The Art of Prioritization

Stacked stonesPrioritizing work will help you get more done, faster, but this is one of those tasks that is both art and science. In this article, I’ll share some of the art of prioritization.

The first thing to do is to make a list of all of the things you need to get done. I typically start with a checklist, making note (in no particular order) of everything I need to accomplish. Once I have a list of tasks, I can start prioritizing, and then add in additional tasks as I think of them. Invariably, while I’m reflecting on what I need to do and when I need to do it, I always think of additional things that need done. This could quickly get overwhelming, but by keeping my list organized and thinking through the best approach for getting things done, I can manage my tasks.

Prioritize by Dependency

The first step in prioritizing is to identify dependencies. Depending on the project that you’re working with, or the tasks that you need to accomplish that day, there may or may not be any dependencies. Look over your list and identify if there are certain things that need to be done before other things.

I like to use Trello to manage my lists because it’s easy to create a list and re-prioritize and then see my list on any device.

As an example, we have recently been painting the inside of our house. We needed to measure rooms before we could buy paint, and we needed to paint before I could replace electrical wall plates. Identifying dependencies doesn’t just help us get things done in the right order, it can also take a lot of pressure off. I knew that I had several weeks before I needed to purchase and install any new wall plates because it was going to take a while to paint. We don’t need to do everything at once, and identifying dependencies helps us to give ourselves permission to take things a bit slower.

Organizing your priorities by dependency is the first pass of prioritizing our list.

Prioritize by Location

The second step in prioritizing our lists is to identify tasks that are similar to one another. Our goal here is to identify tasks that can be done at the same time or one after another very quickly. I’m typically looking for tasks that are in the same geographic location. For instance, if I have a number of different errands I need to run, I will group the locations of those together so I can complete the list more quickly. There’s no sense in driving back and forth across town to get my list done when I could get a lot of things done in the same part of town at the same time.

We typically don’t want to break our dependency prioritization in favor of similarity, but take a look at your list and see if there any tasks that need to be done in the same place. This was a key strategy when I was managing an IT help desk. At the university where I was working, we had 80 buildings that we supported, so if somebody was going out to fix a computer, we would take a look at all of the other jobs that needed to be done in that same building. If dependencies were satisfied, and the additional work wouldn’t take too much time, it made sense to try and knock out everything at that same location at once because that saved on travel time in the long term.

Prioritize by Grouping

The last step in the art of prioritization is to group tasks that can be done together. Here, we are trying to identify one or more tasks that need to process for a while, and other tasks that can be done quickly while the first is in progress. The simplest example of this is cooking and washing dishes. While you have a dish cooking, you can be cleaning the dishes that you’ve already used because you don’t need to stare at the thing while it’s cooking.

Think about how long each task you need to do is going to take. Are there some tasks that need to run for a while? If possible, start those sooner, and then do immediate tasks afterwards. Starting a load of dishes, starting a load of laundry, and then working on an immediate task means that you have three things going at once. The same is true in management. It can sometimes be difficult to put aside the work that we need to do immediately so we can help other people get started on their tasks, but if we prioritize and group our tasks together, we can achieve more in the long term. Grouping tasks in this way may mean some things take longer to start and finish in the short term, but our overall output will be higher.

Conclusion

These three strategies for prioritization are largely subjective, but if you practice the art of prioritization and observe the outcomes of your prioritization, over time you will master it. And by becoming better at this art, you will find that you are able to get more done with the time that you have.

In my next article, I will talk about the science of prioritization and I will share some calculations that you can use to prioritize your tasks objectively.

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