We live in a very busy culture. Each day, we cram a million things — thoughts, reminders, tasks, habits, actions, deadlines — in. We are constantly making plans, setting goals, and telling each other how busy we are. And it all feels so important — every last thing, from a work deadline to doing laundry to wishing a friend a happy birthday. So, how do you figure out which deadline or obligation to tackle first? How is it possible to prioritize, stay organized, and maintain productivity when everything feels important?
Prioritization is important for fulfilling both your short- and long-term goals. It will help you plan and devote your time and attention to the most relevant and important tasks. Check out my go-to tips below to find out how you can prioritize effectively.
1. Get organized.
I don’t even try to get organized or prioritize until my physical space is organized (enough) for me to focus. Whether it’s my work desk, classroom, or home, this is always my first step, even if it means coming in early or staying up a bit later so I can hit the ground running the next day. An organized space helps your mind focus better, and the act of cleaning itself can help you process and relieve stress so you’re ready to start planning when you finish. For even more of a jumpstart, add upbeat music in your genre of choice!
Once my space is all set, it’s list-time. Whether you like to write out your to-do list and color-code it in your bullet journal, write it out on lined paper, type it up in a Word doc or use a to-do list app or project management software, choose a platform or medium that makes you feel comfortable and roll with it. I like to start by free-writing, listing all of the things I need to get done that come to mind, without trying too hard to organize them at first. Then, I’ll organize my lists by short-term (things I need to do pretty immediately, perhaps that day or by the end of tomorrow) and long-term (maybe things I want to get done in the next week or two, or beyond). You can define what those time limits are to you.
2. Rank by importance, urgency, and deadline.
Once I’ve got my lists planned out, ranking and re-organizing based on what’s important (What do I place the most value on? What will have the worst consequences if I don’t get it done?), what’s the most urgent (Which demands my attention the most, or will affect other things if it’s not completed? Which needs to be handled immediately?) and what are my upcoming deadlines (What has a hard deadline? Which deadlines are first? What’s flexible?).
As you ask yourself these questions, you’ll see that importance, urgency, and deadlines don’t always come together. Sometimes, something that’s important to you may not have a deadline, so you keep putting it off, even though it’s important (i.e., scheduling a dentist’s visit or visiting a sick loved one). And sometimes things that seem incredibly urgent really aren’t that important (does your client really need a response to his email tonight?). Review how you rank and see what emerges, and set deadlines for things that don’t have them, especially personal tasks/goals, or work projects that are more on-going.
3. Schedule accordingly.
Colleagues have asked how I am able to keep track of everything all the time, not miss deadlines, and keep all of my balls in the air at all times. My response is that I schedule everything. I schedule a follow-up call, a trip to the pharmacy, a one-week reminder to pick up a birthday card and another reminder for when to put it in the mail, because I know I’ll forget. I want to use my brain to solve problems and think strategically, not cram it with a million deadlines I’m going to get hazy on, anyway. For some tasks, I’ll put them at the top of my Google Calendar as a reminder to get them done at some point that day, and for some tasks, I’ll schedule a specific time to do them so I know I won’t let it get away from me.
4. Get anything that can be done in less than five minutes done now.
Is there anything you can do in 5 minutes or less? Could be worth it to do it first, just to get it out of the way, and then plan out the rest based on what’s most important and urgent, and what deadlines are approaching. That way, you’ll feel less overwhelmed since you just took a chunk of items off of your list. Insert sigh of relief!
5. Throw out what you don't need.
Are there some perpetual tasks that you just don’t seem to be getting done, maybe because you just don’t care about them or they’re not essential to your life anymore? Maybe you used to really care about seeing friends 3x/week, but now you find you prefer to spend week-nights in and weekends being social, instead. Take a look at your values — what’s most important to you right now in your life? Your career? Relationships? Personal development? And see if there’s any clutter you can get rid of (or move to a really long-term list, to be re-evaluated later).
6. Make a habit of looking ahead.
One helpful piece of scheduling is that if you take time to look ahead each week, you’ll feel even more efficient and effective. You’ll know what’s coming, and you can prepare accordingly and never feel that anxious moment of surprise when you realize you’re not 100% ready for that meeting or deadline.
7. Get into routines.
When it comes to prioritizing and time management, routines are key. Develop a morning and evening routine you stick to; try to get up and go to bed at the same time each day/night. This will help you feel more even-keeled when it comes to tackling all of the tasks you have laid out for yourself each day, and you’ll feel alert enough to enjoy the sense of accomplishment that comes with checking off items on your to-do list!
8. Plan time to plan time.
One routine you should use is to plan a time when you plan your time. Trust me. You’ll feel so much more relaxed, organized, and perhaps even a little less busy if you do.
Life is a pressure cooker, but setting manageable and realistic goals can help you deal with the stress. These skills can help you prioritize effectively and get the most out of your work and personal life.
Chelsea Fonden is a career coach and resume writer based in Brooklyn, NY. Over the past 5 years, she has worked with countless jobseekers across industries and professional levels, and holds a passion for women's advancement in the workplace. She received her Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from the University of Maryland and has worked for several NYC non-profits, as well as in freelance roles.