How to prioritize tasks at work is an eternal challenge when your workload is heavy, there are multiple demands on your time, and everything needs your attention right now.

You end up working all the time in an effort to catch up and fulfil your responsibilities towards colleagues, administrators, your students, and others.

Despite your determination and long work hours, you never seem to feel like you’re on top of your workload. Bleh.

How to prioritize at work: Standard approaches 

Here are two ways to start determining what’s most important, and what may not be worth your time. Start here. And, revisit these steps regularly.

Clarify Your Goals 

You need to know what’s important in order to determine your priority action items.

Don’t bypass this step, as tempting as it may be!

Ask yourself and decide:

  • What am I working towards?
  • What is the big picture here?
  • What matters? (to me and to the people around me who matter, i.e., my boss, colleagues, family)
  • What’s on my plate that doesn’t reflect my priorities?

Remember: being busy doesn’t necessarily equate to progress. And you can’t have 10 priorities–it defies the meaning of the word and doesn’t lend itself to actually accomplishing things.

Eisenhower Matrix 

This matrix or box asks you to sort your tasks into 4 categories:

  1. Urgent and important (tasks you will do right away).
  2. Important, but not urgent (tasks you will schedule).
  3. Urgent, but not important (tasks that may not contribute to your goals; delegate or schedule).
  4. Neither urgent nor important (tasks that you will eliminate).

A LOT of helpful posts have been written about how to use this system, such as this one by James Clear, author of Atomic Habits. I like Clear’s reminder to eliminate before optimizing: “the fastest way to get something done — whether it is having a computer read a line of code or crossing a task off your to-do list — is to eliminate that task entirely. There is no faster way to do something than not doing it at all.”

How to prioritize at work: Less common (yet effective) approaches

The approaches below work well once you’ve clarified your goals and done some categorizing using the Eisenhower Matrix or equivalent.

Create a daily “most important tasks” list (and stick to it)

Once you’ve got a solid picture of your priorities, you need to execute on them. To help you do so, create a daily to-do list that clearly identifies a maximum of 3 most important tasks that will move your priorities forward. Then, establish how long you will dedicate to that task.

Organize your day based on your energy levels

Once you have started to establish tasks to move a priority forward, you’ll want to schedule these into your day/week. Whenever possible, I highly recommend paying attention to your energy.

Mornings are a time when I focus easily and have abundant energy. So, I tackle priority items that require concentration then (see here for a post I wrote about a night-before planning technique). For example, my morning tasks might include: drafting a conference proposal, a report write-up, or the design of a workshop.

You may not be a morning person, and that’s ok! The point here is:

  1. Observe when you feel energized and when you feel more lethargic
  2. Determine what kind of energy your daily/weekly priority tasks require
  3. Schedule your week so that your energy levels align with your priority tasks for that day or week.


The above strategies work well together and definitely help prioritize. You can use them together, or “mix-and-match” with other strategies to find a system that works for YOU.

Prioritizing at work when you have multiple demands on your time can be challenging. Sometimes, what you need is a good system. Other times, it’s more efficient to clarify your goals and values.

But when you’re feeling the weight of your workload and pressure of timelines closing in on you, you may find that decisions that should seem simple start to feel overwhelming and end up making you feel stuck.

If you want to manage your weeks (and months…maybe even your entire work life!) with more ease, I can help! Find out more here.


Photo credit: Adriano Gadini Pixabay

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