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How to Prioritize Work When Everything Seems Important

How to Prioritize Work When Everything Seems Important

Even with all of the advances in modern technology, there are only so many hours in the day to cram in everything that we need to do. A simple “to-do” list doesn’t always cut it, and it’s easy to feel adrift in a sea of tasks without an oar. The key to managing all of the work responsibilities on your plate is prioritization.

In theory, prioritization is pretty simple: write down what you need to do and then start doing it.

Here’s the thing about prioritization though — it’s always changing. Every project manager knows that things come up, fall through, and get moved around. How we adapt to those changes can determine the success or failure of our effectiveness in completing that ever-growing to-do list.

In this article, we’ll look at various ways to help you become a master of time management at work and keep all of those proverbial spinning plates from crashing to the ground.

1. Write out All the Things You Need to Do

Becoming a master of prioritizing will have numerous benefits. You’ll get more done, climb the job ladder faster, and have more free time to enjoy life outside of work. It all starts, though, with making a list of what you need to get done.

Write down the things you need to get done at work today, tomorrow, this week, and this month. Don’t worry about the order — we’ll get to that in a minute — just write down everything.

2. Start by Asking: What’s Really Important Here?

Chances are, you have a pretty full list and that a good deal of them seem like the most important thing or at least top priorities. Some of these tasks may very well be top priorities, but others can probably wait. And they’re going to have to if you’re ever going to tackle the top priorities on your list.

Each priority will fall under: do, defer, delegate, and delete. You don’t necessarily need to assign each priority a label just yet, as there are a few methods to help you cut through the fog.

3. The Triangle of Cost, Scope, and Time

One method that effective project managers use to help with prioritizing tasks on a large-scale project is by looking at each task as an equilateral triangle. Each priority’s side can be measured by its cost (resources needed to complete it), scope (how big the task is) and time (how long it will take to complete). Here’s a graph showing the Triple Constraint, illustrated by the site Project Manager:[1]

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    You may be able to change a particular side of the triangle, perhaps reducing the cost needed to finish it, but it will likely involve altering the scope or deadline.

    Put it to use:

    If a deadline and scope can’t be changed on a task, then perhaps that project takes top priority and compromise will have to be made with cost or the scope of other tasks.

    4. Apply the Eisenhower Matrix

    “I have two kinds of problems: the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.” —President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

    It was out of this quote that the Eisenhower Matrix of prioritization[2] was formed. Remember those do, defer, delegate, and delete labels we mentioned?

    Here’s where they come into play as illustrated in a graph made by James Clear:[3]

      • Urgent & Important = Do. As in, do it now.
      • Important & Not Urgent = Decide. Do it later, and decide when to do it.
      • Urgent & Not Important = Delegate. Give the task to somebody else.
      • Not Important & Not Urgent = Delete. Don’t waste your time on it.

      5. Eat the Frog… Trust Me!

      If you allow procrastination to set in, then everything else will slow down and you’ll accomplish less. Mark Twain advised that if you eat the frog first (that to-do list item you’re avoiding) then the rest of the day will feel like smooth sailing.

      How you start your day can really establish how productive you are. Identifying and knocking out your most important task (MIT) first will set you up for accomplishing everything else.

      6. Make Your Prioritization Precise With the ABCDE Method

      Everything might seem important, but it’s not and there’s a way to find out what is and what isn’t.

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      Look at each item on your list and give it a letter between A and E (with A being the highest priority). Now give each A a number in correspondence with the order you’ll do it in.

      Repeat the process until every task has a letter and a number. You’ll begin to notice with more clarity what really is a top priority and what’s a D2.

      7. Keep Things Realistic

      There’s a good chance that you’re not going to get to every single task on your list at the precise time you would like. Things change and often when you least expect them to, so it’s important to be flexible and realistic with what you can do.

      If you find yourself so busy that you regularly lack the energy to accomplish your work, then you may need to take a closer look at what can be delegated and deleted.

      8. Identify Your 20% Task

      The Pareto principle states that to reach true efficiency and effectiveness nirvana, you should get 80 percent of your results from 20 percent of your effort. This can be easier said than done, but there are some tips you can use to put into practice.

      If you could only accomplish five things what would they be?

      Now take away three of those. What are they?

      Now pick just one.

      That’s an MIT.

      9. Stop Checking Your Email So Often

      You’ve probably heard it before, but when it comes to prioritizing work like a boss, it’s worth mentioning again.

