How to prioritize tasks at work – 5 steps to better productivity

That’s it.

For me, this is the last “how to become productive” stuff I will ever engage in.

For you, I really hope this guide is the last thing you read about becoming productive and ending your productivity porn phase.

Let’s just end it together by solving for this one question – how to become productive prioritize your work?

Why do I feel ‘unproductive’?

Feeling unproductive simply means you aren’t able to prioritize because you have too much to do. There is no need for this jargon called ‘productivity’ – it all boils down to a basic question “which task do you think you wish you did first but aren’t doing?”

Here’s an excellent quote by Garry Tan from the video on YCombinator’s YouTube channel – Startup Experts Reveal Their Top Productivity Advice

“When we say productivity, often what we’re actually saying is priority.

What’s the number one thing what am I trying to do? Are the things I’m doing actually aligned with that they are? (These are) the stupid simple questions that get you 80% of the gain when it comes to not just productivity but working on the right thing at the right time.”

– Garry Tan, President, CEO & Group Partner at YCombinator

The procrastination loop

A much worrisome consequence of not being able to prioritize work is that you end up procrastinating.

When you aren’t able to decide, it puts too much cognitive load, especially if your to-do list involves tasks you don’t like. Then you stop putting effort into completing these tasks or do half-hearted work. You may even end up skipping work and seek novelty instead via watching movies or being on the phone – which makes you feel more bad about yourself.

Now, you’re stuck in a procrastination loop – and this is not a good place to be for a long time, so now let’s quickly understand the solution.

Solution to your ‘productivity issues’ – learn how to prioritize

It’s okay – everyone faces prioritization issues, and the good news is that it can be fixed.

It is important we are able to visualize our work so that it is easy to prioritize. Most of our tasks are usually in our minds, thus making it difficult to think properly. Further, when you have too much going in your mind, it’s easy to get distracted. Hence, we will design a system to note down these tasks and visualize them to make prioritization decisions.

Step-1: Identify and fix one critical goal

For me, while writing this blog, it’s growing my business Merrative to USD 10,000 MRR by Q4 2023.

Your goal should be:

  • Ambitious yet practical enough to achieve
  • Time-bound
  • result-oriented and not something specific

Then, list out the key tasks you must do in order to achieve the goal. Here’s what mine looks like:

Goal: Grow Merrative’s revenues to USD 10,000 MRR

Key results:

  • Design and execute cold email campaign – send 1000 emails per month
  • Build a personal brand on LinkedIn – do 3 posts a week, comment on influencer’s posts every day, and contribute to LinkedIn AI articles.
  • Publish content marketing examples and case studies consistently in the Media First Brand newsletter

You can write as many key results as you can manage to do. But too many tasks will cause burnout – hence try to be creative with them. Research these tasks and make sure they align with the goal and help achieve them.

This step is similar to writing an OKR – but you need to write only 1 OKR at the start. Once you get a hang of it and complete it, you can experiment with writing more such goals across various areas of your life.

Step-2: List all the tasks you’ve been doing till now

Now answer this question – what does your day look like?

List out what you ACTUALLY do in a single day and how much time you spend on these tasks. Include everything – eating food, watching OTT, playing with kids, meetings, writing blogs, doom-scrolling Instagram reels, consuming Twitter threads, etc.

Create 2 columns in a spreadsheet – ‘Goal-oriented tasks’ and ‘Other tasks’.

Now, segregate your tasks into these columns. The more detailed you are about your tasks, the more refined your prioritization will be.

While a spreadsheet works, I personally prefer using Kanban Boards to note, visualize, and organize tasks. For this purpose, I use TaskBoard – an app that helps you use the Google Tasks app on Chrome. Here’s how I have used the TaskBoard app to make a sample Kanban Board for prioritizing tasks:

Screenshot of TaskBoard app for usning Kanban view for prioritizing tasks.
TaskBoard app dashboard

You can create different lists for different goals. In my case, I added the ‘other tasks’ on the default ‘My Tasks’ list that TaskBoard provides. The app also allows you to add reminders or deadlines, file attachments, or tags to further organize tasks.

