The first step in overcoming procrastination is deciding on a task to work on. This sounds simple but is surprisingly tricky. By definition, everything on your to-do list needs to get done, and there’s actually a lot of brain processing involved in deciding what to prioritize.
Our brains do some complex calculations to balance what objectively needs to get done with what we want to get done, as well as what we have the energy and resources to actually get done.
What seems like a simple case of “first do this, then do that” is in reality pretty complicated at a neurological level. In this article, we’ll talk about the basics of prioritizing effectively and examine evidence-based strategies for putting your to-do list in order.
The Importance of Prioritizing
Prioritizing is the process of listing or rating goals, projects, or tasks in the order they need to be completed. In life, we’re always prioritizing—we just don’t always notice it.
Choosing to hang out with your friends instead of going to your professor’s office hours is prioritizing your social life over your education.
For some people, this is pretty classic and obvious procrastination, stemming from failed prioritization. But for others, socializing is the right priority for them—maybe they’ve been neglecting their friendships and making the choice to spend time with friends honors their goal to nurture those relationships.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with placing any one task in a higher priority than another. It all depends on what your personal goals are and what you believe you need to be working toward.
Best Ways To Prioritize Tasks
I haven’t seen it, but your to-do list is definitely too long. Our brains can only handle a fairly small amount of information at a time, so you need to whittle your list down to something that’s manageable for your brain.
Ideally, you’ll have one or two (max three) priorities per day. Anything more is overwhelming for you and your brain.
If you don’t have an actual to-do list, start there. Keeping the list in your head ties up critical brain resources, so free up some RAM by writing things down. Our brains also process information differently in writing, so you can capitalize on that by actually writing out your list.
Right now, make a list of tasks, projects, deadlines, and appointments.
Keep your list in a centralized location; try not to have 30 different lists all over the place. Add to this list any time something comes to mind. Now that you’ve got a list, use these evidence-based strategies for getting it in order.
1. Eisenhower Matrix
The Eisenhower Matrix is a technique attributed to President Eisenhower and later popularized by Stephen R. Covey in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
This technique is supposedly based on a speech in which Eisenhower quoted a college president who said, “I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.”
The goal is to separate urgency from importance. For each task on your list, decide whether it is urgent (requires immediate attention), important (connected to your values or your long-term goals), both, or neither.
Tasks that are both urgent and important come first. These include crises and problems needing immediate attention. Examples are work or school deadlines, health or weather emergencies, taxes, car trouble, or something affecting your income.
Tasks that are important but aren’t urgent should be scheduled for later. Don’t skip over the “schedule” part. These are things that will help you move toward your goals but don’t necessarily have a deadline.
Examples are learning new skills, starting a diet or exercise routine, improving your relationships, self-care, reading, budgeting, or taking a class.
The third priority level includes tasks that are urgent but aren’t important to you. If possible, try to delegate these tasks; otherwise, make time for them after you prioritize the tasks above. Examples are extraneous meetings, most phone calls/emails/texts, and people who need favors.
With respect to favors, usually they’re urgent for the person needing the favor, but they’re not necessarily important to you. Still, doing these things helps keep your relationships healthy, so it’s valuable to make time for them if possible.
Finally, tasks that aren’t urgent and don’t help you progress toward your goals are the lowest priority and often can be eliminated. Examples include trying a new kickboxing class because your friend raved about it, even though you don’t really care about kickboxing, or installing decorative lights in your backyard at your mother’s suggestion, even though you don’t mind the darkness.
All your favorite time-wasters are also in this category: scrolling social media, watching YouTube videos, unnecessary shopping, watching TV. These sneaky “tasks” probably aren’t actually on your to-do list (for good reason!).
But when you tell yourself you’ll call the pharmacy for your prescription refill right after you finish the next Walking Dead episode, Netflix has essentially joined your to-do list and is in this fourth category of tasks that can be eliminated.
2. ABC Grouping
Another way of sorting your tasks is ABC grouping. The A group includes tasks that must get done. These are the highest-importance tasks that must be completed today or tomorrow. Work or school deadlines, bills, and chores could go in this group.
The B group includes tasks you should get done. These are less important or urgent than the A tasks, but still need to get done at some point. They also might be spread out a bit—they might be bigger projects that have some pieces that need to be completed relatively soon, while other pieces can be finished later.
Things like routine medical checkups, meal prepping, family time, and creating a budget fit in this category. The C group includes tasks that you want to get done, but aren’t very important. This includes things like building your Pinterest dream home, putting together a photo album, planning your next vacation, or learning new recipes.
Once you group your tasks into A, B, and C groups, commit to doing all A tasks before you do any B tasks; then do all B tasks before you do any C tasks.
3. Set Deadlines
Urgency is a big part of how we decide what to prioritize. So, we need to know when things are “due” to assess how urgent they are. But many tasks have no deadline. There’s no due date for mopping your kitchen floor, getting a Pap smear, or calling your grandma.
Because of this, these tasks get pushed off in favor of your exam on Tuesday, the bill due tomorrow, and the video game sale that ends at midnight.
Combat this by setting deadlines for everything. Even if it’s an arbitrary deadline, choose a date by which you’ll complete each item on your list. If an item on your list has sub-parts, set deadlines for each of those smaller parts, too.
