How to Prioritize Tasks: Steps, Tips, and Techniques

By Kate Eby | August 26, 2021 (updated September 19, 2023)

Task prioritization enables you to more effectively manage work tasks by identifying priority levels, based on urgency and importance. This article provides expert tips and best practices to help you prioritize your workload.

Included on this page, you’ll find expert tips and tricks for prioritizing work tasks, a variety of prioritization techniques, and a free priority matrix template that you can download to get started.

What Is Task Prioritization?

Task prioritization is the process of assigning order to tasks based on their urgency and importance. The goal is to improve your time management and productivity by focusing on and organizing the tasks you need to complete. 

Prioritizing tasks can often mean putting aside a task you want to do, and instead taking care of  harder or more challenging responsibility. Task prioritization is a process, and you can use several steps, techniques, and tips to help you effectively focus your attention and manage your time.

General Steps to Prioritizing Tasks

You can prioritize tasks by recognizing a number of factors involved with a single task. By understanding the priority of each task, you can then assign an order to determine when and how to accomplish each task.

  1. Make a List: Document the current outstanding tasks. Jot down any tasks or assignments that come to mind so that you can visualize the extent of the work awaiting you.
  2. Know the Deadlines: Add task deadlines to the list. Doing so allows you to more effectively separate your urgent tasks from less time-sensitive items. 
  3. Estimate the Time and Effort: By understanding the resources it takes to complete each task, you can more effectively identify the priority of a task and plan a course of action for tackling your list.
  4. Determine the Highest-Priority Tasks: Base this ranking on the tasks’ deadlines and estimated time to completion. Identifying the highest-priority tasks, based on urgency and importance, will give you clarity on what needs the most attention.
  5. Complete Highest-Priority Tasks First: Sometimes the hardest task is the one with the highest priority. By completing your highest-priority tasks over those you would prefer doing, you can increase efficiency in managing your priorities and time.
  6. Remain Flexible: The needs of your tasks may change when you least expect them — a deadline may be extended or shortened, or an assignment may suddenly be cut. It is important to remain flexible so that you can adjust task priorities and tackle your to-do list the most effectively.
  7. Review and Reevaluate Tasks Often: Keep track of your tasks and deadlines. Staying on top of your to-do list will help you complete priorities, ensure you don’t overlook important tasks, and remove tasks that are no longer urgent or important.

How to Prioritize Tasks at Work

In order to prioritize tasks at work, be aware of what you need to do and when you need to do it. You might find it difficult to execute on high-priority tasks when you prefer to work on other tasks. 

Phoebe Gavin

Phoebe Gavin, an author and productivity expert who helps people balance their lives through career, life, and productivity coaching, recommends the following:

  1. Set Deadlines for Every Task: Regardless of the size of the task, set a deadline. If a work item doesn’t already have a firm deadline, you may have to approach your colleagues for input.

    For example, a colleague might email you and ask you to review a presentation when you have time. Because there is no specified deadline, you may need to collaborate with your colleague to take into account the presentation’s due date and any other outstanding tasks on your list.
  2. Give Yourself Five Minutes of Willpower: Getting started is one of the greatest challenges to staying productive and focused. Starting on a challenging (or personally uninteresting) task is often daunting and can lead to procrastination. By assigning yourself five minutes to focus on the task, you will likely find that that five minutes will turn into more time, and you will make more progress and maybe complete the task altogether.

    For example, you might dread a lengthy assignment, and the due date is quickly approaching. Look at a blank document and decide, “I’m just going to work on this for five more minutes.” After focusing your attention for five minutes, you will likely find that you have already created a plan for your assignment and feel ready to complete more.
  3. Focus on One Task at a Time: Avoid multitasking, as this is not as effective or as productive as focusing on a single task. While multitasking might seem an effective use of time, you may ultimately waste your time by performing poorly on multiple tasks.

    Imagine that you are in a meeting, and you recognize an opportunity to respond to outstanding emails. As you write your emails, conversation in the meeting becomes indistinct background noise. Because of this, you miss a direct question from a colleague and have to be reminded to answer. You also realize, after the meeting, that one of the emails you sent was addressed to the wrong person and contained several errors that you have to fix and resend.
  4. Connect with Your “Why”: To prioritize your tasks, it is important to know your “why,” whether it’s the reason you hold a particular job, the goals you would like to achieve, or your personal values. The more you can connect with the tasks on your list and how they fit with your purpose and identity, the easier it will be to understand which of your tasks should rank higher on your to-do list.

    For example, imagine that you have started a new job and want to be seen as diligent and trustworthy among your boss and coworkers. You have a number of tasks to complete, including one you promised you would wrap up for a coworker. You choose to finish this task first, as doing so will fulfill your personal value of wanting to be seen as diligent and trustworthy.

Techniques for Task Prioritization

You can use many techniques for prioritizing tasks, such as creating a to-do list and limiting distractions, that can improve productivity and performance. The following techniques can help guide you through successfully organizing and completing your outstanding tasks.

