When you work as a project manager, you’re often so overwhelmed by different tasks that you don’t know where to start. Moreover, usually, your to-do-list is much longer than a regular working day can accommodate. Unfortunately, you can’t extend a day length for a few more hours, but what you can do in this case is prioritizing your tasks and moving some of them to another day.
Each task you have or will have on your list has two main characteristics – urgency and importance. Urgent tasks are those that require your attention right now and usually have immediate consequences. Important tasks are those that help you achieve your (or your company’s) long-term goals and values and hence have a significant impact on your life.
Let’s see what prioritization techniques you, as a manager, can use to get through your working day like a champion.
Task prioritization techniques
The Eisenhower matrix
The most common and popular prioritization technique is called the Eisenhower matrix because it was introduced by the 34th president of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower. You may get more detail about this technique here, however, I outline the basics of this approach to task prioritization.
The Eisenhower matrix helps you to prioritize tasks by two main factors – urgency and importance. Thus, it splits all the tasks into four groups (or four quadrants): Urgent and Important, Urgent but Not Important, Important but Not Urgent, and Not Urgent and Not Important. It suggests different working strategies for each of these groups; in other words, how to deal with each group of tasks.
Let’s take a closer look at each of the quadrants:
Quadrant 1 – Urgent and Important – These are the tasks of an extremely high impact on your life and career, which at the same time are time-sensitive, so they need to be done today or at the latest tomorrow. If we had to summarize the working strategy for these types of tasks in one word, it would be “Do first.”
Quadrant 2 – Important but Not Urgent – These tasks are usually more strategic things that also have a big impact on your life and career; however, they’re not dependent on time. You definitely need to take care of them if you want to succeed, but probably not today. That’s why the most effective working strategy for these tasks is “Schedule them.”
Quadrant 3 – Urgent but Not Important – It is something that is less important to you; however, it still needs to be done urgently because, in another case, you may face negative consequences. The most obvious strategy for dealing with this type of tasks is “Delegate to someone.” However, if you delegate, don’t forget to keep track of the progress of these tasks.
Quadrant 4 – Not Urgent and Not Important – This type of tasks comprises such activities that don’t have any meaningful impact on your life or career. In the worst case, they may even harm your goals if we’re talking about some pet peeves, etc. It certainly depends on the context, but in most cases, the best strategy for dealing with these tasks is “Don’t do.” Аlternatively you may do them as the last thing when your to-do-list has no other tasks.
Alternative prioritization techniques
Eat the Frog technique
The name of this prioritization technique comes from a quote by American writer Mark Twain who once said the following: “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning, and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.” The idea of this prioritization method is that you should start your working day with the most important task, which quite often is the most difficult one, and the one you are more likely to procrastinate on.
The technique, though, is controversial and incomplete because if you’re overwhelmed with the tasks, it is quite difficult to pick up only one that is the most important. And even if you complete it, a question arises what to do with the rest of the tasks and how to prioritize them. That’s why different variations of this technique exist, suggesting to pick up not one but several “frogs” at a time.
However, to make much use of this method, its followers came up with several tips that can help you to apply this technique effectively:
- Pick such a task that you’re able to complete in 1-4 hours
- Do some preparation a night before. Set a stage for eating the frog first thing the next morning
- If the task is too big to complete in half of a day, break it down into smaller parts and start with the first part
Find more advice here.
Prioritizing easy technique
Prioritizing easy is the opposite approach to “Eat the Frog.” This technique suggests starting your working day with the easiest tasks on your to-do-list. It implies that working on easy tasks can give you momentum and help you get into the day. And successful completion of such tasks, which is almost guaranteed, will give you a feeling of accomplishment and enough motivation to proceed with other tasks on your list.
While this approach feels valid from the psychological point of view, in real life, it may result in a situation when people are less likely to complete the tasks that really matter at the end of the day.
How to know what tasks are important and what aren’t
It is difficult to apply the mentioned above prioritization techniques without knowing which tasks are really important. It may sound funny; however, there are situations when you can’t figure out which of the abundant tasks from your list are more important than others. Fortunately, we have no such issues with defining the urgency because urgency is usually brought to us from above 🙂
But let’s talk about the importance and how to define what is more important and hence should make a top of your to-do-list. Here are a couple of tips:
1. Focus on money
Tasks that make or save your company money tend to take priority over general administrative types of tasks. So, when assessing your tasks for priority levels, give a thought to the financial impact of each task on the organization.
2. Focus on the company’s strategic goals
Another type of task that can be of great importance is those in line with your company mission or its strategic goals. Go through the list of your tasks and mark those that help your company achieve its strategic objectives. Those tasks should form the top of your to-do-list.
3. Focus on project stakeholders
Tasks that keep your project stakeholders happy tend to be a high priority because project stakeholders are the very essence of your project’s existence, and one of the ultimate goals of your project is to keep the stakeholders satisfied.
4. Focus on your direct manager needs
As long as you report to your direct manager, one of your career goals is to keep him or her satisfied, because at the end of the day, it is your direct manager who evaluates your performance in the current position, decides on keeping you in the company or on your promotion. Hence, those tasks that your direct manager deems as important should be treated similarly by you.
5. Focus on your colleagues
We’re not working in silos, and there are usually many interdependencies between the work done by different people and departments in the company. It may happen that the task that seems unimportant for you may be a predecessor (or even a blocker) for your colleague’s task, which has significant importance for the company. So, take these potential interdependencies into account when defining the importance of the task.
Task prioritization tools
Though mentioned above, prioritization techniques are considered the most common ones; it is worth noticing that they’re more about theory. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a person sitting with a pen and a notebook and trying to fit each task into a particular quadrant according to the Eisenhower matrix. Fortunately, nowadays, we have a lot of tools that help us apply either the Eisenhower matrix or any other prioritization technique in the easiest and convenient way.
Today you may find on the Web hundreds if not thousands of task tracking applications in the form of to-do-lists, kanban boards, etc., with plenty of features and price packages. I also have tried a couple of them but eventually ended up using an ordinary Google Calendar application.
Why is it so? From my perspective, Google Calendar has all the necessary features to serve as a task tracker and prioritization tool, and as long as I have been using it anyway, I didn’t want to overwhelm myself and my devices with yet another redundant app. Interestingly, Google Calendar has a built-in task tracking feature which is called Google Tasks. Still, from my point of view, it doesn’t add anything new and valuable to what already exists within the main Google Calendar functionality.
Anyway, if we talk of prioritization techniques, I can confirm that I’m using Eisenhower matrix principles when prioritizing and tracking tasks in Google Calendar. That’s what it looks like.
If I encounter an urgent and important task, I either start doing it immediately or schedule it in a Google Calendar for the nearest future, in most cases, on the same day. If I have important but not urgent tasks on my list, I will schedule it in Google Calendar for some later day of the current week or even later, depending on the tasks due date. What concerns urgent but not important tasks, I’m trying to delegate them, but still note in my Google Calendar that I have to control the task execution. And eventually, not urgent and not important tasks may either don’t make it to my Google Calendar at all, or they can still be added but for some day in the future and with the mark – not important.
These are my experiences with task prioritization. What can you recommend? Please, share in the comments.