Prioritising the To Do List

S o you’ve got a lot to do and you don’t know how to prioritise where to start. Writing a “To Do” list might help up to a point, but do you just start on the first item or is there a better way? We’ve all been there, and in this Blog, I want to share with you my system to help you out.

Firstly allow me to confess. I am a recovering Perfectionist and Procrastinator.  The reason I feel the need to confess these labels is because the two I give myself  were reasons why I found it difficult to get on and do stuff. Once I began to work on those, the organisation improved. I could not start on daunting projects because I was worried that I wouldn’t do them perfectly and so I would put them off until a deadline made it impossible to do so any longer. So the one lead to the other and stopped any productivity. So I ditched “Perfectionism” for “Good Enoughism” and part of the procrastination went away. The other part I will come to later.

If you struggle to prioritise and get things done, it may be that you have some unhelpful habits that need looking at.

I have also been labelled “Disorganised” in the past. The first two labels are my own. The third one was given to me by someone who was a naturally organised person who viewed my chaotic lack of systems with disdain. It can take years to shake a label someone else gives you. They can stick like glue in our own head and can sabotage our efforts to change. I found myself saying “I am so disorganised!” despite never missing appointments, always meeting deadlines, never losing my keys! But the more I said it, the more I believed it.   So just be aware of your labels and whether they are helpful or not.

The other change I made was to stop seeing myself as working on my “Time Management” skills and working instead on my “Task Management” skills. Time will do it’s own thing regardless of what I do. I cannot speed it up, slow it down or expand it to fit my purpose. What I can do is manage myself and my tasks. That is doable. Managing time, is not.

So where do we begin? Well, the very first thing to do is to write everything down and get it all out of your head – that way you cannot forget anything. If you like, you can use different coloured pens for different aspects of your work or work and home life, but put it all on the same list. Yes, it’s a bit daunting, but it’s easier to fight an enemy you can see!

Now it’s time to prioritise!

In all planning you make a list and you set priorities – Alan Lakein

Many tasks have deadlines, so it’s important to take those into account and pop them on the “To Do” list so you know where you stand. In order to get ahead of the game, it ca be useful to look ahead in your diary to see what is coming up too. Certain jobs have a rhythm to them and you know that every year at around a certain time a particular task will need completing. You can get ahead by looking forward and popping those tasks on the list before they even rear their heads. This is an advanced skill I think, but one that can be very useful as we move forwards out of panic mode and in to maintenance mode!

Also, beware of tasks that are too big. Break them down into the actions needed to get them done. For example, if you have a report to write, is there some evidence gathering that needs to take place first? Are there several parts to it? Do you need to have a meeting with anyone first? Don’t be tempted just to say “Write report” if there is more to it than that. List every step, with deadlines if you can.


My Father-in-Law introduced me to the “Quadrants” many years ago but it took me a long time to get to grips with using them. You can download a copy here. You put all your tasks on the grid. Quadrant 1 is for Urgent & Important tasks – the things you have to get done as soon as possible or else! This is where most of us find ourselves working when we first start this process as a result of a crisis or the feeling of overwhelm. Quadrant 2 is for Important but not Urgent tasks. Now this is where we want to be working and will be if we keep this system going. No deadline should be driving us so badly as to end up back in Quadrant 1 – in an ideal world! Quadrant 3 is for Urgent but not Important tasks. These are often reactive situations such as interruptions from someone needing your help urgently, an e mail from someone who needs something doing now or a Doctor’s appointment that needs making because of a sudden issue. You can’t avoid these altogether but you can put in place systems to minimise them – again and advanced skill! Finally there is Quadrant 4, Neither Urgent Nor Important – or the “What the heck am I even doing these for?”. This is where I put constantly checking social media! You can schedule these tasks in for another time, if indeed they need doing at all.

The next step is to look and see where your quickest gains will come from. Are there tasks that can be accomplished quickly and will clear head space, time or produce the most results? Try applying the 80:20 rule where 80% of your gains comes from 20% of the output. This may depend on the nature of your list, but for me, I know that I can clear certain tasks quickly which will reduce my list and make me feel a whole lot calmer. for me that is a huge gain.

Brian Tracy wrote “Eat that Frog”, a superb book on how to become more organised and productive. There are lots of brilliant tips in there, but for me, the title was the greatest tip of all. Deal with the thing you least want to deal with first. get it done and out of the way, then you can relax! It may be the thing you are most dreading doing or the one that needs the most concentration. Either way, get it done and move on, rather than whittling about it whilst you do other stuff and try to ignore it. this is whee the last block of Procrastination fell for me. I don’t allow myself to overthink my “Frogs” these days, I just do them, whether it is going to the gym first thing in the morning, making the phone call I don’t want to make or tackling the thing I don’t really know how to do yet. Just get it done.

So you have a nice grid full of tasks with your quickest gains marked and your “Frog” sitting there. You are up against it so you are trying to clear Quadrant 1, the Urgent and Important.

A friend of mine gave me the greatest tip – use a timer. So I set it for half an hour and start on those quick gains or that “Frog”. If after half an hour it still feels like wading through treacle, I go make a cup of tea and get some air for 10 minutes before getting back to it for another half an hour. If I am in the zone, I ignore the timer and carry on.

That’s it. You’ve prioritised and you’ve made a start. Remember at the end of the day to review what you have done and start your planning process for tomorrow. If you get it done tonight, you will sleep better because you won’t be trying to hold it all in your head, and in the morning you can crack on straight away. And don’t stop doing it. As a wise friend once said to me, if your Bolognese tastes delicious because you put red wine in it, why would you stop putting the wine in it? If your system works when you are in crisis, why would you stop?

Prioritising can be made even easier if you ae clear on your values and your long term goals. Then you can place tasks in the quadrants feeling fully aligned. if your core value is helping others, then the interruptions from colleagues who need your help may become Quadrant 1 rather than Quadrant 3. If keeping fit is your goal, going to the gym becomes Quadrant 2 rather than Quadrant 4 perhaps.

Let me know how you get on with these ideas through Facebook or e mail, I’d love to hear from you. And if you want to take this to the next level by identifying your values and goals or your blockers and labels that are holding you back, then do get in touch.