Prioritizing Tasks: Your Step-by-Step Guide

A person prioritizing tasks in their notebook.

Write ‘em down. Cross ‘em off.

Prioritizing tasks is a life-skill that is critical to anyone who feels like they are juggling a thousand variables. I dedicate this article to those of us who constantly feel overwhelmed. If you feel that you have too much on your plate, it is time to cross some none-priorities off your list.

I set my priorities every Sunday. When I have a lot going on, I begin my day by prioritizing tasks. My goal is to simplify my life before I get overwhelmed.

We will start with some general tips on how you should go about prioritizing tasks. And then I will lead you through an exercise you should do right now to declutter your to-do list.

Tip 1: Figure out what is important to you.

A notebook filled with goals, priorities, and budgets.

It is impossible to do everything. You need to decide what matters to you. Choose the projects you really want to turn into successes. Give all of your time and energy to the skills and domains in which you want to be great.

It is way easier to succeed in a few specific areas than spreading yourself out over a ton of goals. You cannot do everything; it is impossible to do a million things well. Zone in on one, two, or three things. For me those two things are my relationship and my job.

Next, decide what is not a priority. Decide what is not worth focusing on. Decide what you're willing to sacrifice, what you're willing to not be so great at, what you’re willing to just let go.

You already know how to make a to-do list. But have you ever considered that it might be more helpful to make a not to-do list? This activity will force you to acknowledge that certain projects are not a priority. Plus, it feels good to cross things out. This is basically an opportunity to let yourself off the hook.

Tip 2: Choose to be effective over efficient.

What? Does that even make sense? Trust me, if you must choose between being effective and being efficient, choose the former. You can be efficient at totally meaningless work but if you want to be effective, you must work on important projects. It is better to work on the important things slowly, than to do unimportant things in an efficient way.

For example: I am a blogger.  The most important thing for me to do is to write blog posts. Creating content is the meat of what I do. Every week, without fail, one article gives me trouble. I will reach 200 words, and my mind will blank. Even if I am not making a lot of progress writing the blog post, it's still more important that I spend my time on that content than responding to emails or tweeting. Those words are my bread and butter. It is better to be effective at what is important, than to be efficient at what is not important.

Tip 3: Learn to tell yourself no.

Learn to say no to opportunities that are not good for you or are not a priority due to other things going on in your life.  It is time to learn to cut the fat.

A design that says, "no."

It is hard to reject someone because you want to be nice. This is true in romance and it is true in business. Or maybe, you want to help other people. Sometimes it is hard to say no because you do not want to miss out on an opportunity. But if you agree to do something for which you do not have the resources, you will probably not be very helpful or successful on that project.

You will not have a positive experience because you feel obligated to do something you do not want to do. And whoever you are helping/working with will be disappointed because you are not giving them your best work. Unproductive relationships are not good for anyone and can be avoided with a simple no.

My rule of thumb is that I only agree to propositions and requests that I receive if I feel really excited about the opportunity. I want to be thinking: Yes, I want to do this! I am super excited! Occasionally, I will receive a business offer that is absurdly lucrative. Or, I get a text from a friend asking for help and that person has always had my back. I do not turn those opportunities down.

Otherwise, you should feel comfortable saying no. You may be surprised when people usually understand.

Now that we have worked through the tips, it is time for the Simplify and Prioritize Exercise I promised you. Find a pen and a piece of paper. If you prefer, open a notepad on your computer. When you have those items, we will walk through the instructions.

Let's go.

Step 1: Write all your goals,

Take the time to scratch down what you want to achieve or accomplish in the next three months. Make sure you break your goals down by the following areas: work life, personal life, relationships. Write every ambition, every dream, every goal that pops into your brain.

Step 2: Cut the fat.

It is time to decide what goals on your huge list are most important to you. Put a star next to any item that you cannot do without. If the item is a non-negotiable, such as making enough money to eat or showing your significant other how much you love him/her, slap a star on it. These are things that you either must do, or things that you really want to do and deeply care about. There should not be too many items with stars. Remember, you are picking your priorities.

Step 3: Cross out the excess.

This is my favorite part. Cross off anything that does not have a star next to it, anything you decided is not a priority. Cross off the fat. Trust me, it will feel amazing to declutter your list.

A woman with her hands on her head breathing deeply from happiness.

Keep in mind that by crossing these items off, you are not saying that you will never accomplish those goals. Crossing them off, means they are not priorities right now. Maybe they will be priorities one day, but for now they are junk.

Have you finished those three steps?

Don’t you feel great? When I do this exercise, I am instantly less stressed because I have limited the number of tasks and projects on the docket. After I decide I am not going to focus on something right away, it feels much less important

Step 4: Pick the #1 top priority of this month.

You thought we were finished, didn’t you? Nope. It is time to really, really narrow your focus. Take a look at everything you have stared and circle the most important goal or task.

That is your most important goal for the month. Now, write the three tasks or strategies you can finish/use to push yourself closer to that goal.

Step 5: Act.

Pick one of the three tasks you just wrote down and start working. Finish it today if possible. That baby step will take you a bit closer to accomplishing your most important goal. And, the progress will give you some momentum.

I hope the exercise helped you. Use it whenever you feel the need simplify and prioritize. You can do it in your head if you want. Just decide what's important to you, and those are your priorities. Cut out the stuff that is not important. By practicing this repeatedly, you will boil down your interests; you will be able to prioritize without even trying.  

Good luck!