Whether it’s allocating their own time to a long to-do list or determining what their company or organization should focus on next, leaders must manage competing priorities. But when everything on a list seems like a “hot item,” it can be difficult to know where to begin.
Still, with careful consideration, it’s usually possible to strike a balance. If you need to prioritize a long task list but aren’t sure where to start, try these 15 strategies from the members of Business Journals Leadership Trust.
1. Create a framework for prioritization.
You can’t do it all at once! I recommend the creation of frameworks for approaching priorities. It could be as simple as mentally setting a target percent of proactive versus reactive work. Or you can focus on a certain bucket of priorities first and allow yourself to be selective about another type of to-dos. Once your approach is framed, it’s helpful to share it with others for transparency. – Stacey Browning, CincyTech USA
2. Rate the organizational benefit of each task.
Not only should to-do lists be created, but the tasks on the to-do list should also be given a rating that’s calculated according to the benefit that will be brought to the organization and the time to implement. The ratings or metrics must be objective, but they must also be measurable. As leaders, we must be able to measure the effectiveness of what we implement to objectively determine success or failure. – Matthew Halle, Lead2Growth
3. Start with the highest payoff.
Start with your biggest and best use or with high-payoff activities — the key five to seven activities that are going to have the greatest impact on the organization. Then be willing to delegate and provide the opportunity for others to grow and develop while accomplishing some of the other important tasks. It doesn’t mean these items aren’t important; they’re just not the right use of your talent. – Scott Rister, Budros Ruhlin Roe
4. Take a step back.
When balancing a long list of urgent and important tasks, it’s always helpful to take a step back and consider your organization’s top priorities or goals. If you only have time to do one thing, make sure that one thing is helping move the needle regarding your organization’s top priority. – Jeff Pinneo, M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust
5. Have multiple teams tackle the items in parallel.
When you have a long list of competing priorities, chipping away at all of them won’t get you anywhere. If you can build multiple teams to tackle your items in parallel, that is best. Otherwise, select one or two projects to focus on. Get them done and move on to the next item on the list. – Matt Bratlien, Net-Tech
6. Develop a grading system.
Use an objective grading system to prioritize a long list of tasks. Write your list down. To the right of it create three columns: “Desirability,” “Do-ability” and “Due.” Grade each task from one to 10 using these criteria, with 10 being the highest, then add up the totals for each line item. If you’re fair with the grading system you’ll find an objective way to prioritize seemingly equal tasks. Don’t forget to delegate! – Phillip Oakley, Common Giant
7. Differentiate the ‘urgent’ from the ‘important.’
Clearly differentiate between tasks that are “time urgent” versus those that are “business value important.” Do urgent and important tasks first, then do important and less urgent tasks. Tackle all other tasks only if you still have time in your calendar. And, yes, use your calendar to schedule all tasks. Your calendar, which by definition is a time-box, displays your priorities. – Hemant Elhence, Synerzip
8. Do the hardest thing first.
Most leaders have competing priorities and tend to put the most important thing off till the end of the day. One thing I’ve learned during the Covid-19 era is to reverse the order and do the hardest thing first. I find it takes a lot of pressure off my day. Another big challenge is that it’s hard to find boundaries for when work starts and ends, especially since the to-do list is so long. – Jenn Kenning, Align Impact
9. Factor in the benefits of completing the task.
On every priority list include a column next to the task that describes the benefits of completing the task. By doing so you come to realize that not all projects are created equal. When you factor in the benefits of the outcome, you realize that some things are just more important than others. It enables you to see the bigger picture in all things that might seem equally important now. – Paul Weber, EAG Advertising & Marketing
10. Keep it simple.
This is a systemic problem. We all have lists, but not all are manageable and rational. You have an email list, you have a project list, you have your personal list — the list goes on. I’ve always educated the team on keeping it organized by a) what’s simple, b) things that should and will get done today and c) what’s ahead (30/60/90). This is shared across the entire team – Gene Yoo, Resecurity, Inc.
11. Prioritize income-producing tasks.
Income-producing tasks are the first priority. Without income, there is no business! The next tier of tasks is those that will have an immediate impact on your personal and professional well-being. The rest of the tasks need to be removed or outsourced from your list. – Rachel Namoff, Arapaho Asset Management
12. Determine what will have a negative impact if you don’t get it done.
There is no way that everything on your to-do list is important and urgent. To determine which tasks are more important at the moment, ask yourself the following questions: “What is going to be a major negative impact on the business if we don’t get XYZ done? And what will happen if we don’t finalize XYZ today?” Based on your answers, you’ll be able to make the best decision. – Solomon Thimothy, OneIMS
13. Compare the resources required with the return on investment.
Use a brainstorming exercise to collectively review each task and set criteria based on the resources required and the expected return on investment. Depict the tasks on a 2-by-2 chart. This exercise helps leaders and their teams effectively see the effort and outcome and assign a level of importance and priority to each activity. – Joey Johnsen, Zeevo Group LLC
14. Estimate how long each task will take.
It can be frustrating to have a never-ending list of things to do, but having a realistic list of tasks with estimated times for each is easier to digest. Plan for your daily priorities and what you can do in your workday. For example, our team works out of projects in Salesforce with Gantt charts to assist in scheduling and assigning deadlines to the tasks. – Scott Scully, Abstrakt Marketing Group
15. Write down every task you have to do.
Write them all down. That gets them out of your head and gives your brain room to tackle the list. Once you’ve written them down it’s easier to group things together, understand what can be delegated, and dive in. – Tashina Bailey, The Bar Method Portland