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      Stop checking your email so often. According to a survey of nearly 20,000 working professionals, the most successful ones had a very specific trait in common — they were incredibly good at managing incoming emails.[4] They knew how to filter which emails tied into their highest priorities and that’s what they focused on.

      Besides, don’t make checking emails the first thing to do at work! Here’s why.

      10. Revise and Reevaluate

      Our lives are constantly changing and the stars are never going to always perfectly align for every single thing on your to-do list. Deadlines get pushed around, projects get dropped, and everyday life can get in the way.

      Senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management, Robert Pozen, recommends looking at your schedule for the next day each night before going to bed and revising and reevaluating your items as necessary.[5]

      11. Make the Most of Modern Technology

      An easy-to-use time management and planning tool can really help with knocking out all those priorities. No matter how busy your life is or how much is on your plate, keeping it all organized is going to be essential for getting most of it done.

      Maybe you’re a Google spreadsheets sort of person or perhaps you want an app with all the bells and whistles. There are plenty of options out there, so find one that works for you and put it to use.

      12. Take a Tip from Warren Buffet

      A big part of shortening the path to reaching those Mount Everest long-term goals is clearing out the clutter that gets in the way.

      Warren Buffet reportedly told his personal pilot to make a list of his top 25 goals.[6] He then told him to circle the five most important. Everything else was to be avoided as these things may have seemingly been important, but not of enough importance to deserve the same energy as the top five.

      13. Are You Delegating? Because You Should Be

      The “delegate” part of the four Ds can be tricky for some people who may not feel comfortable asking for help, but it’s a crucial skill to learn. Your boss may be able to help if you reach out. The intern or new hire may be eager to learn a new aspect of how your business functions. Somebody else on your team may be more skilled at a particular task than you.

      If you learn to become comfortable with delegating certain duties when needed, you’ll accomplish those MITs quicker.

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      Learn how to delegate effectively in this guide: How to Delegate Tasks Effectively (Step-By-Step Guide)

      14. The Leaky Boat Conundrum

      Keep in mind when prioritizing those tasks just how valuable your time is. Time spent working towards the wrong priority is wasted time. It’s easy to start a project (the boat), but run into a change that alters its outcome or level of importance (the leak), yet we feel compelled to finish it and find ourselves paddling a sinking boat. Sometimes, the best idea is to move to a new boat rather than fix the leak.

      15. Apply the 5 Whys

      Developed by a Japanese industrialist,[7] this method for determining the importance of a priority is incredibly simple. Here’s the deal:

      Write down the task and why it’s important.

      The fewer times you have to refer back to why the task is important, the more important it is.

      If you need to remind yourself why it’s important numerous times, the benefit of completing the task probably isn’t that great.

      Learn more about the 5 Whys technique here: How to Use the 5 Whys Method to Solve Problems Efficiently

      16. Don’t Let The Bumps Derail You

      There are going to be those days when the frog gets the best of you and everything on your plate looks like an MIT. Everybody has those.

      The important thing for any project manager, entrepreneur, or successful person in general, is going to be consistency when developing and working through that to-list.

      There will be leaky boats and times when there’s nobody to delegate. Take a step back, take a closer look at those work priorities, and stay focused .

      Bottom Line

      We only spend around 40 percent of our workday on primary tasks, with things like checking emails, meetings, and trivial tasks eating up the rest of the day. If you learn how to prioritize effectively, however, you’ll soon find that managing that giant to-do list is easier and finishing those must-do tasks happens quicker!

      More About Time Management

      Featured photo credit: Christina @ wocintechchat.com via unsplash.com

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      Jeremy Diamond

      Jeremy Diamond is a lawyer and entrepreneur. He is the Senior Partner of Diamond and Diamond Lawyers, a national law firm based in Canada

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      Last Updated on January 6, 2021

      14 Ideas on How to Measure Productivity to Make Progress

      14 Ideas on How to Measure Productivity to Make Progress

      Everyone has heard the term productivity, and people talk about it in terms of how high it is and how to improve it. But fewer know how to measure productivity, or even what exactly we are talking about when using the term “productivity.”

      In its simplest form, the productivity formula looks like this: Output ÷ Input = Productivity.

      For example, you have two salespeople each making 10 calls to customers per week. The first one averages 2 sales per week and the second one averages 3 sales per week. By plugging in the numbers we get the following productivity levels for each sales person.

