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How to Prioritize Your Tasks at Work

By Sharine Sample

For most of us, a work week doesn’t go by without us having a deadline… usually more than one. It can be tough to juggle so many demands on our time. To ensure you complete tasks by their deadline (or even before!), you must develop a way to prioritize everything that you need to accomplish.

First off, what does “prioritize” mean? It simply means deciding what tasks should be completed first based on their importance, and which can wait. Some tasks may be simple, while others are more extensive and require more time and resources to complete. By prioritizing, you can save time, reduce your stress, and ensure quality work on schedule.

Consider these steps when you’re figuring out how to prioritize your tasks at work:

  • Define “important.” This is the tricky part. What’s important to you may not be the most critical task for, say, your supervisor. If someone else on your team can’t move forward with their own tasks until you complete yours, factor that into your priority list.
  • Break down your tasks. Any project, large or small, has multiple steps. Breaking down those steps helps you organize your thoughts, see in what order tasks need to be completed, and indicate whether anyone else needs to be involved. It also helps you anticipate how much time you’ll need to finish the overall task.
  • Make your list (and check it twice). Whether electronic or on paper, make a written list of your tasks somewhere that you can see and update it frequently. List the most important tasks first, and jot down the deadlines for each one. This will help you see your list as a whole.
  • Use your calendar. As a back-up to your list, add deadline reminders on your calendar. Block off time on your calendar to work on tasks. This is an easy way to see at a glance when tasks are due and builds them into your workday. I’m a firm believer in setting aside time to focus on a specific job.
  • Set boundaries. Once you’ve set aside time to complete those tasks, don’t neglect them. That designated time is just as important as any other meeting. Set your phone on “do not disturb” and let your co-workers know you’re unavailable.

Of course, even when you are on a mission to complete your tasks, things can and will come up. It’s difficult to stick to your priorities amid constant distractions, new deadlines being thrown into your daily schedule, or even a genuine emergency.

Here are some tips to help prioritize your duties while dealing with unexpected demands:

  • Focus on one task at a time. You may assume that “work smarter, not harder” always means multi-tasking. But most of us are not as good at multi-tasking as we think we are. Focus fully on one single task at a time. This is more efficient than juggling several things at once, and your work will be of higher quality. Bonus: multi-tasking can make you feel frazzled and overwhelmed, while devoting attention to one thing at a time can make you feel calmer and more in control.
  • Delegate tasks. If your project is a team effort, make sure that your co-workers have deadlines in advance and understand what they are responsible for. Clearly communicate throughout so that everyone stays on track.
  • Account for distractions. Distractions will happen whether we like it or not. Plan ahead: build extra time into your schedule to deal with any distractions that come up.
  • Use technology. Even if you’re an old-school paper calendar/to-do list person, don’t forget about the many tech tools available to help prioritize tasks. Set reminders so you’ll be notified when it’s time to begin working on your selected tasks. Color-code your calendar and to-do list by topic or priority level. Use a timer when you’re working so you don’t get distracted and spend more time on a task than needed.

Experiment with these ideas and see what strategies and tools work best for you. Hopefully these tips will help you prioritize your tasks and make your workday flow smoothly, be more productive, and feel less stressful.

Sharine Sample is the Regional Workforce Development Manager at Goodwill Industries of Northwest North Carolina. Learn more about Goodwill’s employment services here.