Prioritize Tasks Based on Importance and Time Investment

Melissa Cater, PhD

Do you ever struggle with which one of your many tasks to tackle first? It’s not unusual to face a day knowing that the list is too long and the time is too short. Having a reliable method for making decisions about how to approach those tasks helps me begin my day more quickly and accomplish more with the time I have available.

My go-to routine for prioritizing tasks is really quite simple. First, I list the top tasks that really need to be completed that day. I’ve learned to limit myself to 5 items on the list. If I list more than five tasks, I invariably end my day with a sense of defeat because I’ve only managed to cross a few items off the list – and there is still a really long list facing me the next day. I know can always add items later in the day if I’m really productive and finish everything early.

The next step in my prioritizing routine is to determine 1) which items are most critical, then 2) how long it will take me to complete each item. So my list for the day may look something like this:

  • Review SET proposals
  • Run 9-a-Day analysis
  • Write blog post
  • Compile list of parishes who have not reported results
  • Work on journal manuscript

With typical Extension mentality, I look at the list and think, “All of these items are critical and must be completed today.” Hmmm, seems I may not get any help looking at it from that angle. Let’s try the time perspective. How long will it take me to complete each task?

  •  Review SET proposals (60  minutes)
  • Run 9-a-Day analysis (2-3 hours depending on detail of analysis)
  • Write blog post (60 minutes)
  • Compile list of parishes who have not reported results (60 minutes)
  • Work on journal manuscript (indefinite)

This gives me a little more clarity. For those of you who are wondering – no, I don’t actually take the time to physically write the time beside the tasks. I’ve been using this prioritizing method for a long time, so I run through these steps very quickly in my head.

Now that I have a sense of what I can do quickly, and what is going to take some in-depth time, I begin to decide what I’m going to do first. I quickly consider the three tasks that will take the least amount of time. I focus in on the blog post and list of parishes tasks because they may not actually take an hour each. At this point, it’s a toss-up which to do first, so I place “write blog post” first (because I’ve been dreading this task the most and I’ll feel better if I get it out of the way) and “compile list of parishes” second.

Now you may think that I’m going to move on to the next 60 minute task on my list. In this case, I’m not. Having prioritized two of the five, I now review the three that are remaining for criticality. The “9-a-Day analysis” actually goes on the list next as it is of more importance to the organization than the other two items are. Now I’m ready to consider the last two items on my list. I’m actually going to leverage my knowledge of myself (see Tip Box) and place the “SET reviews” last; however, I’m going to do this very strategically and assign them a specific time. I know that anything I start at 3:30 p.m. is more likely to be completed because I get some of my best work done when I’m facing a deadline – even if it is only a pseudo 4:30 p.m. Friday deadline. So that means that any time that is left between completing the data analysis and 3:30 will be devoted to the manuscript. I know I can’t finish that task today, but any minutes I devote to it will put me closer to finishing it than I was when I started my day.

So here is my final, prioritized task list for today:

  • Write blog post
  • Compile list of parishes who have not reported results
  • Run 9-a-Day analysis
  • Work on journal manuscript
  • Review SET proposals

No doubt, I’ll experience some bumps along the way. I know that I have a little leeway built into the day because I’m not trying to finish the manuscript, and if I don’t get to work on it I won’t be devastated. It’ll show up again and again on successive days’ priority lists until I do get it finished.

Here are the 4 steps I used for prioritizing my tasks:

  1. List the top 5 tasks for the day
  2. Decide the criticality of each task
  3. Determine the time needed for each task
  4. Rank the items based on criticality and time

While this may seem like the process takes longer than just getting to work on the tasks, I assure you that it does not. I use this process every day, and it takes me less than two minutes to do it. I encourage you to give it a try! You’ll get faster (and hopefully more productive!) the more often you use it.

Do you have a system of prioritizing tasks that works well for you? Please share it with us via the comments box.

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