How to Prioritize Effectively

The to-do list only gets longer, am I right? In our never-ending struggle to be useful to our boss or customers, there is no shortage of things to be done. Some people hide behind their mile long task lists with pride; others, with shame. But, regardless of how long your list is, the question at the beginning of the day is, “What needs to get done first?” Well, that depends on how you slice it.

Let’s say you have the following tasks to get done for your business, for example.

  • Finish business plan

  • Send invoice to customer

  • Figure out why the thing doesn’t work

Many of us order our lists by priority—what is most important in the moment. That can make sense, but I would argue that doing the “most important” task of a given fifteen minute span of your life is not the most effective way of doing things. You start to look like a dog chasing its tail. Obviously, “priority” can have different contextual meanings. In this case, when I say the word “priority” I want you to take a bit longer view of things. What is going to have the biggest impact in the next six months, one year, or five years? Not necessarily what is going to allow you to pack the most in today.

If we take the five year view on our list, we might get something like this:

  1. Finish business plan

  2. Figure out why the thing doesn’t work (and fix, permanently)

  3. Send invoice to customer (develop schedule?)

Note that I added a couple thoughts to the items to help explain my train of thought. The business plan is top priority in this example because it will provide direction to all the decisions that are made for the business going forward. “The thing” could be an important machine or process that can directly or indirectly generate more revenue. Sending the invoice should be put on a schedule and could very well be automated; either way, if sending an invoice takes more than five minutes, you’re probably doing it wrong. (But that’s a topic for another day!)

Another view of priority could be based on how much time you have. In this case, you are trying to accomplish as many tasks as possible in the window available to you. This might give you a list like this:

  1. Send invoice to customer (add to-do to automate)

  2. Figure out why the thing doesn’t work (Maybe fix it?)

  3. Finish business plan (Time consuming, probably won’t get completely done)

Yet another spin could be on both impact and amount of time available:

  1. Figure out why the thing doesn’t work (fix = more money for less work)

  2. Send invoice to customer (still need to automate…)

  3. Finish business plan (may end up happening another time)

There are dozens of different factors that affect priority and dozens more ways to chalk up our data. My point is this: taking a moment to sketch out your top-of-mind tasks and prioritizing them based on 2-3 straightforward criteria will go a long way towards making you less busy and more productive (in other words, more effective). If you’ve been paying attention, you may have also noticed that completing certain tasks can create other, subsequent tasks that my be more or less important than others. A task list is certainly something to be shortened, but is nonetheless a living document that will constantly change.

So the next time you think to yourself, “Wow! I am just swamped,” pause and remember this post. Hopefully it will save you some of your remaining sanity. If you spend more time doing impactful tasks, you will find yourself with less busy work to get done.

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