When the first task lands on your desk, you think: “No problem, I can handle it.” The second and third requests cause a little self-doubt. Soon, you don’t even know how many projects you have on your to-do list.
Does this scenario sound familiar? How can you cope when the projects pile up and the time is short? Learn today how to prioritize your work assignments efficiently and keep your cool.
In a typical day, hundreds of responsibilities vie for your attention. However, not all work tasks are equally significant. You need to prioritize them, ASAP. Priorities take precedence because they are the worthiest pursuits among many competing tasks. To give priorities the special attention they deserve, you must first decide what they are. Finishing a project is a goal. Priorities are more all-encompassing than a single undertaking; they are life values that influence your actions and decisions as you strive toward them.
For example, if your priority is punctuality, you will avoid distractions and finish projects on time in pursuit of that value. Before you read on, ask yourself: “What is my true priority for my career?”
How to Decide What You Should Do First
Steven Pressfield, author of The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks & Win Your Inner Creative Battles explains the principle of priority: “(A) You must know the difference between what is urgent and what is important, and (B) you must do what’s important first. Urgent tasks appear on your task list to address a pressing issue or because they require immediate attention or response. For example, imagine a group of IT technicians have a list of five tasks on their agenda for the day—install current anti-virus software on all the computers, find a funny tech meme for the lunchroom bulletin board contest, set up an account for a new employee starting today, order a replacement part for a broken computer, and stop by the office of someone who requested support. To be most efficient, they should first determine whether each item is urgent or important.
You might think that all the tasks are urgent and important.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who used the priority principle throughout his military and political career, challenged this belief, “What is important is seldom urgent, and what is urgent is seldom important.” The main difference is that important tasks support our long-term purpose, values, and objectives.
Urgent tasks are extremely time-sensitive, but they may not do anything to help us accomplish our goals. For example, the lunchroom contest poster urges the IT team to “Enter before Friday at noon!” but whether they do or not won’t affect their professional mission. They should eliminate the chore or begin it only when they have done everything else on their to-do list. What urgent tasks can you postpone or scratch off your daily schedule?
Let’s return to the IT team’s other four tasks. If their overall purpose is to keep the office network up and running, they will mark the new employee account and the support request as “important.” The affected employees won’t be able to continue their work which, in turn, could slow down the whole operation. The technicians need to order the part and update the software as soon as possible, but these assignments are of a lower priority than the new account and support request.
You might be looking at your agenda thinking, “I have too many important tasks!” In Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, you will find a matrix to help you sort your crucial duties. First, tackle tasks that are important and urgent. Next, prioritize tasks that are important, but not urgent. After you completed everything important, you can work on some of the urgent but non-essential concerns.
How to Reduce Your Volume of Tasks
Is it possible to limit the urgency of an important task? Absolutely, you can lessen the pressure of a deadline if you plan intelligently. Often, you receive notice of deadlines weeks or months in advance. Don’t wait until the last minute to start working. Chunk your task into its components and schedule them in a logical order.
Things break unexpectedly, but sometimes you can prevent important fixes from becoming urgent by scheduling regular maintenance. For instance, if our imaginary IT team performed weekly checks and educated employees about fixing minor repairs, support requests and broken computers would be less frequent. Can you arrange your schedule to accommodate planning and maintenance?
You have the potential to be extremely efficient. Reading this article proves that you have an interest. The next step is putting its advice into practice.
Decide what your priorities are, and allow them to influence how you act. Focus on important tasks, and put urgent ones in their place. Your stress will decrease in proportion to the pile of work on your desk. And who knows, you might even finish ahead of deadline!