How to work on the right priorities

You’ve got a huge long list of items on your ‘To Do’ list.
You’ve been trying to figure out where to start.
You’re thinking it might be good to check with your manager(s) to get their input – but then you realise they’re bound to say ‘it’s all top priority’.
You conclude it looks as though everything is urgent, so you just get on with the tasks that you know you can get done quickly and/or easily. Just as you’re almost done on the first job you chose, your boss asks you where that draft presentation is…

Sound familiar? How can you identify the top priority if ‘everything is urgent’?

You’re not alone. In fact, you’re in good company: many a participant on Zoomly’s ‘How to plan and prioritise’ workshop arrives with that very same question. The many practical tips they take away could be summarised in a few essential steps:

  • Get everything out of your head and where you can see it
  • Use a tool or system to rank the tasks according to priorities
  • Allocate time to the top priorities
  • Check that your manager agrees – and haggle if necessary

1.Get everything out of your head and where you can see it
We can all too easily spin our wheels, going nowhere fast if we try to keep everything in our heads. They’re really not designed for continuous multi-tasking.

You need to be able to see – and possibly show someone else – all the tasks that you need to get done. Only then will you be able to identify what needs to be done now, next and later. Ways you can do that include:

  • Writing each task on a Post-It note
  • Creating a note in a visual app such as Trello
  • Listing all the tasks in a spreadsheet

Don’t get hung up on the order – that’s the next step – for now, simply get all the tasks out of your head and where you can see them.

2.Use a tool or system to rank the tasks according to priorities
A popular tool for identifying priorities is according to their urgency and importance. This is often referred to as ‘The Eisenhower Matrix’, since the former U.S. President  said, I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.” It’s a simple 2 x 2 grid where tasks are ranked according to how urgent and/or important we think they are.

Some tasks will be both urgent and important; but others will be one more than the other and they are parked in different quadrants of the matrix. When and how we tackle each task depends on where it is in the matrix. So far, so good; but people can soon fret: ‘but surely it’s all urgent and important?’ That’s missing the point: we can’t simultaneously do everything; we need to decide and that involves some kind of sorting. You can find out more about the Eisenhower Matrix here.

Another system that can work well on more complex tasks is a criteria analysis. This is more nuanced, used for high-stakes decisions – and can be more time-consuming. My advice is to try a simple version before going all-in on this approach; it works well for some and not others. See an example here.

3.Allocate time to the top priorities
This step is where our good intentions can really get us in a bind: we underestimate how long the work will take. It’s essential to at least make an educated estimate of how long stuff takes to get done and then block the time in your calendar to do it.

When that time comes, that’s the work you do. Sounds simple, but often it’s not what most people actually do. Instead, many people separate their calendar from their tasks; that way lies ‘parallel universe syndrome’ when they’ve got a full diary and a long to-do list, but they’re not synced. You are not a Time Lord; so use your calendar to block out time for doing the priority work – see this article on time-boxing for more.

4.Check that your manager agrees – and haggle if necessary
At some point, you’re likely to need a discussion with your manager(s) about your priorities. You need them to a) see what you’re working on, for how long and when, b) endorse your priorities or c) suggest alternatives. Now that you’ve visualised your priorities, you’ll be much more able to have a productive discussion.

Maybe they want their pet project to get done before the work you were going to get done for the team meeting – you can debate the pros and cons. Another possibility is that they – unreasonably – try to convince you that ‘everything’s #1 priority’. This is when you need to haggle.

If you’ve blocked time out in your calendar you’ll be able to show them what you mean as you say, “I can do X job then (your allocated time), if you want but that will mean Y and Z jobs will be pushed back to here (next available slot).” This is a clear and rational way of discussing, negotiating and agreeing priorities. But if all else fails you may need to use (with caution) a former colleague’s provocative-yet-effective challenge: “which plates do you want me to keep spinning, and which can I allow to drop?”

You may find this blog post useful: ‘Productivity tip: understand 3 kinds of time’

Dawn is the author of ‘The Feedback Book’ and ‘How to be Zoomly at work’



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Image credits:
PRIORITY Textured Rectangle Stamp Seals – @anastasyastocks-Depositphotos
Sticky notes set – @yaviki-Depositphotos
British police public call box – @bobevv-Depositphotos

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