When you have a lot of work on your plate, get the most important task done first. Professional employees all over the world use this basic principle to stay on top of their worldload.
That said, what are you supposed to do if all your workplace tasks feel important? How should you plan out your work schedule if all your projects have upcoming deadlines? Is it really best to do the most important thing first? To answer these questions and more, you need to know and use the right time-management strategies. In this article you’ll discover how to:
List all your high-priority, imminent deadline tasks
Sort your list of tasks into different categories of priority
Identify tasks that require less effort and do them first
Double-check deadlines and record them in calendars
Record the time it takes to complete tasks of the same type
Be unafraid to ask for extensions if you’re overwhelmed
Describe your work-prioritizing skills during job interviews
How do you prioritize your work tips & tricks
Make a list of all your high-priority, fast-turnaround tasks
Before anything else, make a list of what you need to do – every weekly task, every project with a deadline, every email and phone message you should respond to. It might be intimidating to look at initially, but this list will give you a clearer sense of your workload challenges and let you create practical plans for completing short-term and long-term career goals.
Sort your most important tasks into categories of urgency and importance
There’s a popular organization tool variably called the Eisenhower Method (after US president Dwight Eisenhower) or the Time Management Matrix (codified by productivity expert Stephen Covey). The specific form of Time Management Matrix’s four-part diagram varies from expert to expert, but generally takes the shape of a table with four quadrants like these:
Example: A sample format for a time management matrix:
#1: Tasks that are important and need to be done right away:
#2: Tasks that are important, but don’t need to be done right away:
#3: Tasks that aren’t important, but need to be done right away:
#4: Tasks that aren’t important and don’t need to be done right away:
Sorting each task on your list into one of these categories makes it easier for you to identify tasks that are high priority and tasks that only feel high-priority. Any tasks that you put into quadrant #1, for instance, should be done right away – no if, then, or but. Tasks in quadrant #2 – vital, but not urgent – should be scheduled for another day and clearly recorded in your calendar.
If you put a priority task into the third quadrant of this time management matrix, odds are good this task is a small, frustrating, yet necessary chore. Complete this task after finishing the tasks in quadrant #1, and think of ways to minimize the time you spend on any third-quadrant task in the future.
If you’ve put a priority task into the fourth quadrant of this time management matrix, it’s not vital or urgent; in other words, it’s not actually a priority task at all. If possible, search for ways to eliminate these tasks from your schedule entirely so you have the time to complete the other, truly important tasks with less fuss and stress.
How to prioritize work: do your less-time-intensive priority work first
If you have two tasks and they’re both equally important or time-sensitive, do the less complex task first. As you complete and cross off more and more simple assignments, your once-towering list of tasks and projects gets a lot less intimidating. This boosts your confidence, improves your focus, and makes you less likely to procrastinate.
This work strategy also lets you hedge your bets against disruptive events outside of your control. A disaster or stroke of bad luck might force you to step away from work at a crucial junction or take on a brand-new task you have to complete on short notice. By getting high-priority, easy-to-complete assignments out of the way first, you’ll be able to adapt more quickly to unforeseen circumstances and check everything off your task list without needing to work overtime.
According to Harvard University’s Shift Project website, 80% of workers in retail and food service positions have very little control over their short-term and long-term schedules. Half of the surveyed workers reported moments where managers changed shifts with less than a week’s advance notice, meaning 69% of surveyed workers were forced to keep their schedules open for shifts that may or may not happen.
In these sorts of workplaces, this article’s advice may help you manage the stress of your unpredictable schedule. That said, the better long-term solution is finding a job with a more stable schedule or negotiating with your employers for improved working conditions.
Make sure your high-priority work deadlines are correct and in your calendar
We’ve all had moments like these: You cross all the tasks off your list and relax for the rest of the day. The next morning, you receive a phone call or email from your teacher or supervisor asking about an assignment you thought was due later. You check and realize the assignment was actually due yesterday.
To avoid dramatic moments like this, double check the due dates of your high-priority work assignments and then check them one more time. When you add those assignments to your digital calendar, make sure you’ve put in the dates and times correctly. Strengthen this habit of double-checking (maybe as part of your New Year’s Resolutions), and you’ll save yourself a lot of grief down the road.
When you’ve got a project or assignment with a concrete deadline given to by your employer, add a due date to your calendar that’s a day or two in advance of the actual deadline. This habit will give you extra time to complete your project – a valuable precaution if the work takes longer than expected or your life suffers a major disruption.
Time yourself to see how long it takes to complete priority tasks
Set a timer when you’re on break to avoid procrastination (a doubly important precaution if you’re pursuing freelance careers). Additionally, try to time the work you do with a stopwatch and get a rough idea of how long it takes you to complete certain tasks on average.
Knowing how long certain tasks take is enormously helpful when you’re planning your daily and weekly work schedules. If there are tasks that you can complete in a short time frame, you’ll be more free to complete them at your leisure.
If you know certain assignments will take lots of time and mental energy to complete, you can set aside a few days in your schedule to work on them and prepare a distraction-free work space for yourself.
Don’t be afraid to ask for extra time to complete priority work
If you don’t make a list of your priority work assignments and don’t know how long it takes you to complete them, it’s easy to bite off more than you chew and burn yourself out trying to complete everything on time.
When you DO make a schedule and carefully calculate the time you’ll need for certain projects, you gain a better sense of what work you can get done…and what you’ll need more time to do.
If you realize you can’t complete all your priority tasks within the listed timeline, asking your supervisor for extensions is the wise AND professional choice. Far better to be open about your limitations and work out alternatives with your boss than to over-promise and under-deliver.
Soft skills like communication and flexibility will help you and your employer find a deadline-extending solution that satisfies you both.
Follow these principles when asking for deadline extensions:
- Suggest alternate deadlines that would be less stressful for you.
- Explain why you need an extension.
- Show that you made the best possible effort to keep to the original deadline.
Make these mistakes when asking for deadline extensions:
- Ask for a deadline extension at the last minute.
- Criticize your supervisor for the original deadline they set.
- Make vague excuses about being late.
Describing your work prioritizing skills during job interviews
If you’re in the middle of a job interview and the interviewer asks you about your time management skills, feel free to answer their question by summarizing all the advice listed above.
Bring notes to the job interview that summarize this article’s principles, then share real-life anecdotes about time where you put these principles into action, whether in the workplace or in your daily life.
List your high-priority work assignments and divide them into four categories: important and urgent; important and not urgent; not urgent and important; and not urgent and not important.
Get the less-complicated, less time-intensive priority tasks done first.
Make sure the correct due dates for high-priority tasks are in your calendar, and plan to complete these well before their due dates.
Time your pace of work to see if you can complete priority tasks before their due dates. If you can’t, don’t be afraid to ask for an extension.
If a job interviewer asks about your time management skills, give them a short list of your work prioritization principles (like this one).