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How to Prioritize When Everything Is Urgent
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How to Prioritize When Everything Is Urgent

4 Simple Questions to Ask Yourself to Help Prioritize Your To-Do List

You’re making a list of all your to-dos for the day, and your heart starts racing as you immediately break into a sweat. How are you ever going to get all of this done?

And the worst part? In your state of panic, everything seems equally important and time-sensitive. How can you be expected to prioritize effectively when everything feels like priority one?

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

Now, take a breath. Close your eyes for a minute.

One way to sort through your tasks is by using the Eisenhower Matrix, named after Dwight D. Eisenhower, the 34th President of the United States. This tool helps you decide what needs your attention first by dividing tasks into four boxes based on urgency and importance. This way, you can see what you should do now, what you can plan for later, what you can delegate, and what you can ignore. It’s a simple yet powerful way to get your priorities straight.

sample eisenhower matrix for prioritizing work

Now, if you want to sketch out the matrix–have at it. But, if you’d rather not, asking yourself these four questions will help you achieve the same result. 

1. Which of the urgent tasks are most important?

When you’re already feeling stressed, it can be tempting to look at your entire agenda and feel overwhelmed. Here’s the thing: when you’re swamped, that presentation you have to do in two weeks or the report due at the end of the month isn’t the most pressing thing on your plate.

Take a step back and start identifying the tasks that are both urgent and important. These are the things that require your immediate attention and cannot be postponed. Think of deadlines, critical meetings, or any crisis that needs your direct involvement. These tasks go to the top of your list (or the top left box).

If you’re still stuck thinking, “But, they’re all important!” consider what tasks will have consequences if you don’t complete them by the end of the day. Thinking in terms of consequences might seem a little scary, but it’s a good indication as to which tasks really are urgent and important.

It doesn’t mean the other tasks won’t get done, but right now your focus needs to be on the critical ones. And here’s a life hack for you: if you get the big rocks out of the way, you’ll find the anxiety eases up and you have a better view of what to work on next.


2. Is this task important but not necessarily urgent?

Next, consider tasks that are important but not urgent. These are activities that contribute to your long-term goals and well-being but don’t need to be done right away. Chances are, these include projects, planning, skill development, and relationship-building. Schedule these tasks for later when you have more time.

Oftentimes, I can get stuck in this box. I’m a problem-solver, so my attention span wants to focus on what’s important. This can lead to procrastinating on more critical tasks. If you can relate, something helpful for me is to challenge myself to complete the other tasks first so I can work on the important stuff guilt-free.

Since items in this box aren’t do-or-die items, it’s a good time to pause and see if any of these can be delegated. Is there someone else on your team who could take this off your plate until you get your feet back under you?


3. Is this task urgent but not important?

Then, look at tasks that are urgent but not important. These are usually interruptions or activities that others might prioritize for you but don’t significantly move the needle or make a big impact. Tasks like responding to non-essential emails or attending certain meetings can fall into this category. Delegate these tasks if possible or set a specific time to handle them quickly.

Here’s how I make time for these every day. I use my peak performance hours for the urgent and important tasks. For me, that’s morning and early afternoon hours. After around 3:00 pm, I hit a wall and I’m unlikely to turn around high-quality work. So, I use the last hour or two of the day for these tasks.


4. Is this task neither urgent nor important?

Finally, identify tasks that aren’t urgent or important. These activities often serve as distractions and do not contribute meaningfully to your goals. Examples include excessive social media browsing, unproductive meetings, or minor chores. Ask yourself, can any of these tasks be removed altogether? Being able to remove something from your to-do list entirely can be liberating if you’re feeling stretched thin. 

That might seem impossible, but if you categorize a task as not urgent and not important, the chances are good that these can be deleted altogether. Oftentimes, we continue to do certain tasks out of habit rather than necessity. This decision matrix can help you identify anything that can be removed from your plate.

Prioritizing is one of the biggest challenges a professional faces. A decision matrix might not be needed every day, but when it all bottles up and feels overwhelming, it can be a super effective tool. Another life hack: use the matrix with your leader. It’s helpful to ensure you’re on the same page with the leaders of your organization, and they’ll appreciate your desire to align with the company goals.

By asking yourself these questions, you can better prioritize your tasks and manage your workload more effectively. Remember, we’re all about teaching you how to work smarter, not harder, so you can enjoy the time you spend earning a living.

Free download of prioritization matrix

Do you have any tried-and-true tips you use when everything seems urgent?


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