Create a To-Do List

Create a to-do list that identifies and provides an overview of all your outstanding tasks. This will help you keep track of and visualize the tasks you need to do. Making a daily to-do list can be crucial for staying focused and meeting deadlines.

Example: You have what seems like a never-ending list of tasks floating around in your head. This list seems impossible to tackle, and you have to draw on your memory to recall the different requests and assignments. Organize your thoughts and jot down each task. By making a list, you realize there is an end to your tasks and can visualize your progress.

Check out one of these free task list templates to get a head start on your to-do list.

Eisenhower Priority Matrix

The Eisenhower Priority Matrix is a method that helps you choose which tasks should come first, based on urgency and importance. The matrix consists of four quadrants that are designed to put the priority level of a task into perspective. 

Example: You have a huge list of tasks to complete today and feel overwhelmed. Put each task through the Eisenhower Priority Matrix to identify the most important and urgent tasks. In doing so, you realize which tasks you need to address and plan out, and which tasks you need to assign to someone else. You may also find that you can completely remove some tasks.

Check out some of our priority matrix templates.

ABCDE Method

The ABCDE method assigns a letter value to each task: An A rating is the highest priority and needs to be addressed first, and an E rating is the lowest priority and can be addressed later.

Example: It’s Monday morning and you have a list of tasks that need your attention. One of those tasks is to create a short document, which you have continually pushed off for other assignments. But the deadline is approaching, and you have been asked to conduct a meeting, which will take a lot of preparation. The meeting will take place Friday, while the short document is due Tuesday. In using the ABCDE method, you assign a value of A to the short document, and a B to the meeting preparation, as it can be addressed later.


The chunking technique utilizes your time and productivity by identifying the similarities between the tasks on your to-do list. By chunking together similar tasks, you can get more work done quicker and more effectively, rather than by multitasking. This is a more focused and managed approach to completing the tasks on your to-do list.

Example: At work, you have a series of tasks you need to complete, and you receive additional requests from your coworkers and manager. Use the chunking method to write down every request and task. Review your list and identify similarities among tasks (e.g., those that involve client communication, such as messaging a client, calling another client, and setting up a meeting with a client). By chunking these tasks together, you are more focused and in the mindset of communicating with clients, and this makes completing the tasks quicker and easier.

1-3-5 Method

Using the 1-3-5 method, you reimagine your daily to-do list to help you take on tasks with clarity and focus. Start by jotting down nine tasks to complete for the day. Of these nine tasks, one should be a big task, three should be medium-sized tasks, and five should be small tasks. By organizing your to-do list using the 1-3-5 method, you can more effectively manage your time at work and meet the needs of your tasks.

Example: Lately, you feel disorganized. The tasks you complete seem unbalanced, and you feel like you are working on too many larger projects, while neglecting the smaller, equally important tasks. Using the 1-3-5 method, reprioritize your workday by deciding to limit your time on the larger projects to ensure you address tasks of all sizes. Rather than spending the whole day working on larger projects, set a schedule for the day that involves completing one larger project, three medium-sized tasks, and five smaller tasks. This method will help you feel less overwhelmed and more productive.

Getting Things Done (GTD) Method

The Getting Things Done (GTD) method, developed by productivity consultant David Allen, involves the following five pillars: capture, clarify, organize, reflect, and engage. Capture is the process of decluttering the tasks in your mind by writing them on a to-do list. Then, you clarify your tasks by breaking down larger tasks and discarding unimportant tasks. Then, organize the tasks on your list: Categorize and chunk tasks based on similarities and urgency. As you work, reflect on your lists frequently to update and revise the items. Lastly, engage directly with the tasks to complete them.

Example: You start a new role at work and are stressed by the different items you need to complete, which include onboarding tasks, studying all the areas of your new department, and meeting with several people for guidance. Use the GTD method to make headway on your to-do list. Start by writing down each task, and then breaking down some of the larger tasks into smaller, more manageable items. Following this, categorize the tasks on your list based on similarities. Because the role you are in is fast-paced and constantly changing, you will need to revise your list frequently to make sure your tasks reflect your needs. With a clear plan for your work, you are able to focus better on your tasks and complete them.

Eat the Frog

Eat the Frog refers to completing the most difficult and important task before all other work. This is most likely the task you dread most and often put off. By finishing your most daunting, highest-priority task first, you will likely improve your productivity.

Example: It is the beginning of the day and your colleague sends you a reminder to review a draft. You dread reading through the lengthy draft and would prefer to complete your smaller tasks. But you decide to tackle the review. After you complete the review, you are relieved (as is your colleague) and can continue the rest of your day with smaller tasks.

Know Your Distractions

Two main types of distractions can hinder your productivity. Environmental distractions are those that we can most easily control and can overcome with such simple actions as hiding your phone from your work area or decluttering your desk. Procrastination distractions occur when an environmental distraction becomes more prominent and serves as an unhealthy coping mechanism to dealing with stress. Procrastination prevents us from completing our work in an effective manner and can lead to more stress.