From now on, whenever you have a task coming up or you’re doing something – you need to update it in the Kanban Board, spreadsheet, or any other tool you’re using. Doing so provides you a first filter into knowing if what you’re doing or about to do aligns with your goals or not.

Step-3: Maker and Manager schedule

Create two new lists titled ‘Maker’ and ‘Manager’.

Now – from the ‘Other tasks’ column – start separating them as follows

  • Maker: tasks that require ‘creating’ something. This could be writing a blog post, writing code, designing a logo, etc.
  • Manager: tasks that require you to ‘manage’ someone else. This could include attending meetings, assigning work, providing feedback to workers, etc.

Here’s how your Kanban Board will look like now:

Screenshot of TaskBoard app dashboard showing 4 different lists to segregate tasks
Add ‘Maker’ and ‘Manager’ lists

Step-5: Identify ‘fake work’

If you’ve still left with too many tasks in ‘others’ – don’t panic. We will now identify which of those tasks are actually things that are helping you achieve goals or support your desired lifestyle.

Fake work is the kind of work that drains you, and it looks like you are achieving something, but it doesn’t translate to any outcomes you aim to achieve.

This is worse than binge-watching any web series or anime – because here at least you’re letting your hair down and relaxing (which is also important). Fake work wastes your time without providing the guilt of it for you to recognize and stop doing it.

Now – which of the tasks mentioned in the ‘Others’ column is ‘pretending’ to help you achieve your desired goals?

For me – it is being active on Twitter.

I enjoy interacting with people there, replying to tweets, consuming those threads, and responding to hiring requests. I end up spending hours sometimes – but many of my Twitter activities aren’t really contributing too much.

So now I only tweet when I feel like – and respond to replies & DMs when I am traveling. I have set up creator alerts and private lists which help me avoid doom scrolling and target my engagement.

Identifying fake work has really helped me reduce time on social media and find ways to make it short yet sweet. You too can think of such tasks and either eliminate or restrict your time spent on them.

Step-5: What tasks can you delegate?

The last step is to decide which of the tasks you can delegate.

An easy way to find this out is to identify tasks that you absolutely HATE doing. Here’s how to deal with them:

Automate tasks

Find out if you can use software tools to automate the manual work from your tasks list.

Examples of tasks that you can automate using software include:

  • Data entry tasks like sharing or copy-pasting data from one software to another or uploading CSV or downloading Google sheet databases for analysis. Software like Zapier, Whalesync, or Make help with such data sharing or syncing tasks.
  • Payroll tasks like paying contractors, vendors or employees is easy to automate using employee payroll management systems like Teamed, Deel, Workday, etc.
  • If you’re using Slack for project management, sharing projects updates can be automated using notification systems that help align team members. Thus, you avoiding any need for meetings.

The idea is to identify tasks that can be automated by specialized software or integration tools.

For example – I run a Google Group for freelance writers to share jobs and interesting reads that help upskill in content writing. One annoying manual work I did was to download the Google Form with updated writers’ emails and then copy-paste the email ID into Google Group’s ‘Add Members’ option to add the new joiners. For this, I now use ‘Make’ to automate the sharing of Google Forms email data directly into the Google Group members – without any manual intervention from my side.

If you need help in automating your workplace or personal tasks – do connect with me. I can help you design automated workflows for them using no-code tools – contact me to automate your work

Hire virtual assistants

Tasks that robots cannot do need to be taken up by virtual assistants (VAs). If you have the budget, then you can explore Upwork, Fiverr, or any VA agency to help you hire one.

Examples of tasks that you can delegate by hiring a virtual assistance include:

  • Managing emails by filtering important conversations, responding on behalf of you, unsubscribing to unwanted newsletters, etc.
  • Planning travel for work like booking flights or hotels, making itineraries, designing presentations, coordinating meetings with client, writing minutes of the client meeting or transcribing them, planning travel events, etc.
  • Managing social presence by posting, replying to comments, sending cold DMs to leads, etc.

