Developing Prioritization Skills To Achieve More at Work

Updated March 14, 2023

Most jobs require balancing multiple tasks, often with different deadlines and requirements. In order to work efficiently, it's important to prioritize your tasks, so that no duty gets neglected. Understanding how to prioritize your workflow is key to being as efficient and reliable as possible in your role. In this article, we explain what prioritization skills are, list factors that affect their priority, describe the action priority matrix, and provide tips for improving task prioritization in the workplace.

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What are prioritization skills?

Prioritization skills are the tools you use to decide which tasks to focus on and complete first. Even if you're completing and delivering tasks simultaneously, prioritizing one task could mean giving one of them more attention and effort than others. Skills of prioritization take time, scope of work, impact, and sequence of tasks into account to determine and direct staff efforts.

Factors that affect priority

Deciding which tasks to prioritize takes several factors into account. Some factors relate to the timing of tasks, while others pertain to the importance of completing them or whether they're part of a sequence of other tasks. Prioritization is not just a skill that managers require, but anybody who manages several tasks at once. Here are some factors that affect how you may prioritize tasks:

  • Importance/impact of tasks: The first consideration for a task's prioritization is how important it is to complete, or how much of an impact its completion has on the business. If a task has a significant impact, it's probably worth prioritizing.

  • How soon tasks are due: This point may seem obvious, but a major factor that affects priority of duties is how soon they're supposed to be completed. Prioritizing tasks that require completion sooner than others is a clear indicator that you can prioritize them in your queue of duties.

  • How much effort a task takes: Tasks that require much less effort, yet make the same impact on the business may be worth prioritizing to achieve more in less time. If a task takes more effort, but isn't as essential to the business, there may be better ways to use your resources and time.

  • How long tasks have been active for: If two tasks have the same deadline, but one of them has been active for longer, it may be worth prioritizing that task. Management often measures staff on how quickly they complete tasks, so expediting longer-running tasks benefits your reputation for efficiency.

  • Task sequencing: When you can only start one task once another is complete, it's important to prioritize that primary task. This may mean putting 100% of your effort into the first task, to progress through the overall process faster.

Related: Time Management Skills: Examples and Definitions

Action priority matrix

The action priority matrix is a tool that you can use to determine which tasks to prioritize relative to their impact and their effort. Prioritizing tasks that achieve the highest impact, but require the lowest effort and ranking them in order of importance, can help you sort through your duties. Here's a breakdown of the four quadrants of the action priority matrix, ranked in order of highest to lowest priority:

1. Quick wins (high impact, low effort)

These are the wisest tasks to prioritize. Focussing on quick wins means you can complete more tasks that are of higher importance in less time. Completing more quick wins accelerates your overall progress and creates a momentum of achievement. These are tasks that are worth focussing on the most.

Related: Developing Proficient Organizational Skills

2. Major projects (high impact, high effort)

Major tasks have a significant impact on your responsibilities, and have a good return, but are ultimately time-consuming. One major project could take up your time and resources to prevent you from completing smaller tasks. These are relatively high in priority ranking, although you may want to be conscious of how major projects affect your overall workflow.

3. Fill-ins (low impact, low effort)

These tasks achieve little, and don't require much effort. Because of this, these tasks don't benefit you by being prioritized over higher impact tasks. They are useful in situations where you've got surplus resource or time, or can delegate a task.

Related: How To Make a Schedule (With Tips To Make Your Own)

4. Thankless tasks (low impact, high effort)

These are the lowest priority tasks, but are best to be avoided because they also take up much of your time and effort. Only take on these tasks when all others are complete, as they don't achieve as much and block you from competing other duties. Managers often delegate thankless tasks to entry-level employees as they can be effective tasks for training or introducing new staff to processes.

Tips for improving task prioritization

Once you understand what might make a task more or less of a priority, there are several skills you can focus on developing to make sure the right task gets done at the right time. Some of these are skills to do with planning, being proactive, or awareness of workflows. Here is a selection of tips to help you develop your skills of prioritization:

Assess when tasks are due

An essential part of prioritizing some tasks over others is being able to assess exactly how much time you have to complete them. Most businesses implement common tools like digital calendars, email alerts, and memos to communicate the due dates of certain tasks. Some tasks are due at regular times, such as weekly reports, which are typically due on recurring days of the week. Others may be long-established deadlines for larger projects. Assessing how long you've got to complete a task can help to break them down into manageable sections.

Assess how long tasks take to complete vs. how soon they're due

Assessing how long tasks could take to complete is easier when you have experience with them. In cases where you may not know how much time or effort duties take, it can be wise to seek the advice of someone who does. Managers usually welcome questions about how their employees can better plan their workflow, which makes them useful resources in prioritizing your tasks. Evaluate how many steps a task requires, and if there are any wait times that may be out of your control when assessing how long it may take to complete.

Related: Why Is Time Management Important? And How To Manage Your Time

Keep a schedule

Scheduling is a vital element of prioritizing duties. Effective scheduling isn't just listing your due dates into a calendar, but being proactive about how you wish to achieve each stage of a task. Portioning each day or week into sections can help you break down tasks, or allocate time to complete them.

For instance, imagine you have one larger task due on Friday, but several smaller tasks due on Wednesday and Thursday. You can spend half of each day working on your larger task and the other half of each day completing your smaller tasks. Part of scheduling is dedicating time to create your schedule. This is a way of investing your time to make sure that your workflow priorities are in order.

Related: 10 Administrative Skills for the Workplace

Decide if it's possible to complete tasks simultaneously

While prioritization means deciding which tasks to focus on rather than others, it can also mean deciding whether to focus all of your attention on one task, or complete several simultaneously. Prioritizing one single task can mean that other important duties won't begin until you've already completed the first one. Sometimes, overlapping tasks can help to make progress on more than one at the same time. For instance, if you're getting approval for the design of a brochure, you can gather printing quotes while you wait for the sign-off to come through, even though that's technically a separate task.

Delegate if necessary and possible

Delegation is an effective way of shifting a task up the priority rank. If you're unable to complete a task around your other prioritized duties, delegating to someone else to complete it can be helpful. Even if you're not in a management position, you can ask your manager to reallocate important tasks to make them more of a priority in the department.

Workflow, or who does what and when?

Another element of prioritization is the concept of workflow. If many departments or individuals contribute to completing a task in sequential stages, this is a major consideration in prioritizing tasks. It's wise to prioritize tasks or "quick wins" that require going to someone else to be progressed, as this can proactively overlap duties.

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