How to Prioritize Tasks at Work by Importance

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Manager's Path" by Camille Fournier. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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How do you prioritize tasks at work? When you have limited time, how do you decide what gets done?

To prioritize tasks at work, you can use the Eisenhower Priority Matrix, which takes into account both the urgency and the importance of each task. From there, you can decide what needs to be done now and what you can plan to do in the future.

Learn more about managing priorities at work with these strategies from Camille Fournier’s The Manager’s Path.

Managing Priorities at Work

Knowing how to prioritize tasks at work ensures you complete the most important tasks, so if you do run out of time, only minor tasks go unfinished. As you’re promoted and your responsibilities grow, prioritization becomes increasingly important. Fournier says it’s easy to neglect some responsibilities once you reach these levels because you’re so busy.

To prioritize, focus on completing tasks that are both urgent and important. Urgent tasks must be addressed immediately, whereas important tasks are essential parts of your job but are often overlooked because they’re less time-sensitive than urgent tasks. You can have tasks that are both urgent and important, either one, or neither.

Once you’ve completed tasks that are both urgent and important, Fournier recommends doing tasks that are important but not urgent. For example, if you’re a CFO, reviewing the accounting department’s financial reports is important, as it lets you fine-tune your financial strategy. This task may go uncompleted, though, if the company is small enough that you don’t have to submit the reports to the government—you don’t have a deadline, so it’s not obviously time-sensitive. In contrast, attending a meeting that doesn’t actually require your presence is urgent but not important: You have limited time to attend, but your job won’t be affected if you don’t. Since attending the meeting is obviously time-sensitive, you’ll be tempted to prioritize it anyway. When thinking about how to prioritize tasks at work, you need to consider the big picture.

Prioritizing With the Eisenhower Priority Matrix

The method Fournier recommends for managing priorities at work is also known as the Eisenhower Priority Matrix. It was developed by Dwight Eisenhower, a former US president and general, and popularized by writers such as Stephen R. Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

While Fournier explains the basic functions of the matrix, other business experts add more detail. For instance, some experts say an important step in using this method is defining more specifically what “urgent” and “important” mean—in other words, what characteristics you look at to determine whether a task is urgent or important. Urgency can include factors like the specific time frame in which a task needs to be completed or the pros and cons of delaying a task. Importance can include factors like the probability of succeeding at the task or how much of a competitive advantage completing the task would create.

In addition, other experts go into greater depth about how you should handle each type of task when thinking about how to prioritize tasks at work:

1. Complete tasks that are both urgent and important today or tomorrow, since they’re so important.
2. Schedule a time to complete tasks that are important but not urgent so you have a deadline and can’t keep delaying.
3. Delegate tasks that are urgent but not important—the task is important to someone, just not you.
4. Ignore tasks that are neither urgent nor important.

Covey says that effective people focus on important but not urgent tasks. This initially seems to contradict Fournier’s suggestion and the above advice to prioritize important and urgent tasks. However, Covey says the goal is to schedule and complete important tasks before they become urgent, essentially eliminating the “urgent and important” category. Doing this gives you enough time to properly complete important tasks, instead of rushing.

None of these experts recommend this prioritization method for a specific role, implying it can be used by anyone. However, since it’s designed to prioritize among many tasks and requires the delegation of urgent but unimportant tasks, it fits well with an upper management role. Best practices for how to prioritize tasks at work will vary somewhat depending on the responsibilities that you have in your position.

Fournier particularly recommends this method if you’re ever promoted to the director level, since this promotion often leads to a sharp increase in responsibilities. However, she also stresses the importance of continuing to prioritize as your responsibilities grow in any position.

Exercise: Prioritize Essential Tasks

Understanding how to prioritize tasks at work is an important part of strategic planning because it lets you complete your most important tasks without getting overwhelmed. In this exercise, you’ll sort through a list of tasks to determine which ones you should prioritize.

  1. First, write down your tasks. (For example, if you’re in HR, your tasks might be submitting payroll, sending an email to a coworker who’s leaving the office soon, reviewing job applications, and researching a competitor’s pay scale.)
  2. Now, review your list and note any urgent tasks here. These are tasks that must be completed immediately. (For example, you’d put submitting payroll and sending an email on this list because they’re time-sensitive: You must submit payroll before the banks close and email your coworker before they go home. The other tasks can be done later, so they’re not included.)
  3. Note any important tasks on your first list. Important tasks directly affect your ability to do your job. (For example, you’d put submitting payroll, reviewing job applications, and researching a competitor’s pay scale on this list. If you don’t submit payroll, you’ll have to field complaints tomorrow instead of doing your other tasks; and if you don’t review job applications or ensure your salaries are competitive, you won’t be able to attract new employees. Your ability to do your job won’t be affected if you don’t send the email, so it’s not included.)
  4. Finally, compare your urgent and important lists. Write down any tasks that are on both lists here. These are the tasks you should prioritize. (For example, submitting payroll is on both lists, so you’d prioritize that over your other tasks, which are each on only one list.) Note: Once you’ve finished the tasks that are both urgent and important, prioritize the ones on your important list—in our example, reviewing job applications and researching a competitor’s pay scale. In thinking about how to prioritize tasks at work, importance should come before urgency.
How to Prioritize Tasks at Work by Importance

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Becca King

Becca’s love for reading began with mysteries and historical fiction, and it grew into a love for nonfiction history and more. Becca studied journalism as a graduate student at Ohio University while getting their feet wet writing at local newspapers, and now enjoys blogging about all things nonfiction, from science to history to practical advice for daily living.

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