      For salesperson one, the output is 2 sales and the input is 10 sales: 2 ÷ 10 = .2 or 20% productivity. For salesperson two, the output is 3 sales and the input is 10 sales: 3 ÷ 10 = .3 or 30% productivity.

      Knowing how to measure and interpret productivity is an invaluable asset for any manager or business owner in today’s world. As an example, in the above scenario, salesperson #1 is clearly not doing as well as salesperson #2.

      Knowing this information we can now better determine what course of action to take with salesperson #1.

      Some possible outcomes might be to require more in-house training for that salesperson, or to have them accompany the more productive salesperson to learn a better technique. It might be that salesperson #1 just isn’t suited for sales and would do a better job in a different position.

      How to Measure Productivity With Management Techniques

      Knowing how to measure productivity allows you to fine tune your business by minimizing costs and maximizing profits:

      1. Identify Long and Short-Term Goals

      Having a good understanding of what you (or your company’s) goals are is key to measuring productivity.

      For example, if your company’s goal is to maximize market share, you’ll want to measure your team’s productivity by their ability to acquire new customers, not necessarily on actual sales made.

      2. Break Down Goals Into Smaller Weekly Objectives

      Your long-term goal might be to get 1,000 new customers in a year. That’s going to be 20 new customers per week. If you have 5 people on your team, then each one needs to bring in 4 new customers per week.

      Now that you’ve broken it down, you can track each person’s productivity week-by-week just by plugging in the numbers:

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      Productivity = number of new customers ÷ number of sales calls made

      3. Create a System

      Have you ever noticed that whenever you walk into a McDonald’s, the French fry machine is always to your left? 

      This is because McDonald’s created a system. They have determined that the most efficient way to set up a kitchen is to always have the French fry machine on the left when you walk in.

      You can do the same thing and just adapt it to your business.

      Let’s say that you know that your most productive salespeople are making the most sales between the hours of 3 and 7 pm. If the other salespeople are working from 9 am to 4 pm, you can potentially increase productivity through something as simple as adjusting the workday.

      Knowing how to measure productivity allows you to set up, monitor, and fine tune systems to maximize output.

      4. Evaluate, Evaluate, Evaluate!

      We’ve already touched on using these productivity numbers to evaluate and monitor your employees, but don’t forget to evaluate yourself using these same measurements.

      If you have set up a system to track and measure employees’ performance, but you’re still not meeting goals, it may be time to look at your management style. After all, your management is a big part of the input side of our equation.

      Are you more of a carrot or a stick type of manager? Maybe you can try being more of the opposite type to see if that changes productivity. Are you managing your employees as a group? Perhaps taking a more one-on-one approach would be a better way to utilize each individual’s strengths and weaknesses.

      Just remember that you and your management style contribute directly to your employees’ productivity.

      5. Use a Ratings Scale

      Having clear and concise objectives for individual employees is a crucial part of any attempt to increase workplace productivity. Once you have set the goals or objectives, it’s important that your employees are given regular feedback regarding their progress.

      Using a ratings scale is a good way to provide a standardized visual representation of progress. Using a scale of 1-5 or 1-10 is a good way to give clear and concise feedback on an individual basis.

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      It’s also a good way to track long-term progress and growth in areas that need improvement.

      6. Hire “Mystery Shoppers”

      This is especially helpful in retail operations where customer service is critical. A mystery shopper can give feedback based on what a typical customer is likely to experience.

      You can hire your own shopper, or there are firms that will provide them for you. No matter which route you choose, it’s important that the mystery shoppers have a standardized checklist for their evaluation.

      You can request evaluations for your employees friendliness, how long it took to greet the shopper, employees’ knowledge of the products or services, and just about anything else that’s important to a retail operation.

      7. Offer Feedback Forms

      Using a feedback form is a great way to get direct input from existing customers. There are just a couple of things to keep in mind when using feedback forms.

      First, keep the form short, 2-3 questions max with a space for any additional comments. Asking people to fill out a long form with lots of questions will significantly reduce the amount of information you receive.

      Secondly, be aware that customers are much more likely to submit feedback forms when they are unhappy or have a complaint than when they are satisfied.

      You can offset this tendency by asking everyone to take the survey at the end of their interaction. This will increase compliance and give you a broader range of customer experiences, which will help as you’re learning how to measure productivity.

      8. Track Cost Effectiveness

      This is a great metric to have, especially if your employees have some discretion over their budgets. You can track how much each person spends and how they spend it against their productivity.

