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How to prioritize when every issue is top priority

PostsProject management
Backlog Staff

Backlog Staff

February 18, 2021

Knowing how to prioritize your tasks is an essential component of every job. But how do you manage your growing workload when every issue seems like a top priority?  As the late businessman, educator, and author Stephen Covey once said, “The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule but to schedule your priorities.” That’s an invaluable lesson when every job is a top need for some department.

The benefits of prioritizing don’t stop at yourself either. As Geckoboard Editor Shannon Byrne described, “By keeping myself focused and organized, I’m able to be focused and organized with my teams.” In short, prioritization positively affects the entire team. Do it for them and for you.

These tips will help you learn how to prioritize and stay prioritized under pressure.

Make a list

When work begins to feel overwhelming, take a step back and jot down what’s on your deck. From there, you can start to track your bandwidth against work demands.

By creating a list, you allow your brain to go into assessment mode, where it starts subconsciously deciding what’s important. Think of your brain as the ultimate issue tracker.

To make a quality list, consider everything you have to do. Then, determine what you can realistically do in a day. Think of factors that could affect your work, such as:

  • Time allotment: How much time do you have in a day? Every detail takes time, from getting to a meeting to prioritizing your life. Account for it all.
  • Key events: Meetings, reviews, and key events do fall under the above point. However, these are standout parts of the day. Denote them as such.
  • Daily variability: Work curveballs arise. Schedule flexibility reduces the impact curveballs have on the issues you’re currently tracking.

Prioritize urgency and effort

Listing your work is just the beginning. Once you have your list, it is time to assess each issue’s importance. To thoroughly prioritize your work, track these two key areas:

A job’s priority

Each task has a priority. However, each team determines how to prioritize a bit differently. Some factors that impact priority include:

  • Urgency
  • Value
  • Cost
  • Timing
  • Return on Investment (ROI)

Determine which factors are most important for your project.

Time and effort

Determine the scope of your project and your involvement. Whether planning a team project or your own tasks, top Project Managers factor in time and their own participation in the work. Resources and productivity also play a factor. To understand T&E, Project Managers ask themselves questions such as:

  • Can you delegate the job, or do you need to be hands-on?
  • How capable is the person doing their job? Will they need additional support?
  • How productive has the team been to date?
  • What resources do we have available?

If you still find yourself stuck on how to rank your tasks, cross reference these two areas. You may find conflicts between time and priority that allow you to strike a balance between punctuality and productivity. Mastering this trick will save you time when planning your or your team’s tasks.

Learn about everything possible

The more you know about your business, the better you are at every aspect of your job. That includes prioritizing. With a firm understanding of your organization’s goals, inner workings, and shortcomings, you will know how to assess work properly.

You have to make time to learn about your company and industry. There is no way around this. To stay informed, consider these small homework assignments:

  • Read about your industry. This includes publications, thought pieces, and even ideas you may not agree with. The goal is to have a well-rounded perspective.
  • Ask your team about their work. Understand how their workflows and the project as a whole work together.
  • Talk to department heads. Find out what matters most to each department and your PM.
  • Network. Speaking with others in your industry is an excellent way to get first-hand advice.

Make schedules visible and transparent

Project transparency is helpful for two reasons. First, in agile project management, project visibility means techniques like Agile’s product backlog and keeping everything in one place. How can you assign priorities if you aren’t aware of all the work that is to be done? Task transparency minimizes the chance of error when delegating work. From there, the team is responsible for assigning top tasks based on the time needed to complete work against the current bandwidth.

Second, it allows your team members to take responsibility for issue tracking without the need for micromanagement. By making work transparent, everyone’s priorities become apparent. If workflows appear out of sync, teams can quickly chat and re-align deadlines to ensure that top tasks get addressed in the manner needed. This also helps with everything from scheduling meetings to assigning additional tasks.

Don’t be afraid to cut tasks

From time to time, your to-do list will get too long. But now that you’ve prioritized the work, cutting tasks shouldn’t be that hard of a decision.

Sometimes work will become out of date with changes in the project. In other cases, it still needs to get done despite your time constraints. In that case, remember to delegate accordingly.

Work-life balance

Obviously, your job and the success of your team are extremely important to you. Although often difficult, especially for those working in tech and dev, you need to be aware of overworking yourself. It’s important that, when prioritizing, you don’t overcommit. You’re not doing anyone any good if you’re so stressed you can’t think straight. Prioritizing tasks and projects sometimes need to include knowing how to prioritize yourself.

How to prioritize with tools

By implementing these five suggestions, you’ll create a sound prioritization practice for you and your team. Take the time to properly break down tasks, assess their value to the project, and delegate accordingly from there.

Task management software will also come in handy here, especially when task lists start to get overwhelming. Quick visual views of work, like Gantt and Burndown charts, help everyone on the team know what’s in the works, what’s coming up, and what’s most important to finish now.

This post was originally published on August 30, 2017, and updated most recently on February 18, 2021.



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