Even before COVID shifted us to thinking about a “New Normal,” people were stressed at work. Four years ago, Groupon commissioned a study of 2,000+ professionals about their work lives. Some findings:
More recently, about four months into a global pandemic, researchers at Harvard and NYU collected data from three continents on working styles. That data found that workdays have increased almost 50 minutes (more for women) and meetings are up 13%, with email sends rising as well. (The good news was that meetings tend to last a shorter amount of time.)
In sum, then, there’s a lot of work. Ezra Klein, the founder of VOX Media, released a podcast last year on how “work is identity, and burnout is lifestyle.” Many people feel this way, and tasks seem to pile up.
That’s just work, as well. There’s also the rest of your life: friends, family, aging parents, potentially children, pets, volunteer commitments, happy hours, and more.
People get busy. There are a lot of events and tasks. A core question of the modern age is how to prioritize tasks. What does research and example teach us?
One popular approach around how to prioritize tasks is the Eisenhower Matrix, named for the former U.S. President. In the matrix, you consider tasks as “urgent” and/or “important,” and it looks like this:
The top left quadrant, where “urgent” and “important” intersect, are things you do first, i.e. that day. An example might be a project deadline.
One quadrant over, “important” but “less urgent,” should be scheduled. That could be a teeth cleaning or a meeting about a project down the line.
The lower left quadrant, “urgent” but “less important” (which is very common at work, where “sense of urgency” is a commonly-used phrase), can be delegated to others. This might include the scheduling of candidate calls, or lower-level projects.
The final quadrant, less urgent and less important, honestly doesn’t need to be done at all.
That’s one way to conceptualize how to prioritize tasks. What else is there?
Batching is essentially dividing up your day: you might write in the morning and research in the afternoon, for example, or cluster meetings in the morning and work on product development in the afternoon. Batching tasks allows you to singularly focus on one concept or idea, which some call “flow,” as opposed to being interrupted by constant pings for a multi-hour period.
One of the easiest ways to “batch” in a standard work environment is to block off your calendar for a few hours and not let anyone schedule over it. That’s been a Harvard Business Review “Tip of the Day” too:
In this method of how to prioritize tasks, you create a task list for a given day. Then, you go through it and assign everything a letter grade from A (most important) to E (least important). Then reorganize the list with As on top, which is sometimes called the “Eat the Frog” method of time management and how to prioritize tasks, i.e. no one loves eating the frog (gross), but do it first thing in the morning. Human beings tend to be more productive and focused in the morning, so tackling the important pockets of tasks then makes sense.
This method is similar to the Eisenhower Matrix in that you’re thinking about how to prioritize tasks in the context of importance and urgency.
Crazily enough, this method on how to prioritize tasks was developed 100+ years ago and yet, modern productivity experts still recommend it. There are a simple set of rules:
Everyone likes a good Warren Buffett piece of advice, right?
His two-list rule on how to prioritize looks like this: write down 25 total goals you have. You can do this at the start of a month, year, quarter, or even week (although 25 goals for a single week is lofty). Pick the five most important and elevate those to a level above the list, numbered 1-5. Then circle the other 20 and write “Avoid at all costs.”
Now you know where your focal points should be, and everything else is essentially a distraction. Rumor has it that Buffett worked with his personal pilot on the two-list rule to help him figure out how to prioritize tasks and career goals.
The sunk cost fallacy is a psychological construct whereby we think that because we’ve previously invested time and effort into something, we need to keep doing it and can’t give it up. A classic example in companies is weekly meetings that have long since become irrelevant, potentially created years ago when someone missed a project deadline, and yet everyone still traipses into them each week, not really sure why they need to last an hour. You can kill these meetings.
You can kill many unnecessary things off your calendar, in all likelihood. You can stop doing things at work, especially, “because it’s how we’ve always done it.” It will help you be less cluttered and better understand how to prioritize tasks.
This is someone who asks this question: “What could I do today to make tomorrow better?” We regularly assign that type of discussion and questioning to entrepreneurs, but anyone can do it. It’s a shift from some of these other approaches because instead of focusing on tackling that day in front of you, you look at that day in the context of the overall week, month, quarter, year, etc.
What could you do now to make tomorrow easier, better, or more efficient? Could you schedule out two weeks of email marketing so that you don’t have to scramble on each one?
Absolutely. For example:
Of course, and many do. Trello is one predominant tool, whereby you organize your tasks into “boards” (usually days of the week or bigger categories such as “product development”). Monday has become more popular recently. Asana is a good tool for team organization.
There are hundreds of these tools, many geared towards how to prioritize tasks at work, but most of them can be used in a personal context as well, i.e. “Pick up kids from soccer.” Pipefy and Wrike are other players in the space. Plan is a tool that allows you to create a master to-do list and then drag and drop specific to-dos into your calendar throughout the day.
At F4S, we allow you to take a free assessment measuring 48 distinct traits of individuals and teams. This helps teams come together better, which makes it easier to understand where true urgency and importance lie in terms of projects. If you combine that with developing managers and teaching them what tends to motivate employees, you will evolve into a team with a clear sense of priority, boundaries, and generally less-stressful lives. There will always be tasks and goals and urgent deadlines, but if they can be managed in a logical, respectful way, teams will thrive.
This isn’t easy for people, especially in a work context: by some measure, only 8% of leaders successfully align strategy and execution. Many of them don’t always know how to prioritize what matters, and create overlapping, low-priority, oft-redundant tasks. So, the process is an uphill battle for many.
But with some of the approaches above, and a renewed focus on managerial development, team-building, and a sense of both personal and professional purpose, you can become a master of how to prioritize tasks.
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