How to Prioritize When Everything Is Urgent

5 questions to ask yourself to better prioritize your to-do list.

You begin jotting down your to-do list for the day and immediately break into a sweat. You have no idea how you’ll be able to get all of this done.

And the worst part? In your clouded state of panic, it all seems equally important and time-pressing. How can you be expected to effectively prioritize when absolutely everything seems like a priority?

We’ve all been there. Our workdays get busy, our inboxes fill up, and our to-do lists can quickly snowball out of control. When your plate is absolutely stuffed full, it becomes even more challenging to figure out where you should get started.

Take a breath for just one minute. While an overwhelming to-do list is usually enough to speed your heart rate up, there are a few logical questions you can ask yourself to make sense of your workload and develop a strategic plan of attack.

The best questions follow the structure of the Eisenhower Decision Matrix, a time management technique attributed to an unverified Dwight Eisenhower quote. This simple box helps you to categorize your tasks and to-dos based on their urgency and importance.

If you want to sketch out the matrix for yourself, have at it. But, if you’d rather not, asking these five key questions will help you achieve a very similar end result.

 

1. What absolutely needs to get done today?

When you’re already feeling stressed, it can be tempting to flip through your calendar to get a handle on what’s on your agenda for the entire week or month. You think that will help you feel more on top of things — but it usually just adds to your feeling of overwhelm.

Here’s the thing: When you’re swamped, that presentation you have to do in two weeks or that big report that needs to be wrapped up by the end of the month probably isn’t the most pressing thing on your plate.

Instead, you need to take a step back and look at only today. What are the most urgent items on your to-do list? What do you absolutely need to aim to get done over the course of the next eight hours?

 

2. Which of these urgent tasks are most important?

Now that you have a list of your most urgent to-dos, it’s time to figure out which of these are the most important.

“But, they’re all important!” you’re thinking now. “That’s why they’re all on my to-do list!” Sure, you’ll still want to get those things done eventually — but right now your focus needs to be on the things that are the most critical.

Consider what tasks will have consequences if you don’t actually get them completed by the end of the day. Will you hold up a group project? Get you reprimanded by your boss? Damage a client relationship?

Thinking in terms of consequences might seem a little scary. But, it will also help you figure out which tasks really belong in that “Urgent and Important” box — which are the things you’ll want to get started with right away.

 

3. Can any of these other urgent tasks be delegated?

When you’ve sifted those important items out, you might still be left with some other urgent tasks. They need to get done as soon as possible, but you also don’t consider them do-or-die items.

Since you didn’t assign them a great amount of importance, these are often small and mindless tasks. Maybe it’s things like returning a phone call or an email or filling out your expense report for the accounting department by the end of the day.

For these things that fall into the “Urgent and Not Important” box, give some thought to whether or not you can delegate or automate them.

Is there someone else on your team who could take this off your plate until you get your feet back under you? Or, could you set up some sort of automation using Zapier or IFTTT that would remove that pesky task from your list for good?

Fair warning: You might not be able to figure that out immediately. When you’re already buried, you likely don’t want to dedicate hours to re-routing your work. However, it’s still worth giving a little bit of thought to in case you could greatly improve your workload moving forward.

For the urgent yet unimportant things that stay on your list? Tackle them immediately after the important and time-pressing tasks that you designated — that way you can handle all of the most time-sensitive things first.

 

4. What tasks are important, but not necessarily urgent?

Now, with the most urgent stuff separated out, it’s time to take another look at your to-do list and pull out the things that are important, yet don’t necessarily need to be done immediately.

Chances are, these are the bigger things that you have in the hopper. They’re projects and assignments that you should be making constant progress on, so you don’t have to deal with that stressful time crunch right before the deadline.

But, pulling that off requires some thought and planning. So, for the tasks that end up in your “Not Urgent and Important” box, map out some time to work on those things in your calendar. Set some mini milestones and self-imposed deadlines to keep yourself on track.

That way, you don’t feel like you’re simply pushing those projects out of the way for the day—instead, you’re prioritizing them accordingly.

 

5. Can any tasks be removed altogether?

Being able to remove something from your to-do list entirely is the dream for anybody who’s feeling stretched a little thin.

Think that’s impossible? Well, if you have any to-dos left on your list that you would categorize as “Not Urgent and Not Important,” the chances are good that those items can be deleted from your to-do list altogether.

Oftentimes, we continue to do certain tasks out of habit rather than necessity. Fortunately, the decision matrix will help you instantly identify anything that can be removed from your plate.

 

Prioritizing can always be a challenge — but it becomes especially difficult when everything seems like a priority. Fortunately, these questions can help you sort through all of your tasks and to-dos and determine what should actually be bumped to the top of your list.

 

Do you have any tried and true tips you use when you feel like you have too many fires to put out?

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