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4 easy steps to prioritize your tasks when your desk is overflowing

You feel like your to-do list will never stop growing. But don’t give up hope -- these prioritization strategies and tools can help you out.

April 24, 2020 by Taylor Barbieri

You have way too much to do.

It feels like the only way you’re getting out of work mode on time is by cloning yourself or inventing time travel.

And since, unfortunately, neither is an option at the time of writing (pun not intended), you need options. How can you manage your time when you just plain don’t have enough of it to go around?

The name of the game is prioritizing your tasks. 

And today, we’ll show you how in four simple, cost-effective steps so you can unbury your desk and take care of what really needs to be done before the end of the calendar year.

Let’s get started.

How to prioritize tasks when your desk is overflowing 

Step #1: Write down everything you think you need to do 

Humans aren’t good at accurately estimating how long tasks will take to complete. 

People often fall prey to the planning fallacy. Under the planning fallacy, people tend to assume best-case scenarios and disregard data from past examples when planning for future events. 

For example, let’s assume you’re planning to record a video for your online course. 

If you fell prey to the planning fallacy, you would probably assume that nothing would interrupt your recording process and that you could record the video in an unbroken one-hour block. 

This would ignore past experiences, where you’ve needed three to four hours to record a video of a similar length and where flubs, retakes, and taking breaks to walk your dog interrupted your recording time. 

One research report found that participants tended to underestimate how long a variety of tasks would take. Participants also relied on future situations instead of past experiences when estimating how long a task would take. 

But the best results happen when you actually do the opposite. 

Other research has found that backward planning can help people to more accurately estimate a project's duration. Backward planning entails beginning with the final goal of your project and listing the steps to achieve that goal in reverse chronological order. 

So, how can you overcome, or at least manage, your tendencies to overestimate how quickly you can work?

To start, write down everything you need to do for your business -- broken down step-by-step and in exacting detail -- before you can start prioritizing your tasks. That way, you’ll have a central place where you can see, organize, and prioritize everything you need to tend to. 

For instance, you don’t just want to write down “write an onboarding email series”.

You’ll want to write down “decide the goal of my onboarding emails,” “write five onboarding emails,” “proofread each email,” “create an onboarding discount,” and et cetera. 

Research has shown that people tend to allocate more time to subtasks instead of the core task. 

Next, label each task with an estimate of how long it will take to complete, why you need it, and what outcome or ROI you expect from completing it. 

Let’s go back to our onboarding email example. You could write something to the effect of:

  • Task: Write five onboarding emails
  • Estimated time: 3 to 4 hours
  • Reason: Many subscribers don’t open my emails
  • Result: Convert more subscribers to customers 

Understanding how long each task will take and what it can do for your business could help you to more effectively prioritize tasks. 

Of course, no matter how much you diagram your tasks, you’re never going to get far if you don’t have a prioritization strategy to apply to them -- which is why that’s our next step.

Step #2: Pick a prioritization strategy 

There are as many prioritization strategies as there (probably) are items on your to-do list. 

One of the most popular methods is the Eat That Frog method from Brian Tracy. The premise of Eat That Frog is that you should finish your largest and most important task first. 

This is because this big task is one you’re likely to avoid doing or procrastinate. 

Brian recommends that people prioritize their tasks (and, in doing so, find their frog) using the ABCDE Method.

To use the ABCDE Method, write down what you need to accomplish the night before or the morning before beginning your work.

Then write down the letters A, B, C, D, or E beside each of your tasks. 

A is for tasks you must complete. B is for tasks you should do but which will have few negative ramifications if you don’t finish them. 

C is for tasks that would be ideal to complete but won’t negatively affect you if you don’t. D is for items you can delegate to others, and E is for tasks you should eliminate if possible. 

Similar to the ABCDE Method is the MoSCoW technique. MoSCow stands for the method’s four categories: “must have,” “should have,” “could have,” and “won’t have”.

You can use the MoSCoW technique to determine what projects you must complete today (“must haves”) and which you should complete in the future (“should haves”). 

“Could haves” are tasks you could complete if you had extra time or resources. “Won’t haves” are those you can put on the backburner. 

The Eisenhower Matrix is similar to the MoSCow method in that you separate your tasks into four categories based on their level of importance and urgency. 

Tasks can be broken down into important and urgent, important and not urgent, unimportant but urgent, and unimportant and not urgent. 

To create your own Eisenhower matrix, simply draw a square with four boxes. 

Then label two boxes on the left-hand side as important and not important. Label the two boxes on top as urgent and not urgent, as in the graphic below. 

Tasks in the upper left-hand box are those you should focus on tackling first. Those in the upper right-hand box are those you should anticipate doing later.

The lower right-hand box is for projects that should be automated or delegated to others. Items in the bottom right-hand box should be scratched off your to-do list. 

If labels aren’t your thing, or you’re still struggling to rank each task appropriately, the bubble sort technique may be a better fit. 

The bubble sort technique involves picking just two tasks, and deciding which of those is the more important or pressing task. 

Then compare the most important of those two tasks, and compare it to a third task. Repeat this process until you’ve prioritized each of your projects. 

