How to prioritize tasks (and stop getting crushed by your workload)
If you’re overwhelmed at work, chances are it’s because you struggle to prioritize tasks.
And hey, that’s okay!
Prioritization is a totally underrated skill that’s rarely taught to us outright.
That said, having a plan of attack for your workload can break the cycle of missed deadlines and constant stress from falling behind.
This is especially true if you’re managing multiple projects and team members at once.
The good news? Taking control of your tasks simply requires you to rethink how you approach your work.
Whether your current projects are crushing you or you’re always playing catch-up, we’ve got you covered. Below are eight steps to help you figure out how to prioritize tasks.
1. Write down all of your tasks (big, small, immediate, long-term)
First thing’s first: you need to get all of your to-dos out of your head and onto the page.
Or in most cases, the screen.
Start by compiling a literal list of action items that you need to take care of, sorting them based on:
Daily tasks: Including day-to-day duties such as meetings, check-ins, and responding to communication.
Weekly tasks: Including action items related to client deadlines, presentations, or project milestones.
Month-plus tasks: Focusing on tasks related to longer-term projects and goals.
Listing your tasks as individual items immediately makes your workload feel less overwhelming. So much of how to prioritize tasks revolves around knowing what’s actually on your plate.
This is where a tool like Teamwork really comes in handy.
For example, our platform makes it a cinch to record your personal, daily tasks. Don't rack your brain, just mark off your checklist as needed or tag tasks with different priority levels.
What makes personal tasks handy is the fact that you have your project tasks, visible by the entire team, right beneth your fully private personal tasks. Ideally, your team-wide tasks should be public for not only the sake of organization but also accountability.
By using a board view (Kanban board) for your tasks, you can document your schedule and have a clear understanding of deadlines.
2. Determine which tasks are truly important (and what can wait)
Let’s say you’re staring at a laundry list of things to do. Now what?
Listen: not all tasks are equally important.
Unfortunately, we tend to gravitate toward less urgent, low-reward when we don’t know how to prioritize tasks.
Consider the phenomenon known as “the mere urgency effect.” In short, research shows that people often work toward deadlines without actually considering outcomes or why they’re working on any given task.
This results in frantic work without much rhyme or reason. You’re probably staring down a bunch of deadlines as we speak, right?
But odds are your list of “must-do” tasks on any given day is actually pretty short.
Taking a step back to identify what’s truly important is essential if you want to wrangle your schedule and stay productive. The more important something is, the more urgent.
The key factors that influence the importance of a task include:
“Who does this impact?” For example, is a task only going to impact you? Your clients? Your department or company?
“What is the reward or outcome of completing this task?” A new client contract? More revenue? A project getting done ahead of schedule?
“What is the risk of not completing the task?” Lost clients or revenue? Lost progress on a project?
Beyond your own personal judgment, these factors serve as a more subject way to prioritize tasks. For example, completing a team-wide presentation or preparing for a new client meeting should take priority over a check-in email or non-time-sensitive research.
3. Stick to a schedule that reflects your priority tasks
No surprises here.
Maybe you’re freaking out at your workload right now and want to avoid burnout in the future. For the sake of improving your performance long-term, it’s crucial to put together an actual schedule.
If you’ve laid out your tasks and prioritize them accordingly, you’ve already done the bulk of the work.
Building a schedule can help you anticipate potentially hectic weeks and get a head-start on your priority tasks before they have a chance to snowball. If you combine internal deadlines with external due dates from your clients or team, it helps to be able to prioritize your tasks by tier. Then you can better answer “What should I be working on now?”
This is yet again where Teamwork really shines. Our tool allows you to set up reminders and notifications for your upcoming deadlines. As an added bonus, just like your personal tasks, Teamwork enables you to prioritize all tasks based on a priority tier (think: low, medium, or high).
The board and calendar views, likewise, spell out what you’re working on at any given moment at a glance. Meanwhile, the priority selections are reflected on each project card.