Then, rank your list according to the deadlines. Maybe it’s important to you to go back to school, but there’s no real due date for completing your degree, so you keep putting it off. Prioritize by setting a date by which you want to gather information about how to re-enroll, and then set a date for registering for classes.
When these dates are clearly established (and on your calendar!), they’ll become more urgent and move up the priority list.
Sticking to self-imposed deadlines can be challenging because there aren’t any external consequences to ignoring them. If you find yourself blowing off the deadlines you’ve set for yourself, try reminding yourself why that particular deadline matters.
Instead of just writing “Research how to re-enroll” on your calendar for Saturday at 10 a.m., write “Research how to re-enroll at school—do it now so I won’t miss spring enrollment again, so I can take a step to getting out of this terrible job, and so I can enjoy the pool this afternoon.”
4. Cut Anything That Doesn’t Support Your Future Goals
Unfortunately, we can’t do everything we’d like to do, so we must choose where to direct our time and energy. Trim your list by eliminating tasks that don’t directly support your goals.
The first step is getting clear on your goals. Goals related to school or work will probably come to you right away—maybe you want to finish your degree, get promoted, or develop certain skills to build your résumé. You also have goals in other areas of your life—they could be tied to philanthropy, politics/citizenship, spirituality, parenting, intimate relationships, family, friendships, health, personal growth, etc.
Once you’re certain about which goals you want to focus on, review your to-do list for items that aren’t consistent with them. Then, consider eliminating those items. If you were planning on spending the weekend knitting your dog a sweater but don’t have any goals related to knitting, sweaters, or your dog, then consider just buying the dog a sweater.
You can get an awful lot done if you pare your activities down to those directly supporting what’s important to you.
5. Sort By Estimated Time To Complete
Once you’ve cut tasks that are unnecessary or don’t support your goals, you can prioritize by sorting your list according to how long it takes to complete each item.
Examine your list and guess how long each task will take. Then, prioritize based on how much time you have available. If you have 30 free minutes, you can prioritize tasks that can be completed in 30 minutes or less. If you have a block of a few hours, you can prioritize tasks requiring a larger chunk of time.
Keep track of how long you’re spending on each activity so you can improve your time-estimation skills. If you chronically underestimate how long activities take, remember to add a few minutes to your estimation until it becomes more accurate.
If you chronically overestimate, remember that you can probably shave a few minutes off your estimation.
6. Prioritize by Consequences
Another way to prioritize is by considering the consequences of completing or delaying the task. Tasks with the highest priority should be those that come with serious consequences if they’re delayed—getting reprimanded at work, getting in a fight with your spouse, becoming ill, losing a significant amount of money, etc.
Next should be tasks with milder consequences—if you delay them, people might become frustrated with you or inconvenienced, there might be a small fine, something might become slightly damaged, etc.
The next group includes tasks that would be nice to complete but have few consequences if you don’t. This would cover things like organizing your closets, repainting your bedroom, or visiting with your neighbors.
The last group includes tasks that can be eliminated without any consequences, like taking up a new hobby you’re indifferent to or starting a new television show just because your friends are watching.
This group also includes all the time-wasters we do even though they aren’t actually on the official to-do list, like playing video games too much, primping in the mirror, spending too much time reading the news, and snacking (snacking monopolizes a surprising amount of time and productivity, by the way).
7. Prioritize by Estimated Effort
You can also prioritize your tasks by how much effort you think the tasks will take. Be careful here! We’re prone to procrastinate (i.e., de-prioritize) the tasks requiring the most effort.
We tell ourselves we don’t have enough energy, time, or resources to engage and procrastinate instead. The strategy here isn’t simply to do the tasks requiring the least effort first and then save the higher-effort tasks for later. It’s also not to do all the high-effort tasks first and the low-effort ones last.
Instead, this approach is about balancing the high- and low-energy tasks. Each day, choose one high-effort task and then spend the rest of your time working on tasks requiring less effort. This approach ensures that high-effort tasks won’t get pushed aside.
It also helps you make sure you’re balancing your energy output—neither depleting yourself by completing a bunch of high-effort tasks at the last minute, nor indulging yourself by just doing a bunch of easier things. It’s about spreading out your energy as much as spreading out the workload.
8. Prioritize by Impact On Your Quality Of Life
Quality of life is your overall state of well-being; it’s how healthy, comfortable, and satisfied you are. Prioritize your to-do list by analyzing how each task will impact your quality of life.
The question to ask yourself is, “Will this task make my life easier?” Will spending an hour reading Reddit threads make your life easier? Probably not. Would spending that same hour getting your oil changed make your life easier? Absolutely.
Will spending a half hour picking out new holiday decorations make your life easier? Maybe cuter, but not easier. Would spending that half hour teaching your dog to come when she’s called make your life easier? Guaranteed.
Practice focusing on your long-term quality of life, rather than your happiness and satisfaction in the moment.
Priorities are very personal. There’s no “right” or “wrong” way to set your priorities, as long as they reflect your personal values and goals. But once you’ve created your to-do list and prioritized it, you’re not finished yet.
Your next step is to motivate yourself to work on the list. So let’s start working on how to build motivation.