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6 tips on how to prioritize tasks at work when everything seems urgent

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July 19, 2021

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Picture this: It’s around 1 p.m. and you’re just getting back from lunch. When you log back in, you’re met with countless tasks, missed phone calls and emails that came in while you were out. You have more work than you can even imagine finishing in the next four hours. How do you handle it?

We’ve all had this happen at one point or another. It’s so easy to get overwhelmed, feel like everything is urgent and not know where to even start. It’s important to take a step back, take a deep breath and think through this step-by-step.

Here are some tips and tricks on how to prioritize tasks at work.

The must-know tips on how to prioritize tasks at work

1. Create a list that contains all your tasks.

Often when we actually list out what we have to do, it’s a lot less than what it initially seemed. Begin by creating a master list of all your tasks.

Once you’ve completed your list, begin to compartmentalize your tasks into daily, weekly and monthly goals or by what their due dates are. Make note of when things need to be done – whether it be immediately, within a couple hours, by end of day or week, etc.

Figuring out how to prioritize your big projects, in addition to your day-to-day responsibilities, can be stressful. Break them down into smaller tasks and complete one part of the project at a time. It will feel less overwhelming than taking it all on at once.

2. Understand the deadlines or make them yourself.

Review items on your list and ask yourself two questions about the timeliness and importance of each:

  • Is this urgent? (Meaning it needs to be done right now.)
  • If it’s not urgent, when does it need to be done by? (Within the next four hours, by tomorrow, by the end of the week, etc.?)

Use your experience to give yourself a deadline for the tasks that don’t already have one. No one knows your tasks and how long it will take you to complete them better than you.

Once you’ve determined which tasks need to be completed first and what their deadlines are, create checkpoints for each. Checkpoints are the steps needed to complete the overall task.

Put these checkpoints somewhere you’ll easily see them, like on a sticky note that you stick on your computer or in Planner on Microsoft Teams.

3. Be realistic.

When setting deadlines, it’s crucial to be realistic with yourself. Are you really going to finish a project that usually takes a few days in one hour? Big tasks take longer, and that’s OK.

It’s important to take into consideration how much time and effort each task realistically needs. Urgency for one task can be different than urgency for another task. Be honest with yourself and what you can handle.

4. Leverage your digital resources.

There are a ton of digital tools that can be used to help you prioritize your tasks.

Email has some super useful tools I use when I’m feeling overwhelmed. A few examples include:

  • Flagging emails. You can set a flag on emails to remind you of when to follow-up or do the next part of the task. It turns the email red, which helps you remember whatever the email is requesting still needs to be done.
  • Organizing your emails in folders. You can use tags or folders to organize the emails in your inbox. You could use folders to organize emails by category or urgency to complete. Whatever you choose, it can help you keep your tasks coordinated, instead of just letting them all pile up in your inbox.
  • Setting reminders in calendar. Your email calendar doesn’t have to only be used for arranging meetings. Set reminders in your calendar for due dates or checkpoints. You will receive a pop-reminder of what needs to be done, the same way you do when a meeting is approaching.

I also suggest trying Planner in Microsoft Teams to organize and keep track of your tasks. It allows you to create a checklist and set due dates for each item.

5. Schedule time in your calendar to get things done.

While going through your to-do list, add focus times in your calendar. Set up blocks of time where you work for 30 minutes without distraction. Once that time is done, take a short break to grab a snack or check your text messages.

Speaking of, your phone is probably your biggest distractor. I suggest putting it on “do not disturb,” silencing it or even hiding it where you can’t see it, whether it be in a drawer or in your bag during these focus times.

And lastly, if you’re feeling unmotivated and are getting distracted easily during your focus time, do the tasks you enjoy doing first. It’ll help you break the laziness, get into the groove and start feeling motivated to do the tasks you typically don’t enjoy doing.

6. Ask for help.

Sometimes there really is no possible way to get everything done in the expected time frame, and that’s OK.

See if one of your coworkers has extra time to help you out, or let your leader know what’s on your plate. It’s better to let your boss know up-front that you aren’t going to get something done on time, than for them to find out when it’s the due date that you’re not finished with it.

You are one person on a team of people, and teammates help each other out!

Why prioritizing tasks is important

Prioritizing tasks is not only important while at work, but it’s also beneficial in your day-to-day life and for your mental health. When we know exactly what’s ahead of us and in what order it has to be done, it gets rid of the unknown and helps us focus.

This means less nerves, stress and anxiety about what has to be done and when it has to be done.

So, take a step back, take a deep breath and get started on that to-do list.

Looking for more workplace advice?

Check out more of our blogs that focus on making the most of your office job and reaching your career goals.

About the author
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Danielle is a 2021 graduate of St Norbert College and has been with Schneider since April 2021. She is a Senior Recruiting Specialist on the Corporate Recruiting team who helps hire for Schneider Transportation Management (STM). In her free time, Danielle loves to read, volunteer with the Miracle League and spend time with her golden retriever, Ryder.

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