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How to prioritise tasks

17 August 2020

So, it’s 9 am, and you’ve written your to-do list for the day. You’ve included everything from today’s classes to the set readings for next week’s tutorial; from brainstorming ideas for your upcoming research project, to writing the abstract for your thesis; and you even remembered to put down making that phone call to check-in on your best friend who you haven’t seen in weeks.

The problem is, there are only so many hours in the day, everything seems important, and it’s starting to feel pretty overwhelming staring at your list. How do you prioritise? The good news is there are plenty of ways. Here are 4 of them:

1. Important vs Urgent tasks

We all tend to prioritise tasks that are urgent. However, just because the task feels urgent, it isn’t necessarily important. According to Stephen Covey (author of “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”), it can help to organise your tasks into four categories:

  • Not Important and Not Urgent
    These tasks tend to waste your time and often come in the form of procrastination activities, such as surfing the web mindlessly or watching TV. Forget them.
  • Urgent and Not Important
    These tasks have little or no value and are usually only ‘disguised’ as urgent. An example might be an email or phone call you’ve just spent 10 minutes on that wasn’t important to YOU, but apparently was to the other party. Reflect on whether the tasks are genuinely urgent (and to whom) before starting on them.
  • Not Urgent and Important
    These are tasks which are vital for long term benefit (for example, exercising or picking up the phone to catch up with mum) but often don’t need to be done right away. Include them but be conservative – it may be that you need to break them up and spread them out over a more extended period.
  • Urgent and Important
    Finally, these are the tasks you need to action immediately. They hold high value and are required to be done now, such as emergencies or hard deadlines for projects and assessments.
Task Priority Matrix: A way to organise your tasks based on urgency and importance. 

2. Say “no.”

When someone asks you to do something, it feels great to say ‘yes’, doesn’t it? It means you give them what they want; it feels safer than the alternative and is much easier than having to decide whether the request is important. Saying ‘yes’ is addictive. The problem is when there are only so many hours in the day, and your to-do list already has you at capacity, saying ‘yes’ often means saying ‘no’ to something else. On the other hand, when we say ‘no’ to one thing, it means we’re prioritising other tasks that hold more value to us. The advice here is not to immediately refuse but to thoughtfully consider what is truly important to you – especially when you’re managing a heavy workload.

As Gandhi said,

“A ‘no’ uttered from deepest conviction is better than a ‘yes’ merely uttered to please, or worse to avoid trouble.”

3. Establish rituals

When you find yourself loaded with competing demands and a full schedule, it’s easy to let good habits slip. Establishing, or re-establishing, good habits that become automatic behaviours over time can be the key to making sure your prioritised tasks are completed.

You’ve probably heard the phrase “work smarter, not harder”. By establishing regular times in your calendar for habitual, important tasks (such as exercise, brainstorming, mindfulness meditation… even your lunch break!) will allow you to put more energy into those irregular, yet urgent and important tasks that come up.
Habits become automatic behaviours that become rituals.

For example, you might have ‘taking a 30-minute walk’ on your to-do list. Allocate a specific time for this – say, 1 pm after your lunch break (at say, 12:30 pm). Ritualising this activity means you can effectively cross it off your list in advance, and your other tasks can be met with more energy.

4. The value vs effort matrix

If you’re still debating whether one task is more important than the other and can’t decide whether another task is urgent enough to begin right away, another way of prioritising tasks is to consider their value and how much effort will be required to complete them.

It’s important to establish whether tasks are worth forgetting, worth doing right away or should be broken down into smaller, more manageable chunks. A way to identify which of your tasks fall into which category is with a Value vs Effort matrix:

Low value and high effort.

Forget it. If you’ve included a task in this quadrant, it’s probably not even worth doing. Reflect on why the task exists, and if it must still be done, move it to another quadrant.

Low value and low effort.

These are “filler” tasks. Any task that falls into this quadrant is probably already old, and you’re hanging on for sentimental reasons. Again, reflect on why these tasks exist and if you can’t get rid of them, move them to another quadrant.

High value and high effort.

Chip away. Break these tasks down into smaller, more manageable chunks that you can work on over a longer period of time. They are a high priority, but as they stand are probably going to require too much effort to be completed quickly.

High value and low effort.

Do it now. These tasks are the highest priority, and you should consider getting them done first. Considering they’re low effort, they should come at little or no expense to the other tasks on your to-do list.

Beware of bias

We often demonstrate bias when it comes to categorising tasks as being high value. Put simply; we feel that if it was worth including on our to-do list (or it’s a prescribed task such as reading a 100-page chapter of the unit text), it must have value. What happens is you end up flooding the high value, low effort quadrant with tasks, and those with higher effort are sacrificed.

The solution? Be realistic with your time, reflect on your to-do list and say “no” to those tasks that, actually, aren’t all that important.