Prioritizing Tasks: What Comes First?

If you have more tasks to do than time to do them in, you are prioritizing – intentionally or unintentionally.


Unintentional methods of prioritization include:

  • Recency Effect. What arrived last gets done first. This is pretty much how an email inbox works.
  • Squeaky Wheel. The person who is complaining the loudest gets their requests processed earliest.
  • Hedonism. We prioritize tasks and projects that we enjoy doing.


While none of these unintentional prioritization methods are bad in moderation, if that is how we are moving through the bulk of our workdays, we will likely run into problems.


Sometimes the tasks that are the most important have been on our plates the longest, have nobody complaining about them, and are somewhat boring.


So how can we prioritize with intentionality?



Tips to Effectively Prioritize Tasks


Centralize your action items. This is the first step in prioritization. Your brain is designed to pay attention to whatever is “in your face”. If some action items are in your email inbox, some are on spreadsheet, and others are scribbled on sticky notes, then you will prioritize whatever you are looking at even though the most important task may be recorded elsewhere.


Review each to-do. Question the priorities:  Is the project I’m working on right now going to give me the best return on my investment? What is the impact if I don’t do it? When is the deadline? How long will it take? Should I delegate or outsource this?


Compare one to-do item to another. Prioritizing occurs in a context, and you should compare tasks to determine their relative importance. Since we all have more to do than we have time, weighing tasks against each other helps you determine priorities.



Use one of the time-based methods to prioritize:


  • Assign a progress date to every task on your list. This is not the deadline or due date but the date on which you wish to make progress on a task. Aim for no more than 5 – 7 items on your list to be assigned to any one day. It is much easier to prioritize 5 items at a time rather than 60.
  • Use a suspense or tickler system. This is a paper-based system that generally has a folder for each month and the days of the month. Of these folders, 12 are labeled January – December and 31 of them are labeled 1 – 31. Julie Bestry has written a book entitled Tickle Yourself Organized that you will want to purchase to maximize this method.


Or, prioritize with one of the categorical methods:


  • Color coding – For example, red stands out for the most important/urgent tasks.
  • ABCs – Try Franklin Covey’s time-honored system. Make the most important tasks A’s, the somewhat important tasks B’s and the least important tasks C’s. Some of my clients ignore or delegate C’s.
  • Number the list – One glance at this list and you’ll know how to proceed.



Pro Tips for Prioritization


Prioritize your to-dos daily and limit them to 3-5 must dos. Each morning, you should set yourself up for success during your daily Opening Ritual. This is the time to look at your list and determine if what you have assigned yourself for the day is challenging but doable.


Reassess to-dos and priorities constantly. You will be monitoring your task list all day long, but at the end of each workday, use your Closing Ritual to update and reprioritize the list.


Estimate the amount of time each task will take…then double it. This will help determine when you plan to get the task done. For more tips on estimating how long a task will take you, read this post.


Do a priority task first thing in the morning before getting involved with email. Mark Twain said, “Eat a live frog first thing every morning. Nothing worse will happen all day.” This is the essence of the productivity book, Eat That Frog by Brian Tracy.


Either you will intentionally prioritize your list, or circumstances will do it for you.


If you feel like all you do at work is fight fires, prioritization is both more difficult and more important.


Set boundaries. Establish priorities. Pursue excellence.


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Dr. Melissa GratiasMelissa Gratias (pronounced “Gracious”) used to think that productivity was a result of working long hours. And, she worked a lot of hours. Then, she learned that productivity is a skill set, not a personality trait. Now, Melissa is a productivity expert who coaches and trains other businesspeople to be more focused, balanced, and effective. She is a prolific writer and speaker who travels the world helping people change how they work and improve how they live. Contact her at or 912-417-2505. Sign up to receive her productivity tips via email.


1 Comment

  1. Melissa Pateritsas

    Have you explored presenting at a PMI Chattanooga Chapter meeting or their annual Professional Development Day? I lead a team of technology project managers and your topics on competing priorities, among others, would be very beneficial. (BTW – I am one of your former students 🙂


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