By first knowing — and limiting — your environmental distractions, you can prevent procrastination.

Example: You are trying to finish a report when your phone buzzes. Your phone sits right beside your computer, and you can see each notification. You stop working on your report to check a news notification, and suddenly find yourself scrolling through your phone for an extended period. Even when you set your phone down, you feel distracted from your report and can’t concentrate. Instead of continuing to scroll through posts, turn off your phone and place it out of sight. This allows you to concentrate on your work without distractions.

Warren Buffett’s Two-List Strategy

Warren Buffett’s two-list strategy involves jotting down 25 of the most important goals currently on your mind. Out of the 25 goals, circle five that you believe are the most critical in your life. These goals could cover your life, your career, or other areas. 

Using this list, make two lists:

  • Most Important Goals: Highlights the goals most valuable to your life 
  • Avoid At All Costs: Identify the goals that do not help you to accomplish your long-term priorities

Example: You have always had a long list of things you would like to accomplish in your life, many of which will take years of work. You want to go back to school to finish your MBA, work as a business professor, and move up in your current job to become a marketing director, but have also thought about a career in the medical field. At the same time, you also want to start a family and be involved as much as possible, among many other personal goals. Using Warren Buffett’s two-list strategy, you write out 25 of your major life goals. After determining your 25, you circle the five that most closely align with your larger goals. You circle getting your MBA, rising to a marketing director position, starting a family, saving for a good retirement, and working a four-day week to spend more time with family.  By doing this, you decide to spend less time, if any time at all, on the goals on the Avoid at All Costs list. This will free up time to help you move toward your five most important goals.

Ivy Lee Method

The Ivy Lee method requires you to prioritize your day by following a set of rules, which were developed by productivity consultant Ivy Lee more than 100 years ago. The rules of the Ivy Lee method are as follows:

  1. End every workday by writing down the six most important tasks you need to complete the next day.
  2. Order the six tasks by importance to ensure the highest-priority tasks are at the start of your to-do list for tomorrow.
  3. The next day, complete each of the tasks in order, if possible.
  4. Stay focused on each task, and avoid moving onto a different task before finishing the task at hand.
  5. At the end of the workday, develop a new list of six tasks to complete the next day. If you don’t complete a task, make sure to add it to the list for the next day.
  6. Repeat the process.

Example: You feel overwhelmed by the number of assignments and tasks at work. You need to complete a slide deck ASAP, prepare for a meeting with a customer that will take place in a few days, and research and gather participants for an upcoming conference, all while also writing several descriptions for new training content. You need to reevaluate your tasks and make sure you complete your most important priorities.

You try the Ivy Lee method and write out six tasks that you believe are most important and plan to complete tomorrow at work. You order the tasks based on their priority level. You assign completing the slide deck as your number one priority, researching participants as number two, reaching out to the participants as number three, and preparing for your meeting with the customer as number four. For the last two spots, you plan to focus on writing out two of the several descriptions you need to write. The next day at work, you follow each task, one by one, making sure not to multitask or move between tasks. At the end of the day, you find that you finished five of the six tasks and feel far more accomplished than you had the previous day. You create a new list of six tasks for the next day, making sure to include the description assignment you were not able to complete.


Expert Tips and Tricks for Task Prioritization

You can use many tips and tricks to help prioritize your tasks. Make the most of your time and accomplish the tasks on your list by implementing some of the following tips and tricks, as proposed by Phoebe Gavin:

  • Promote Emotional Awareness: Emotions can sometimes be a barrier to completing what needs to be done. Recognize your emotions — both how you feel generally and how you feel toward the task at hand — to avoid coping mechanisms that lead to procrastination. Greater emotional awareness can help you create stronger and healthier coping mechanisms that help you focus on your tasks, even the most difficult ones.
  • Break Down Large Tasks: Divide tasks into smaller, more manageable tasks in order to make them more approachable. Doing so also highlights progress on the larger task at hand. Learn more about managing large workloads by reading our comprehensive guide.
  • Limit Environmental Distractions: Outside distractions can make completing a task feel impossible. Avoid distractions such as your phone, IM chat windows, email, and whatever else you might find yourself reaching for instead of the task at hand. By removing your environmental distractions, you can improve your focus on high-priority tasks.

Other useful expert tips and tricks include the following: 

  • Use the Pareto Principle: The Pareto principle proposes that 80 percent of your results stem from 20 percent of your efforts. By keeping this principle in mind, you can more effectively prioritize your tasks to fit your goals and results.
  • Adopt a Scheduling Tool: Doing so will help you keep track of your tasks and due dates to ensure that you don’t overlook any urgent or important tasks. Keeping your tasks organized will help you stay productive and prioritize your time. 
  • Delegate Tasks: If your to-do lists are adding up and preventing you from spending time on what is important in your job, try delegating tasks for someone else to complete. This will help you free up time to work on the tasks that are most important in your role.

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