A Practical Guide to Prioritizing Project Tasks

Ever feel like there just isn’t enough time in the day to get everything done? In an increasingly connected and demanding business environment, we all feel this way from time to time. Conflicting priorities, unexpected issues, a constant stream of new requests, and a lack of vital resources often means we waste time on irrelevant or unimportant work instead of tackling high-value, meaningful tasks.  A global survey of 1,500 executives found that only 9% were satisfied with how they were spending their time. In addition, only 52% said that the way they spent their time largely matched their organizations’ strategic priorities. Thinking of time as an infinite resource that enables us to complete every task reduces individual, team, and organizational success. If everything is a priority, how do you achieve anything of importance or value? Developing a systematic approach to prioritizing work is your secret weapon in combating too many demands on your time. Read on to learn more about prioritization techniques to use for your own project work, planning team activities, and working with stakeholders.

Prioritization 101

Prioritization refers to ‘doing first things first’ by evaluating a group of items and ranking them in their order of importance or urgency. In short, prioritization means identifying what is important and what is urgent (there is a difference!) before deciding what to do next.

Consider the Pareto principle, also known as the 80/20 rule; we get 80% of our results from 20% of our work. Prioritization should generate more time for the right things, for the valuable 20% which contributes to your long-term personal and professional goals. This focus will also boost your productivity levels.

 

80/20 rule
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Now you know why you need to start prioritizing your workload, how do you actually do this?

 

Personal Prioritization Methods

The first step is to develop a list of current and upcoming tasks and projects. The order of the tasks is not important; just try to document as much as possible.

Next, review your list and decide if you can eliminate or delegate any tasks. Be as ruthless as possible! The objective is a list of valuable work. These suggestions will help determine what to keep, remove or re-assign:

  • Identify tasks with significant implications for the project such as upcoming deadlines or dependencies
  • Assess the business value of tasks and projects
  • Be realistic when considering how much you can do in one day/week/month
  • What can or should you say ‘No’ to? Saying No is a powerful way to protect your time and establish expectations around your availability
  • Check time and resource estimates associated with the task. You may opt to focus on resource heavy tasks at the start of the project to avoid delays or issues later on.

 

Once your list is reduced, you can use established prioritization techniques to fine-tune the remaining tasks. Two popular methods worth considering are Stephen Covey’s Time-Management Matrix and Alan Lakein’s ABC Method.

  1. Time-Management Matrix

In developing his time-management matrix, Covey advocated scheduling your work according to what’s important and will get results. He suggested categorizing incoming work as either urgent (requires instant attention) or important (doesn’t have immediate consequences but is important to your overall goals). The result is a time-management matrix as follows:

 

Prioritization
 Source

Quadrant 1 is defined by crisis, Quadrant 3 by interruptions and Quadrant 4 by time wasters. As a project manager, you are likely spending significant time in Quadrant 1, which is often frantic. Proper planning, prioritization, and addressing the root cause of problems ultimately leads to less time in Quadrant 1 and more focus on Quadrant 2, which generates higher quality work. This is also reflected in another finding from McKinsey survey: satisfied executives spent less time on administrative activities and more time making decisions, collaborating with their team, and engaging with stakeholders. These are clearly associated with Quadrant 2.

 

  1. The ABC Method

The ACB Method recommends assigning a value to tasks as follows:

  • A: High value, must-do items with deadlines
  • B: Medium value, should do items
  • C: Low value, nice to do items.

 

When implementing this approach, finish tasks marked as A before moving to B and so on.

Armed with your priority list, you are ready to create a task list for today. Focus on today’s list only, picking just one or two important tasks to work on. A useful tip is to underestimate how much you can get done and overestimate how long it will take.

As you decide your priorities, it’s worth remembering that plans will change. You will need to be flexible where needed whilst also remaining focused on tasks you have committed to.

Team Prioritization Methods

Once you have mastered the art of personal prioritization, start working with your project team to identify and prioritize important tasks. This ensures that everyone is working on today’s priorities instead of wasting time on irrelevant or duplicate tasks. Here are three steps you can use.

  • Step 1: Start by asking ‘What are you and your team trying to achieve?’. Determining short and long terms goals will highlight which activities are valuable or irrelevant. Identifying these goals will also motivate and engage your team.
  • Step 2: Use a collaborative project site to share the project schedule, record updates, assign and track tasks, and encourage teamwork. It is vital that your team are aware of their responsibilities, and can easily check the status of the overall project so they can adjust their to-do list as needed. A collaborative site is a great way to centralize project resources such as documents, processes, and templates, saving valuable time when starting new tasks.
  • Step 3: Communicate as much as possible with your team. Use collaborative tools and meetings to help team members manage expected tasks or challenges.

 

Stakeholder Prioritization Methods

Finally, you should consider prioritization methods when gathering project requirements from stakeholders.  You need to balance these requirements with the triple constraints of time, cost, and quality to develop a realistic project plan that delivers as expected. Prioritizing requirements retains focus on the most important project deliverables and reduces the risk of scope creep later on. The MoScoW Technique is a collaborative approach to categorizing requirements as:

  • Must have: This requirement must be delivered. Without them, the project will be deemed a failure.
  • Should have: High-priority item that is valuable to end-users and should be included if possible.
  • Could have: Nice to have but not essential.
  • Won’t have: Will have to be postponed until another project/product iteration.

 

When using the MoScoW technique, you should also consider business value, implementation difficulty and potential impact on other requirements.

Conclusion:

 Effectively managing your priorities will not only increase your own productivity but will boost team motivation and improve stakeholder engagement. Like all good habits, it will take time to develop your own approach to prioritization. Stick to your plan and start working on tasks that are important and satisfying.

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