The Getting Things Done method may be better if you want to periodically check in on your to-do list. 

Under Getting Things Done, first write down all of the tasks you need to attend to. 

Then decide if you can act on this task, and if so, what steps you should take to accomplish it. If not, put it on the backburner or remove it from your to-do list. 

The third step is to put reminders for your tasks in the appropriate places, like your digital calendar or planner. Then periodically review your tasks so you can stay focused. Lastly, use your prioritization system to make more confident decisions. 

And if you’re looking for a simple, straightforward prioritization method, look no further than the Ivy Lee method. 

Under the Ivy Lee method, write down your six most important tasks for the day the night before and order them from the most to the least important, as I did on the Trello board below. 

The next day, start with your most important task and work on only one task at a time. 

If there’s anything left unfinished, move it to your to-do list for the next day. 

While these are just a few of the prioritization methods out there, feel free to experiment, and tweak each strategy to align with your work style. Systems designed as one-size-fits-all rarely, if ever, are a perfect fit for anyone without some modification to fit your specific context.

OK. We’ve covered how to settle on your most high-priority tasks, but what should you do with those low-priority tasks that keep getting bumped to the end of the line but still need to be done?

We’ve got some ideas for that in our next step.

Step #3: Automate and delegate your tasks 

You have two options when it comes to dealing with urgent but not highly important tasks: automating or delegating them. 

Automating tasks simply refers to using technology, such as these top zaps for online businesses, to take care of tasks you would have otherwise had to do manually. 

You could use a social media management tool to post to your social media feeds, or a chatbot to answer common customer queries. 

If you’ve automated all you possibly can and still have too much on your plate, consider which business tasks you can outsource

If you’re looking for help on a recurring basis, you may want to hire and delegate to a virtual assistant (VA) or a freelance expert in their industry.

Don’t take hiring outside help as a sign of failure. There are plenty of businesses that work with freelancers to work more efficiently. 

70% of small- and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) have hired a freelancer. 81% of the same group plan on working with one again. 

Besides, many small business owners and freelancers work with other freelancers to help manage their workloads and help their business excel. 

Robert Maguire, the owner of a content marketing agency, started working with freelancers when their client workload became more than they could handle. Over the years, they’ve built a team of eight freelancers they consider to be their “go-to team” for projects. 

Likewise, hiring a freelancer helped this entrepreneur to have more free time and take their business in the direction they wanted. 

Whether you go the automation or freelancing route, the important thing is to find ways to accomplish your necessary but not top-of-list tasks without filling your schedule to capacity. 

Who knows? You may even find your first employee when you do.

OK. Let’s pivot one more time: if you’ve written down everything, decided how you’re going to prioritize, shuffled off your important but lower-value tasks, then there’s just one thing left to do to get your desk in order: outfit yourself with the tools that’ll help you get there. 

Step #4: Use work prioritization tools 

The Apple iOS and web-based Eisenhower Matrix apps can help you prioritize your work wherever you are. 

If you prefer a birds-eye view of your to-do list, consider using something like Trello. Trello is a project management tool that allows you to create multiple cards for each task. 

You can add checklists, textboxes, comments, and notes to each card, as you can see in the below mock-up. 

You can also add multiple people to each card so you can more easily collaborate with others. 

Lastly, you can move cards across multiple categories so you can see how a given task or project is progressing. 

Tools like Asana, Monday, Tameday, and Todoist serve a similar purpose, helping you visualize and organize your tasks while enabling easy collaboration.

After project management tools, you may want to use a tool like Clockify to track your time. Clockify allows you to track your productivity and working hours. You can also see visual breakdowns of your time and mark time as billable if you charge your clients an hourly rate. 

Similarly, Toggl can also help you track your time so you can have a better understanding of where your time is going and what you should outsource or eliminate. 

You may also enjoy using RescueTime, which tracks how and where you spend your time. RescueTime also gives you a daily productivity score so you can measure your current productivity against your historical performance. 

Look, there are hundreds of tools out there to help you work more efficiently and prioritize your workload. Though they can be an upfront investment, they can save you hours of sunk time (and as a result, earnings) in the long-run. 

Turn your to-do list from chaos to carefully curated in 4 easy steps

You’re not the first, and nor will you be the last, creator whose to-do list is overflowing with work. 

To get more from your hours of hard work, you need to start prioritizing your tasks. (Easier said than done, I know.) 

You can start prioritizing your tasks more effectively by doing the following:

  • Writing down everything you need to do in your business. Then write down how long you think each task will task, what it will do for your business, and the results you expect from finishing that task. 
  • Next, pick a prioritization strategy that aligns with your work style, such as the ABCDE or MoSCoW methods. You can also pull from different strategies to put together a custom prioritization strategy. 
  • Automate and delegate tasks in your business so you won’t be distracted from completing your key tasks with less important ones
  • Pick a prioritization and productivity tool to help you prioritize better and stay on track 

Now with your newfound knowledge of how to prioritize better, pull up your to-do list, and get to business -- you’ll be amazed at how much more productive you can be.

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