How to Prioritise Tasks: Do the Most Important Thing First

how to prioritise tasks
Photo by Tirachard Kumtanom:

The One Common Element Of All Prioritisation Techniques

How do you think you could best prioritise your tasks and workload? There are many strategies for prioritising and tips on time management but, if you look carefully, you will see that they all boil down to the same thing. 

Whether you follow the advice of leaders such as Steve Jobs and Dwight Eisenhower or read business experts such as Stephen Covey, Tim Ferris, Brian Tracey or David Allen you will see there is a common theme, even if techniques might differ. Don’t have time to get through all that material? Don’t worry, I have done that for you! 

So, what is the result? The not so secret, irreducible truth at the heart of prioritising is simple: 

Do the most important task first. 

But is it really that simple?

Put First Things First

If you want to be truly productive then you need to prioritise effectively. It is a constant decision-making process, working out what to do next.

“Put first things first” – Stephen R Covey

Putting first things first is one of Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. It means don’t check your email or your phone until you have achieved that important task! 

Most people have a long list of things they need to do. The trick is then to prioritise that list, not to just start at the top and then work down.

Tools such as the Eisenhower Matrix, made popular by Stephen Covey, can help you work out which tasks are important and which are urgent. Alternatively, using the Pareto Principle (a favourite of Timothy Ferris) you can spot and leverage the 20% of work that will get you 80% of the results.

If you set your priorities in this way, it means however the rest of the day goes, you will have done the most important thing first.

But what if you are still struggling?

Be More Steve

The theory is simple, but the practice is often hard. How do you work out what to do when you are feeling overwhelmed? This is the same challenge that Steve Jobs faced, as he said:

“Prioritization sounds like such a simple thing, but true prioritization starts with a very difficult question to answer, especially at a company with a portfolio approach: If you could only do one thing, what would it be? And you can’t rationalize the answer, and you can’t attach the one thing to some other things. It’s just the one thing.” Steve Jobs

So, what you need to do is ask yourself the same question that Steve Jobs used: 

If you could do only one thing, what would it be? 

We should always focus on the one thing we can do, on any given day, that takes us closer to success. Finished a task? Ask the same question again and make sure you are doing the next important thing.

If we continue to challenge ourselves with this question we can all ‘Be More Steve’ and be more focussed and productive with our work time.

Ok, so you have identified the top thing on your to-do list. But what if you don’t like the look of the most important task?

Eat That Frog

The most important and impactful thing you need to do may well be a task that you don’t want to do. It could be a difficult conversation you have been avoiding. Maybe it’s that deadline you keep pushing back on. There is a good chance that work that you have been avoiding is the task you most need to tackle.

If that is the case, there is a danger you will – consciously or unconsciously – employ evasion techniques to avoid doing that work. You might convince yourself that it is not really the most important thing or just allow yourself to get distracted.

Stop. Take a deep breath, hold your nose and…eat that frog!

The phrase ‘Eat that Frog’ coined by leadership guru Brian Tracy. It is the discipline of doing the unpleasant task first to get it out of the way. The rationale is that if you have to eat a frog you might as well get it over with first, and fast! The same goes for unpleasant work. There is nothing for it but to get on with it, suck it up, then move on.

YouTube Video: How to prioritise tasks effectively

The link to good time-management

So prioritising is simple in theory, but it is hard to do in practice. And once you have identified your most important task it does not stop there. You have looked ahead and identified the most important tasks; now what? This is where effective prioritisation meets good time management.

The time-management steps are also straight forward, following the PAD acronym:

  • Prioritise – Identify your priority tasks
  • Assess – Assign an amount of time to achieve that goal
  • Diarise or Do – Start the task or immediately programme it by putting it in the diary

This will help to ensure that your priority tasks get done. It will also help identify other engagements you may need to change, or tasks you need to say no to, in order to achieve your most important work.

So, the question is, now that you have read this, what is the next most important thing you need to do today?

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