Sure, it’s great to make a to-do list, but how do you prioritize the tasks—especially when everything seems like a priority? Instead of getting overwhelmed, you need to learn how to prioritize your priorities. Yes, that’s entirely possible, and we’re going to tell you how to do it.
It just so happens that there are people who focus specifically on juggling competing tasks and priorities: project managers. And as luck would have it, I was a full time PM for many years, PMP-certified and everything. In that time, I learned a number of helpful tricks that can help you manage your workload at the office as well as your ever-growing list of to-dos at home, with your family, or with your friends. Here’s how you can apply some of those techniques to your everyday life.
First, answer the question: Is everything really important?
Even if everything on your plate is supposed to be equally important, you still need a way to break down which ones you spend your time on, and how you slice up your time. The first question you have to get past is whether or not everything really is of equal importance. Here are a couple of tips to help you cut through the fog and get a feel for how important your responsibilities and projects really are.
Grill the boss
At work, you have a manager. At home, you’re your own boss. One of the primary responsibilities of any manager is to help you understand what’s important, what’s not and what you should be working on. You may have a manager at the office who does this (or needs your help doing it well), but everywhere else, you’re in charge of your own work, and no one’s going to tell you that backing up your data is more important right now than painting the house. It’s easy to give up and think “it’s all important,” but at work, you can lean in and tell your boss that you really need their help. At home, sometimes you just have to pick something from your to-do list and get started to build some momentum.
If you’re prioritizing tasks that involve other people, like your family, friends and coworkers, talk to them. Find out from them when they need your help, how much work is backed up behind the things you’re working with them on, and if they can lend a hand. If they don’t need you for another week and someone else needs you tomorrow, or if they aren’t as busy as you are, you know what to do.
We’ll get into this a little more later, but you probably have an idea of when each of your tasks are due—or at least when you’d like them done by—and how much time is required to work on each item. Start with the due dates, take into account how much effort you need to put into each one and how much input you need from others, and work backwards to find out what you should be working on right now (or what you should have already started, in some cases).
Keep yourself accountable
Finally, once you’ve taken some time to determine what’s really important and arranged them based on what you think you should tackle first, it’s time to put it in writing and share it with everyone involved. Set expectations with others for when you’ll get your work done for them, and set expectations with yourself for when you’ll have time to work on your own projects. This is more important in a work setting, but involving others in your non-work to-dos can also keep you—and others—accountable.
In order for your priorities to even matter, you need to have some sort of a personal productivity system in place to which you hold yourself accountable—and in which your priorities will actually matter. If you’ve got a tried and true system, great. If not, check out our guide to building one that’s right for you.
The goal of your system, whichever you select, is to take away the need for you to waste time deciding what to work on next, even when you have a lot on your plate. I’ve found that David Allen’s GTD framework is one of the most effective methods for me, mostly because it focuses on what you should do now and what your next actions should be, and it emphasizes getting your to-dos out of your head and into some system that will help you work. There are plenty of other options, like previously mentioned Wunderlist, or if you work on a team, Asana, a collaborative tool we adore.
Whichever tool and productivity method you choose, dump your to-dos and projects into it as quickly as possible. Make sure it’s something you’ll actually return to and use frequently, and something that’s easy to fit into your workflow, and you’ll be successful. In the end, you want something easy to refer to, easy to enter tasks into, and that gives you a great view of all of the balls you have in the air at any time.
Behold, the trinity: cost, scope and time
When I was a project manager, one of the first things I learned to help me judge which projects were most important or needed the most attention is the “triple constraint,” or a triangle with three equilateral sides. Each side represents the cost of the project, the scope of the project and the time required to complete the project. None of the sides can be adjusted without making changes to the other two sides. The sides you’re weakest in help determine the projects that need special attention. This holds true for all things, not just projects and project managers: If someone heaps more work onto you (scope), but insists that you finish in the same amount of time (time), you’ll need more resources (cost) to get the job done.
For example, if you want to paint the spare room in time for out-of-town guests to stay over, you can’t change the size of the job (scope), but you can control whether you buckle down and do it yourself overnight (time), or get someone else to do it for you while you do something else (cost). Here’s how you can use these three principles to organize your everyday to-dos.
Time: Work backwards from your deadlines
Time is usually the one variable most of us can’t change. Deadlines are deadlines, and often we’re not the ones who set them. This is where working backwards from due dates is crucial. Start a spreadsheet, and mark down when each project or task on your plate needs to be finished. Then work backwards to the present day, taking into account everything each specific to-do that needs to be done to get from here to there, and how long it takes to complete. When you’re finished, you’ll likely see a bunch of tasks that should have started already and others that hopefully won’t start for a while if you’re going to make the deadline. That list, by itself, is a good indicator of what your priorities are, what you should be working on right now, what you should work on next, and perhaps most importantly, what you should get help with—especially if they’re tasks that should have started a week ago.
Cost: Get help from family, friends and coworkers
Cost means more than just dollars. It also means people who can help you, or services you can call to give you a hand or take the load off. Could you finish faster if someone else worked on it for you? What if a teammate could take part of the job off your hands and you could pick it up later? Perhaps there’s a program or application that can automate the process for you, and it’s pretty cheap. It may be worth spending money or dragging in friends to help you finish renovating the kitchen before you run out of vacation days, or calling someone to install your new washing machine so you don’t have to take time off to do it.
Scope: Don’t be afraid to make compromises
If your to-dos have to be done by a certain time and you can’t get help, it’s time to sit down with the people waiting on you and start making some deals. Let them know what you can deliver by when, and then go on to explain what you can give them later. This is important, because it sends the message that you’re not trying to avoid the work you have to do, but you’re trying to give them something now that they can use while you keep working in the background to get them everything else on their wish list. The sooner you stop thinking of your to-dos in terms of all-or-nothing, the sooner you’ll have the flexibility to say “I’ll give you this tomorrow if you give me a week to give you the rest.”
Delegate, delegate, delegate
It’s easy for us to toil away in obscurity, quietly hating our lives and our jobs and growing more frustrated with every passing minute. All the while, there may be a friend who’s willing to help if we had only asked, or a boss who would be willing to help you out if you asked the right questions or gave them the right information.
We’ve talked about how difficult it can be to delegate, and how to delegate effectively in the past, but however you go about it, it’s important to remember that you need to be assertive, not aggressive when asking for help, and you need to make your case with all of the data you have available. By now, you should have your priorities laid out and you have a good idea what you need. Use that information to ask for help and prove you need it, and remember, don’t be upset if your friends, boss, or coworkers say no.
Buckle up—it’s going to be a bumpy ride
Using this method to set your own priorities and keep track of your own responsibilities isn’t just something you should do when you’re starting to feel overwhelmed. If the walls are closing in on you, yes, it’s definitely time to take a good, hard look at what’s on your plate, what can come off, and what has to give, but waiting until you’re already busy and stressed out will make it especially difficult to make the changes you need to get your head above water. Even so, it’s essential, and once you do it you’ll never look back.
Hopefully, you can apply these tricks to your work, at home, and in your day-to-day life. Once you really understand what you have to work on and how long it takes, you’ll be able to make smart decisions about whether you can take on that big new project at work, or help your best friend plan his bachelor party.
This story was originally published in 2012 and was updated on 11/22/19 to provide more thorough and current information.