If you want to be more effective and productive, then knowing how to prioritize your tasks is an essential trait that you must develop. Of course, that’s easier said than done when you consider everything on your to-do-list a top priority. As Stephen Covey once said, “The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule but to schedule your priorities.” Here is how to prioritize work when everything is a top priority.

So, how can you achieve this? Well, here are the best ways to prioritize and schedule your work when everything you have to do is essential.

Is everything really a top priority?

Before getting overwhelmed, stop, and take a deep breath. Hopefully, your head is a little clearer so that you can now think more rationally.

Either think, compose a list or look at your calendar to see everything that’s on your plate. While each of these items is of some importance, they don’t all deserve equal treatment. There are probably some things that don’t deserve any of your time and energy.

Instead of believing that everything needs to be done right now, determine which actions indeed are your priorities. Ideally, these should be the tasks that move you closer to achieving your goals. Other factors include urgency, due dates, ROI, or the consequences of not completing the task or project.

Still stuck? Try using a priorities matrix, such as the popular Eisenhower Matrix. Here you would list all of your tasks into a four-quadrant box. Next, you would organize them by:

  • Urgent and important. These are your top priorities.
  • Important, but not urgent. Schedule these when you have availability.
  • Urgent, but not important. These can be delegated to someone else.
  • Neither urgent or important. Drop these from your to-do-list and calendar entirely.

If you’re working with others, ask them when and how they need your help. For example, let’s say that you were hired by a contractor to install carpet in a new building. You can’t do this until almost every other job is completed, which would be a month away. Why would you put in the carpet when the roof isn’t even installed? Knowing that you can’t put in carpet yet, this particular job isn’t a top priority.

Don’t rely just on lists.

“I have always lived my life by making lists,” writes Richard Branson. “These vary from lists of people to call, lists of ideas, lists of companies to set up, lists of people who can make things happen.” Branson also says that he creates lists for blog topics, tweets, and upcoming plans. “Each day, I work through these lists. By ticking off each task, my ideas take shape, and I make plans to move forward.”

Moreover, lists can provide structure and help break down daunting tasks. Studies have also found that those who take notes can better distill information and recall it later. And, lists can motivate us because it feels fantastic whenever an item gets crossed off.

While lists can definitely come in handy when it comes to prioritizing your work, you shouldn’t rely solely on them. Some experts like Daniel Markovitz and Kevin Kruse suggest that you live by your calendar instead of lists. According to them, lists give us too many options, don’t provide context, and doesn’t help distinguish between urgent and vital. They also don’t account for time. And, they can encourage us to focus on shorter, less complex tasks.

The solution? Take the hybrid approach and use both.

Here you would write down your to-do-list and then add your top priorities to your calendar. Again, there should be things that are time-centric or provide value. By adding these to your Calendar, you’re committing to follow through with completing them. And, it prevents you from scheduling less important activities during these blocks.

Identify three critical daily tasks — and make them non-negotiable.

Before filling up your entire calendar, limit yourself to just three tasks per day. If you finish them ahead of time, then definitely begin working on something else. But, the idea here is not to overwhelm yourself. Besides, realistically, there is only so much that you can accomplish in a day.

When you’ve identified your three most important tasks, add them to your calendar. To prevent under-or-overestimating the correct amount of time, you need to block, track your time for a couple of weeks, or review past calendars.

Once placed in your calendar, these tasks become non-negotiable. Let’s say that you’re planning to work on your pitch deck this afternoon. Right before lunch, a friend texts you to join them for a matinee for the latest Marvel flick. You’d love to go. But, you’ve already committed to cranking out that pitch deck. The MCU will have to wait until you have downtime.

Tap into the power of day theming.

Day theming is where you assign each day, well, a theme. For instance, Mondays would be spent creating and producing content for your business, Tuesdays would be reserved for meetings, and so forth.

Having a theme for each day establishes a routine and provides structure. It also prevents you from jumping all over the place. It’s hard to focus on your work when you know that you’ve got an important meeting in an hour. And it can help prioritize your work. For example, if you only take meetings on Tuesdays, then you know that your other priorities must be scheduled for another day.

Allocate the right resources to the right people.

When you lessen your workload, you can focus entirely on your top priorities. Sometimes this is simply by eliminating low-priorities from your lists like standing or unnecessary meeting. But what about the things that are still important? Delegate these jobs to others.

Two examples would be administrative and specialty tasks. Administrative duties would be time-draining activities like bookkeeping, conducting research, onboarding new employees, or booking travel. While important, these activities aren’t the best use of your time.

Speciality tasks, however, should be handled by experts. You may know a little bit about filing taxes or coding, but you’ll save a ton of time by handing these responsibilities off to an accountant or developer.

Ensure positive triage outcomes.

If you’re somewhat with the medical industry, then you’ve probably heard of the term triage. If you’re not, triage determining which patients need immediate treatment. For instance, if you went to the ER because of the flu, you would be seen after the older adult who is in cardiac arrest.

What does this have to do with prioritizing your work? Well, when you’re only triaging your work, you’re focused solely on putting out fires. If you spend your entire workday doing this, you’ll never get around to your most important work. Instead, you need to be able to block out what’s screaming for your attention right now to focus your most important tasks.

At the same time, there will be unexpected circumstances that will require immediate action. In the medical field, there are three categories of triage to determine this:

  • Immediate category — patients who require immediate life-saving treatment.
  • Urgent category — patients who need treatment as soon as possible.
  • Delayed category — patients who need little medical attention, but there’s no sense of urgency.

Unless it’s life-threatening, emergencies shouldn’t take the place of your priorities. They should be delayed until you have the availability — preferably during a block of time in your calendar where you haven’t scheduled anything.

“You gotta know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em.”

Over time, your priorities are going to change. That’s why you should review them frequently. Some prefer to do this weekly, while others are fine with monthly. The frequency is up to you. But, the point is to see which priorities you need to hold onto and which ones need to be cut. Also, this lets you know of the new priorities that have cropped-up.