Virtual assistants are great for tasks that involve basic decision making or require a human response.

For example – I hate accounting and maintaining my financial sheet. It’s boring and manual, and I hate it when my Chartered Accountants are asking for bills and invoices for which I have to spend hours in my folders. I have tried to use Zapier to automate my payments – but it hasn’t worked as many of my clients pay via wire transfers, via UPI (in India), or cards.

So now, I’ve hired a virtual assistant who collects and organizes the monthly bills. They maintain our financial tracking sheet and provide me with a report for quick checks. Thus, now I am able to focus on work I truly enjoy or is important.

Stay consistent in maintaining your task lists

With those 5 steps, you have learned how to organize and prioritize your tasks.

Once you’re consistent with it, you will eventually observe the need to use a project management tool to involve execution and tasks delegation.

How to stay motivated and focused when prioritizing tasks?

Even after automating or delegating work – sometimes we still may end up in not-so-interesting tasks. It is important to ensure you create an environment for yourself to complete them otherwise you will feel like spending time on distractions.

Here’s how to stay motivated while working on your prioritized tasks:

Remember – you don’t have infinite time

“Wasted time is more expensive than wasted money”

– Paulo Coelho

Many people who are known for their professionalism understand the importance of time and know how to respect it. When they specify a deadline – they adhere to it with discipline. To get work done, it is important to become conscious of ‘time’.

The key is to just start and enter the flow state

‘Flow state’ is that magical experience of putting ‘effortless effort’ on your work. You’re so involved in working on the task that you forget time and you’re not easily distracted. It’s like you’re stretching your concentration, but not snapping out of it.

The good news is that it’s easy to enter a flow state when you nurture these aspects in your work outlook:

  • Curiosity: when you’re curious about the outcome of your work, you end up doing it naturally.
  • Passion: fall in love with the outcome of your tasks – check the goal written by you in Step-1 and remind yourself the same every time you feel like giving up.
  • Purpose: having a sense of purpose indeed boosts productivity. Even if you’re working just for money, that is also a legitimate purpose worth working for.
  • Mastery: when you perform a task again and again, your body aligns to complete it much faster with accuracy of a machine.

Having any or all of the above four aspects makes it easy to start work. Your mind demands ‘autonomy’ such that you focus on your work.

The problem of procrastination is usually resolved once you gain the mental strength to START working.

Once you do the first step of working on the task, our mind indeed aligns us to continue working on it by entering into a ‘flow state’.

Reward yourself after a few tasks

Some tasks are pure pain – and having a reward helps. It also helps you curb the urge of working on distractions like side projects.

For example, meetings drag my mood and energy down (even if it went well). So I reward myself with chocolates after every meeting irrespective of how it went. When working for a client whose work is monotonous, I reward myself with writing for my side projects RedQueen or AppliedAI Tools blog as a reward.

Do let me know in the comments how you reward yourself!

Take a break

Working till your burnout will only lead you more susceptible to distractions due to less sleep or increased anxiety.

Always take a break – you can meditate, massage your eyes, speak to a friend/colleague or do anything else to wind down.

5 tips on prioritizing your tasks that actually work

  1. Adopt an asynchronous working style: Explore working asynchronously to reduce time in interactions unless necessary.
  2. Play harder: Don’t forget to account for leisure and sleep time while preparing the prioritization task lists.
  3. Eat that frog: Finish the bigger or high-effort task first so that you can free up the rest of the day for others.
  4. Communicate your deadlines: find ways to communicate your task progress to your peers or co-workers. This is a clear way to forcibly put deadlines on yourself – because now you have to be accountable to them.
  5. Use pomodoro timer: this trick also helps – there are many tools like the Forest app that help you implement pomodoro timer for work.

I have observed the framework described on this blog to be working for ME. If it worked for you – do let me know.

If something else worked for you – share it in the comments!

Hey, we can help you!

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Tweet to the author of this guide (me!) for any feedback or follow-ups: @harshalachavan7

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