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How to prioritise at work when everything seems important

<p>Evaluating how long something will take and allocating the right amount of time can help improve quality. Photo: Getty</p>

Evaluating how long something will take and allocating the right amount of time can help improve quality. Photo: Getty

Knowing how to prioritise your work can be difficult. With more tasks to do, an endless stream of emails, a heavy workload and meetings, deciding what to do first can become overwhelming.

However, learning to prioritise effectively is key to getting more done during the day, by boosting productivity, reducing stress and improving time management, something many of us struggle with. According to a survey of 1,500 executives worldwide by McKinsey, only 9% were “very satisfied” with their time allocation, and just 52% said that how they spent their time matched their organisation’s priorities.

Evaluating how long something will take and allocating the right amount of time can help improve quality, as well as your work-life balance by creating boundaries for your day.


“Prioritisation is a common issue my clients face at work, however the reasons for it can be different depending on the individual,” says career coach Laura Kingston, of Leap Career Coaching.

“It can be as simple as implementing some time management tools and techniques, or there can be underlying causes such as overwhelm, self-doubt – what if I focus on the wrong task?, perfectionism and procrastination to name a few,” she adds. “People pleasing can be another cause, as you may have colleagues and teams needing tasks completed at the same time, so it can be hard to know which way to turn.”

The nature of modern work means we are often pulled in different directions throughout the day, so working out what needs our attention is challenging. So how can we prioritise tasks if everything seems important?

Be clear about your workload

“My #1 top tip for prioritising is to get really clear on your goals and metrics,” says Victoria McLean, CEO and founder of City CV, a career consultancy and outplacement services firm. “What outputs are you expected to deliver and how will your success and progress be measured and assessed? Then you’re in a better position to decide what tasks are most urgent and what projects will have most impact.

“You need to be ruthless about blocking out the time you need. That probably means delegating some tasks or deferring them until later. But research shows that scheduling when and where you’ll do something makes it dramatically more likely that the task will get done.”

Try the Eisenhower Matrix

The Eisenhower Matrix, also referred to as the Urgent-Important Matrix, is a time management technique invented by the 34th President of the United States, Dwight David Eisenhower. A US army general and statesman, he made tough decisions about which of the many tasks he should focus on during the day which led him to develop the prioritisation method. Essentially, it involves sorting and delegating your tasks into four categories.

“Using the Eisenhower Matrix is a great way to prioritise. List your tasks and place them in one of the four quadrants,” Kingston says. The four categories are as follows:

  • Urgent and important: Do these tasks as soon as possible.

  • Important, but not urgent: Decide when you’ll do these and schedule it.

  • Urgent, but not important: Delegate these tasks to someone else.

  • Neither urgent nor important: Delete these from your schedule as soon as possible.

Deciding which tasks may go in the fourth category can be difficult, but the method will allow you to properly focus on the most important and urgent things on your to-do list.

Think about your boss

Kingston recommends putting yourself in your manager’s position and asking yourself what they would consider the priority task.

“This can help gain clarity and perspective when faced with a prioritisation decision,” she says. “Manage expectations – ask questions such as when does the work need to be completed by.”

Write everything down

Understanding everything that needs to be done, including the most mundane tasks, is essential when it comes to prioritising. It’s important to include personal and work tasks so you get the full picture of what needs to be done.

Take note of how long each task will take, bearing in mind that even smaller ones tend to take longer than we think. Keep any deadlines in consideration too.

“Schedule important tasks for the time of day you are most productive,” Kingston says. “Utilise diary management and schedule in time for tasks. Time blocking can be effective.”

Don’t forget about your long-term goals

Whether it’s a career change, a project or a promotion, it’s important to consider your long-term goals when organising your time. This can help you identify the tasks that align with these aims. “Set time for daily, weekly, monthly and quarterly planning and goals,” Kingston says.

Of course, busy work days may not always leave much time to work towards long-term objectives. However, filling your days with tasks that have no ultimate goal may be time-wasted – so setting aside time for tasks with value to you and your aims is important.

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