities a day using a schedule like my time management worksheet. Be Flexible. Say no. Delegate.

 Comments are welcome below.

Amanda Suzzi
Amanda Suzzi is a homemaker, providence roller derby darling, independent consultant, indie crafter, wife and mother of two girls, professional writer, online marketing maven and a bon vivant on a budget.

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