One of the keys to good time management is the ability to set priorities. Mastering this skill will save you time and energy, and it will benefit your career.
Do you often feel as though there isn’t enough time in the day? Well, you aren’t alone. Feeling stressed and overwhelmed is so common these days that it’s practically normalized in our society. But, the cost of prolonged stress shouldn’t be underestimated — chronic stress can take a real toll on your body and your mind.
If you want to manage your stress and your time a little better, setting priorities at work is a good place to start. However, it’s not easy to figure out what to do when you’re feeling overwhelmed. How do you set priorities when you haven’t been given much direction? How do you know what to tackle first when there is just so much to do?
1. Use organization systems
In order to set clear and meaningful priorities, you first have to know exactly what you need to do and when. So, be sure to keep an updated calendar, and check it often. Also, use a to-do list to organize your tasks. (Bored of your standard list? Reboot your to-do list with one of these methods.) It can help to label the most crucial or urgent priorities with a special symbol, like an exclamation point. This directs your attention to what needs to be done today.
Having a firm grasp of your schedule and your obligations is a necessary first step when talking about setting priorities. Keep in mind that it’s not just about having these systems. You also need keep your lists and calendars up to date. And, you’ll have to check them often.
2. Take ownership
One of the challenges of setting priorities is that managers and organizations often don’t do a lot to help steer employees in the right direction. You may find you have conflicting priorities to navigate, and you’re not getting much guidance, if any, about how to reconcile that.
At times like this, it’s up to you to take ownership of the decision-making process. Know that consciously setting priorities is part of being a successful professional. Of course you need to factor in guidance from the higher-ups, but ultimately you are the one who’s responsible for establishing your priorities at work.
3. Know that starting and finishing are the hardest parts
It’s only natural to want to put off projects when you get to hardest parts of the process. It might help to keep in mind that starting and finishing big tasks are often the most difficult parts. Once you’ve gotten started, it usually becomes easier to keep the momentum going. But, sitting down to begin something new is difficult. Similarly, completing and finalizing tasks is also a bit arduous.
Keep this in mind when organizing your priorities. Don’t linger too long at the beginning or end stages of projects. Instead, get going on new tasks. Once you’ve gotten the ball rolling it will be easier to keep it in motion. Don’t put off finalizing tasks, either. Prioritize projects that are close to being finished so that you can be freed up to move on to other things.
4. Don’t overestimate or underestimate time
You usually know about how long meetings and other appointments will run. So, it’s easy enough to block off the requisite time for them in your schedule. However, other tasks are a little harder to predict.
Experts who’ve studied the psychology of procrastination say that tasks you’re dreading often take less time than you think they will. It’s totally possible to spend three hours putting off a project that would take a cool 45 minutes to complete. On the other hand, if you tend to put things off, you might find that it’s more complex than you first estimated, putting you farther behind once you’re in it.
So, instead of delaying writing that report because you’ll have plenty of time next week, decide to spend just 30 minutes on it and see what happens. It helps to keep in mind that you may be overestimating how long certain tasks will take and instead just get started in order to leave plenty of time. Don’t worry too much about predicting time frames generally, just concern yourself with attending to your to-dos.
5. Be flexible
It helps to use your calendar and your to-do list to set priorities when you have too much to do at work. However, just when you feel you have a clear and manageable plan, something else will inevitably pop up to throw you off course.
So, as much as it helps to set priorities, it’s also equally essential to be flexible. Roll with the punches and commit to taking the days as they come. Planning for disruptions rather than being annoyed by them can make your work life a lot easier. The work of setting priorities never ends. It’s an ongoing and daily process.
Tell Us What You Think
Do you feel overwhelmed at work and find that it’s difficult to set priorities? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.