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Do you struggle to prioritise tasks when you have a big workload? Do you end up trying to multitask and become overwhelmed and stressed?
Learning to prioritise work is crucial when you have more items on your to-do list than you can accomplish in one day. People generally tend to ignore it, and it’s such a shame!
Prioritising tasks really helps you work faster and more efficiently. And this, in turn, means that you don’t miss deadlines, are less stressed and generally have a better work-life balance.
Why you need to prioritise your tasks
At my previous workplace, I used to get approximately 55 new tasks a minute. They were all urgent, they all had to be done right away. No one seemed to care that there are only 24 hours in a day! Does this sound familiar?
Even if you don’t constantly get new things to do, you might feel like your to-do list is bursting with a million tasks. This can make you feel overwhelmed and stressed. Especially if you don’t know how to prioritise your workload!
Tackling a mountain of work is so hard because you can’t see the end of it. It feels like there is no way to finish everything within the deadline. And when you feel like you can’t do it anyway, starting becomes a difficult thing to do.
But the truth is, you probably will be able to do everything in time if you just prioritise your tasks. And if after that, you’ll still feel like it’s impossible, you’ll just have to let your boss/clients know that you can’t do that much work in so little time. But we’ll talk about it at the end of this article.
I already spoke about the art of creating a to-do list in a separate post, but to summarise, you need to start by writing down everything you have to do. By doing that, you’ll probably already see that some tasks can be combined or are irrelevant at this current state.
Once you have eliminated everything irrelevant on your list and created groups of tasks that go together, you can start prioritising your work (fun!):
Point out all the “nice to have” tasks and set them aside for later
If you work in retail and your boss asked you to review all product descriptions of all 4000 products on your website, you don’t have to be a genius to see that this isn’t a priority. Since you couldn’t possibly finish it in one sitting, you’ll just have to set aside an hour a day for it during the next month. But you surely don’t have to treat it as a priority.
More generally, “cosmetic” tasks that aim to make something prettier/clearer/eliminate minor mistakes are never to be considered priorities. Never start working on those tasks when you have a million things to do. Always do first things first (see my Steven Covey reference here?).
Another way to distinguish priorities from non-priorities is to ask yourself: does this immediately have to do with money? If your payment system is broken and you won’t make money until fixing it, it’s a priority. But if the task doesn’t have any direct (immediate) impact on revenue, it probably isn’t. This is especially true for retail, but you can just adopt the same principle for your industry!
So rule #1 of prioritising tasks is: If it works without the change, then the change can wait.
Avoid multitasking to reduce stress and increase efficiency
It’s so easy to get distracted by new tasks coming in. At my last job, I saw my colleagues leave everything and jump on every new task they were handed. As a result, they worked until 9 pm and were extremely stressed. They even felt like they weren’t doing high-quality work! And I know that because they told me more than once.
And me? Well, at first I made the same mistake. But very soon, I found a much more efficient way of dealing with these situations. I was able to go home at 6 pm, do good work (yes, my boss was very happy with me despite me being the first to leave every day!), reduce stress and be known for my great time management skills! I don’t mean to brag, but you do need a reason to listen to me, right?
So here’s my secret. As soon as I got a new task, I listened carefully and decided how much time I would need to complete it. Then I asked myself if it was a real priority, or if I could do it tomorrow.
In both cases, I would write it down – either on my daily to-do list or on my general one.
In no case would I interrupt my current task. If needed, I would simply tell my boss that I would get onto the new priority in an hour because I was working on X which I had to complete by tonight because of Y.
The reason why you should never interrupt a task to start a new one (unless the first one wasn’t a priority and the second one is) is that it takes us so long to get into a task and start being productive. If you interrupt yourself, you will spend a lot more time on it than if you just carried it through.
Maybe you’re thinking that your boss would never agree with you doing that. But think about it this way. You’re telling them that task 1 is a priority and give a valid reason for it. There’s an 80% chance that your boss will be okay with that because you’re working for the benefit of the company.
If indeed they think that the new task is much more important, that’s also fine. You now have the official right to start with task 2. And if task 1 is not ready in time, that’s okay, because your boss asked you to postpone it. Basically, you can’t go wrong!
So rule #2 of prioritising tasks is: Always finish one task before starting another, multitasking is NOT the way to go.
Finish your work one task at a time while ignoring everything else
When you have a lot of things to do, it’s very important to fully concentrate to prioritise tasks one at a time without looking at anything else. 90% of your emails are not important, and certainly not urgent, so reading them can wait until you’re done.
You work much faster when you don’t interrupt yourself, so do what you can to improve concentration.
Put on headphones, unplug your phone, close your outlook. Do everything you need to give 100% of your focus to that one task you’re working on. And when you’re done (which will happen quicker than you thought), go on to the next one until you finish your priorities.
So rule #3 of prioritising tasks is: Focusing 100% on one task is the quickest way of completing it.
Prioritising tasks leads to great time management
While you prioritise tasks, you always, always have to know how much time you need to complete a certain thing. Otherwise, you’re just going forward blindly and have no way to assess what’s possible and what isn’t!
My secret here? Be very generous with yourself. Never say times like “10 minutes”. Nothing takes 10 minutes, because you might need to get some water or have a bathroom break. Times start at 30 minutes, no matter what.
Always exaggerate because it gives you the freedom to take a little longer for something if you need to, and assures that you’ll really have everything done in time (and probably in advance). You’ll also feel great because you got things done much quicker than you planned (great time management, as I said)!
So rule #4 of prioritising tasks is: Plan your time for every task, and be sure to give yourself more time than you think you’ll need!
Communication is key
Once you’ve prioritised all your tasks, you might still have more to do than you could possibly accomplish. If this is the case, identify the situation as quickly as possible and talk about it! Tell your boss, your client or your teammates and ask for help.
It does not mean that you’re admitting failure. In reality, you’re actually being realistic and preventing a major catastrophe in case the work isn’t done in time!
Just be careful to not complain or seem overly stressed. Simply walk up to your boss and tell him/her that task 1 will take X hours, task 2 Y hours, task 3 Z hours and since your workday cannot be 54 hours, you would appreciate if both of you together could figure out a plan to make it possible.
Believe me when I say that this works wonders for both your mental state and your boss’s confidence in you! No one likes nasty surprises (in form of unfinished work) and everyone appreciates foresight and honesty!
So rule #5 of prioritising tasks is: If you know that you can’t do it, you have to ask for help.
Relax, don’t stress and be productive
The cool thing about prioritising tasks is that after that, you can fully concentrate on your work.
No more worrying, no more unnecessary communication (you’re wearing headphones, remember?), no more stress. Because why would you stress if you know for sure that everything is going to work out fine? So breathe deeply and get going!
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