When you’re working in a busy, fast-paced, high-stakes environment, and especially if you’re an entrepreneur, you may find it almost impossible to establish a hierarchy of importance for your tasks. Your to-do list is never-ending, and it’s difficult to prioritize one thing over the other – after all, they all need your attention, and you end up wasting a lot of time and not actually completing anything. So, how do you do it?
It may not come naturally, but you can learn to look at tasks differently and figure out what needs to take priority and what doesn’t. Until you nail it, here are some tips on how to separate those Must Do tasks from the Do It Later ones.
- Centralize all of your tasks
First thing’s first: manage the chaos that your to-do list is creating in your head, by putting it down on paper. It can be a spreadsheet on your computer, a bullet-point list, a chart, a flowchart, or a diagram that you draw on your whiteboard – anything that gets everything down, so you can start organizing it.
You should be able to see everything together, in one go. This will not only give you an idea about the volume of work that is ahead of you, but it also enables you to compare these tasks, quantify them, and re-assess their importance.
Every item on your list should say what the task is, how much work it entails, details about what you actually need to do, what the deadline is, and any other essential mentions. Once you’ve familiarized yourself with all your To-Dos, it’s time to start organizing them.
- Assign degrees of urgency
Now that you know exactly what your tasks are and what your timeline is, you can roll up your sleeves and start doing the heavy lifting: assigning degrees of urgency. Here, you can technically work with as many categories as you want, but you don’t want to get nitpicky and lose yourself in too many labels. Generally, you just want 3 to 4. Here’s an excellent way to categorize them, according to importance and urgency:
- Both Urgent and Important – these need to take ultimate priority.
- Important, but not really Urgent – these need to be dealt with, but you can schedule them for now, and do them when their time comes.
- Urgent, but not that Important – someone else can do these for you.
- Not Important, and not Urgent – you don’t really need to do these right now, or in the near future.
- Can this be simplified?/Can this be put off?
If there simply isn’t enough time (or not enough of you) to get all the high priority tasks done, it’s time to take a second look at them and see where you can cut corners. Not to the detriment of quality, of course, but sometimes, we prioritize perfection to a degree that becomes inconvenient.
So, take a look at your list and ask yourself some crucial questions: “Can this be simplified in any way?”, and “Can this be extended or put off/done at a later time?”. This isn’t about giving up, but about being realistic. Some things just need to be done, but they don’t need to be as elaborate or ambitious as you are making them out to be.
At the same time, you should also buy yourself time wherever you can, even if it means extending some deadlines or completing things a bit later. Unless it’s of absolute importance for matters higher than yourself, you can usually get away with it.
- Can this be delegated?/Can this be automated?
Another thing is that entrepreneurs, in particular, have a hard time delegating. Yes, delegating is the magic word, here, and you need to get comfortable doing it more often. Chances are that half your to-do list are tasks you can give to someone else to do for you because your specific presence or input is not required. Admin tasks usually fall into this category.
The other thing you need to consider is automation and allowing technology to help you out, wherever possible. Specialist software can be a miracle worker these days and can take care of a sizeable chunk of your tasks, including marketing emails, invoicing, booking, and scheduling for all kinds of companies, from tech to electrical work. Think of all the time you save by relinquishing some of that control.
- Start with the most important, urgent, or difficult task and commit to it
Okay, so let’s say you’ve culled your list and you’ve established your hierarchy. It will be very tempting to spend your time working on smaller or less urgent tasks, but that is not the best use of your time. You’ve identified the most urgent/important tasks for a reason, and now you need to start working on those.
As difficult as it may be to decide between important tasks, you need to pick one and commit to it. Decide that it’s the one that takes priority and focus on accomplishing that particular goal. If you start working on too many things at once, you won’t finish any of them, and they’ll still be just as urgent tomorrow. Choose one, work on it consistently, and cross that one off your list. The sense of accomplishment alone will make it worth it. Then, you’re free to work through the rest of your list.
- Be realistic about how much you can accomplish
At this point, you may be feeling a little over-enthusiastic and optimistic about how much work you can get done in one sitting or during a workday, and that can hurt your productivity. It’s always best to be realistic about your limits and how much you can actually accomplish because otherwise, you won’t be able to finish those very important tasks on time.
Assess your time wisely, be generous with yourself and allow more time to finish something (because you always end up needing it), and if necessary, push back or cut out other, less important tasks from the bottom of the list. Cramming too much in just ensures that you don’t finish any of your tasks.
- Cut your losses
Finally, a very important lesson, but one that is difficult to learn: even if you’ve been working on something for the longest time, if things don’t pan out, stop wasting time trying to make it work.
The sunk cost fallacy makes a lot of victims, meaning that we all fall into the trap of continuing with something that we’ve put time, money, and effort into, even if it’s not producing the results we want. It’s all so we don’t “lose” what we’ve already invested. Except, those resources are already lost (whether they’re material or emotional) and sinking even more into this project won’t recoup what you’ve put in and it won’t make it worth it.
So, stop prioritizing a task or project that just isn’t working out. All you’re doing is robbing yourself of time you could be using more effectively on other important tasks. Let this go, move on, and make better use of your valuable time.
When you’re in the thick of a busy season and everything on your plate seems equally important, it can be really hard to prioritize effectively and get things done. Thankfully, there are a few tips you can apply to help you see things more clearly and differentiate between tasks that are truly a priority and ones that are just cluttering your to-do list. A bit of organization and ruthless culling can go a long way, so don’t hold back when it comes to trimming and prioritizing your tasks.
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