4. Tackle your most intense, high-effort tasks first
Some folks call this “eating the frog.”
The concept here is simple: you should put your most daunting and tedious tasks first.
Doing so empowers you to sustain your productivity once you’ve knocked ‘em out. After dealing with your “ugly” tasks, you can start working on shorter, less nagging ones. Riding the dopamine hits from completing task after task keeps your momentum going.
This line of thinking is why so many people save their menial or mindless tasks for the end of the day. The ability to do so, however, hinges on your ability to put together a schedule and prioritize tasks based on importance.
You can even manage this as a team lead with resource allocation features. This gives you a bird's-eye view of your team's tasks. Now you can remove or add previous tasks to new team members who need help or have the capacity.
5. Focus on one task at a time (hint: try not to multitask)
Multitasking might seem like a smart move, right?
But trying to tick too many tasks off your schedule at once is a recipe for burnout.
As noted by the Cleveland Clinic, only about 2.5% of people can multitask effectively. For the rest of us, juggling a bunch of different responsibilities and tasks day-to-day results in poor outcomes.
And this makes perfect sense in a workplace setting. If you’re constantly bouncing between apps, documents, and email, chances are you’re getting very little actual work done.
We acknowledge that everyone’s different in terms of productivity. For the sake of staying focused at work, though, we recommend tackling one task at a time.
6. Make sure you’re giving yourself ample time for any given task
Prioritizing tasks and time management go hand in hand.
If you constantly find yourself up against tight deadlines, you may very well be the culprit. On the flip side, your schedule could very well be unmanageable because your managers don’t understand the scope of your work.
Ask yourself: have you documented how long your day-to-day tasks take? Are you guessing or are your estimations based on actual data?
Rushing to hit deadlines and meet arbitrary milestones isn’t just a bad look for you: it often results in sloppy work.
The amount of time it takes to, say, write a blog post or put together a presentation varies from person to person. There are likewise a ton of factors such as depth and length which influence those same deadlines.
Until you actually put your task timing under the microscope, you’re going to struggle to prioritize tasks, stick to a schedule, and meet deadlines. Features in Teamwork such as time-tracking allow you to monitor how long any given project or individual task takes.
Over time, you can compile your data to come up with averages and estimates that reflect your actual work.
7. Acknowledge what you realistically can (and can’t) get done
This is a straightforward tip but something definitely worth mentioning.
There are only so many hours in the day. If you find yourself stressing out over a menial task or something’s creating a massive mental block, be prepared to either drop it or put it off for tomorrow when you’re fresh.
We’re not saying to neglect your work, but rather be realistic. Companies and teams today are increasingly sensitive to burnout and rightfully so.
Granted you’re not impacting the rest of your team’s work or losing clients or direct revenue, give yourself some flexibility.
8. If possible, make prioritizing tasks a team-wide effort
Remember: your workload doesn’t happen in a vacuum.
Figuring out how to prioritize tasks doesn’t have to be a solo act. For example, teams today should enable workers to:
Communicate issues or questions over deadlines and assigned tasks
Collaborate and agree upon on deadlines, scope of work, and roles
Get their “deep work” done and focus on tasks uninterrupted
This speaks to the value of having your company communicate within a tool such as Teamwork. Between our chat app and board review, team members can manage their schedules and stay in touch regarding priority tasks.
Additionally, team members can ask questions and collaborate as needed.
And on the flip side, workers should be able to unplug and focus on what they need to focus on. In “do not disturb” mode, users can do exactly that, or set their hours, which is great for remote teams in different time zones.
The sooner you learn how to prioritize tasks, the quicker you can rein in your schedule
Right now your schedule might look like a free-for-all, but it doesn't have to be.
Again, the ability to prioritize tasks is invaluable for employees in modern workplaces.
Getting more done and focusing at work becomes so much easier once you understand what your actual priorities are. Using the framework above and tools like Teamwork, you can do exactly that ASAP.