      Again, this one is easy to plug into the equation: Productivity = amount of money brought in ÷ amount of money spent.

      Having this information is very useful in forecasting expenses and estimating budgets.

      9. Use Self-Evaluations

      Asking your staff to do self evaluations can be a win-win for everyone. Studies have shown that when employees feel that they are involved and their input is taken seriously, morale improves. And as we all know, high employee morale translates into higher productivity.

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      Using self-evaluations is also a good way to make sure that the employees and employers goals are in alignment.

      10. Monitor Time Management

      This is the number one killer of productivity in the workplace. Time spent browsing the internet, playing games, checking email, and making personal calls all contribute to lower productivity[1].

      Time Management Tips to Improve Productivity

        The trick is to limit these activities without becoming overbearing and affecting morale. Studies have shown that most people will adhere to rules that they feel are fair and applied to everyone equally.

        While ideally, we may think that none of these activities should be done on company time, employees will almost certainly have a different opinion. From a productivity standpoint, it is best to have policies and rules that are seen as fair to both sides as you’re learning how to measure productivity.

        11. Analyze New Customer Acquisition

        We’ve all heard the phrase that “It’s more expensive to get a new customer than it is to keep an existing one.” And while that is very true, in order for your business to keep growing, you will need to continually add new customers.

        Knowing how to measure productivity via new customer acquisition will make sure that your marketing dollars are being spent in the most efficient way possible. This is another metric that’s easy to plug into the formula: Productivity = number of new customers ÷ amount of money spent to acquire those customers.

        For example, if you run any kind of advertising campaign, you can compare results and base your future spending accordingly.

        Let’s say that your total advertising budget is $3,000. You put $2,000 into television ads, $700 into radio ads, and $300 into print ads. When you track the results, you find that your television ad produced 50 new customers, your radio ad produced 15 new customers, and your print ad produced 9 new customers.

        Let’s plug those numbers into our equation. Television produced 50 new customers at a cost of $2,000 (50 ÷ 2000 = .025, or a productivity rate of 2.5%). The radio ads produced 15 new customers and cost $700 (15 ÷ 700 = .022, or a 2.2% productivity rate). Print ads brought in 9 new customers and cost $300 (9 ÷ 300 = .03, or a 3% return on productivity).

        From this analysis, it is clear that you would be getting the biggest bang for your advertising dollar using print ads.

        12. Utilize Peer Feedback

        This is especially useful when people who work in teams or groups. While self-assessments can be very useful, the average person is notoriously bad at assessing their own abilities.

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        Just ask a room full of people how many consider themselves to be an above average driver and you’ll see 70% of the hands go up[2]! Now we clearly know that in reality about 25% of drivers are below average, 25% are above average, and 50% are average.

        Are all these people lying? No, they just don’t have an accurate assessment of their own abilities.

        It’s the same in the workplace. Using peer feedback will often provide a more accurate assessment of a person’s ability than a self-assessment would.

        13. Encourage Innovation and Don’t Penalize Failure

        When it comes to productivity, encouraging employee input and adopting their ideas can be a great way to boost productivity. Just make sure that any changes you adopt translate into higher productivity.

        Let’s say that someone comes to you requesting an entertainment budget so that they can take potential customers golfing or out to dinner. By utilizing simple productivity metrics, you can easily produce a cost benefit analysis and either expand the program to the rest of the sales team, or terminate it completely.

        Either way, you have gained valuable knowledge and boosted morale by including employees in the decision-making process.

        14. Use an External Evaluator

        Using an external evaluator is the pinnacle of objective evaluations. Firms that provide professional evaluations use highly trained personnel that even specialize in specific industries.

        They will design a complete analysis of your business’ productivity level. In their final report, they will offer suggestions and recommendations on how to improve productivity.

        While the benefits of a professional evaluation are many, their costs make them prohibitive for most businesses.

        Final Thoughts

        These are just a few of the things you can do when learning how to measure productivity. Some may work for your particular situation, and some may not.

        The most important thing to remember when deciding how to track productivity is to choose a method consistent with your goals. Once you’ve decided on that, it’s just a matter of continuously monitoring your progress, making minor adjustments, and analyzing the results of those adjustments.

        The business world is changing fast, and having the right tools to track and monitor your productivity can give you the edge over your competition.

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        Featured photo credit: William Iven via unsplash.com

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