How to Prioritize Your Work: 4 Steps
At one point in your career or another, you've probably asked yourself, "How to prioritize my work?" Don't worry… you're not alone. We've all stared at a mile-long "due today" task list with no idea where to even start.
Then comes the head scratching. How to prioritize all of those to-dos in a logical, meaningful way? Yes, you could just plow right into that pile, overcoming your workload with sheer grit and ferocity. And you could also guarantee yourself a weekend in the office as the pile wins again.
See "3 Ways to Reclaim Your Agency's Time" for more tips on prioritizing your to-dos.
If you value your work-life balance and your sanity, prioritization needs to happen, but where to start? It will take more than determination; it will require a little structure.
These four steps are the perfect way to start prioritizing your work requests in a way that guarantees you're working on the most valuable, crucial tasks (and not inadvertently signing yourself up for chronic overtime).
1. Identify Business Objectives
Business guru Stephen Covey once said:
"The bottom line is, when people are crystal clear about the most important priorities of the organization and team they work with and prioritized their work around those top priorities, not only are they many times more productive, they discover they have the time they need to have a whole life."
Want to know how to prioritize your own work? Watch how your company prioritizes its own work. The foundational piece to prioritization is getting behind a single rallying cry. If you have clearly defined business objectives, it is much easier to decide which tasks will rise to the top of the list.
For example, has your organization ranked demand generation activities above HR recruiting? You can probably make a call between building a sales email and enhancing your company LinkedIn page. If your organization hasn't set clear objectives, work with your executive to provide them.
2. Get Your Arms Around Your Work
You really can't have a conversation about how to prioritize work without knowing how each kind of work you do impacts your work.
Think of one of the types of projects you tackle on a regular basis—maybe press releases or contributed articles. Now, write down the number of hours you think that work takes. Now, go and do the actual math.
Write down every single step it takes to accomplish the request, from drafts to approvals to publication, etc. Put the list through the paces with an actual project (don't forget to factor in patience when you have to chase down stakeholders).
If you've been tracking it in a spreadsheet, Word document, or some kind of work management solution, you might have most of this information immediately on hand.
Here, for instance, is a screenshot of an actual bylined article project our corporate marketing team worked on. If you squint, you can see assignments, task duration, and dates worked on each task, all information you want to have on hand when calculating how long different types of tasks take you.
How different were the two numbers between your first stab and the number that came out of a step-by-step analysis?
It's really important that you understand how much time each of your projects take. It lets you effectively prioritize the work that you've been asked to do.
If you think something takes five hours but it actually takes seven, and you sign up to do eight of those projects in a week—congratulations—you've just committed to overtime.
Once you have an idea how long your projects usually take, now figure out how deep your backlog usually goes. Do you often have one, two, or three weeks of work waiting in the wings? Get a sense of how long it takes before things can rise to the top of your queue.
3. Publicize Your Norms
Make sure that your requestors know how much time projects usually take, and how substantial your usual backlog is. That will help them to prepare better to make an ask.
For example, if you usually have a two-week backlog, and designing and approving a print ad usually takes six hours over 10 days, make sure that your media buyer knows that they should ask the creative team for print ads at least four weeks before a due date.
So, educate your team, and communicate with them frequently about your workload. Soon you'll create good habits in your requestors. If they do come to you with a last-minute request, they'll know how big of a fire they're setting for you.
4. Set Criteria for Prioritization
Each organization will have their own criteria for prioritizing work, but here are a few to consider:
- Business Value — You've identified your business objectives. Now, you need to set in place a way to determine the value to those objectives each of your requests will provide. Your scorecard for determining business value will be unique to your organization, but typically takes into consideration: potential ROI, total cost (in both time and money), etc.
- Rank of the Requestor — Let's be honest; sometimes a project has to filter to the top of the list due to the title of the requestor. But don't get crazy. If you have more than three or four VIP-level requestors, your queue could be inundated with low-value requests. Keep the VIP list short and communication open with those requestors so that they know how swamped you are (or aren't) at any given time.
- Urgency — When is this request due? This seems like a straightforward one, but it's important, especially when you're dealing with unmovable deadlines.
Learning how to prioritize your workload can feel like the least fun job in the world, but with research, process, and communication—some much-needed structure—you can methodically knock out your most important tasks… and even manage to have a life outside of work.
Download our guide, "The Complete Guide To Request Management," to learn more about managing your work effectively.