How to Prioritize at Work When Everything is a Top Priority

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It’s mid-way through January, but I’m still making my list of work-related New Year’s resolutions. One of my biggest challenges is how to prioritize my workload and manage the competing demands for my time, but without upsetting my family, manager, clients or coworkers. Sound familiar? It’s easy to fall into a rut of viewing every project as a top priority and spreading yourself too thin. Though it may feel like productive to try and tackle so many things at a time, ironically you may not be because few projects get completed with the level of care and attention you want. I’ve learned that prioritizing ruthlessly, but carefully, and on a daily basis helps make me a better mom and employee.

Make a daily list. I start each day by engaging in a “brain dump” of all of the things I need to do, in and outside of work, and writing a list of all of those activities. All tasks no matter how large or small go on the list. The very act of writing these things down instead of keeping them in my head, hoping I’ll remember to get to them and actually get to them one day, is productive and stress relieving. To stay on track, set a timer for five minutes.

Usually, this process ends for me with a list that is really long and intimidating. In order to avoid setting myself up for failure, I break it down further by identifying short- and longer-term priorities. Those categories are almost always dictated by who is asking me to do the task or evaluating what kind of negative or positive consequences will result from not completing any of the items on the list. You can arrange priorities by thinking about what items you can delegate to others and get off your list completely (my favorite way), estimating how long it will take to complete an item (overestimate here), or which items carry the greatest value for you or your employer. The most important part of this exercise is to be honest and realistic about your bandwidth: you most likely cannot and will not accomplish everything you set out to do in a day, so forgive yourself, accept it, and move on.

Stay on track during the day. It’s tempting to read incoming email or the myriad social media updates that bombard us daily, but it’s also amazing how easily those things can derail your day. This is one of my hardest struggles. Consider closing your mailbox (or at least turning off the email preview function), sending incoming calls to voicemail, putting a “do not disturb” sign on your door to avoid coworkers from popping in, or finding other ways to filter out or at least postpone the “noise” that interrupts your work time. In order to be responsive, block off time increments on your calendar throughout the day to check and respond to messages.

In my world, email is king and I usually receive dozens of messages each day. Just thinking about how and when to respond to them or worrying if I will forget to respond to them at all can be very stressful. I organize my mailbox with sub-folders that align with my categories of work priorities; in my case, urgent, client requests, personal, waiting on others, future ideas, but use whatever categories work for you. You can also use the “Rules” function on most office email applications to automatically route certain kinds of messages (like messages from certain people or about certain topics) to those sub-folders and then read them during your planned blocks of time. There are also a host of apps like Momentum and Limitless that can help you set goals and keep them throughout your day. I hate to admit it, but sometimes saying “no” to a meeting invitation can be the most effective way to prioritize your responsibilities; it can also feel pretty liberating.

Take time at the end of the day. On my most hectic days, I consider it an accomplishment to complete even just a few of my planned activities for the day. But no matter what my day brought, I block off time at the end for what I call my “thank you time.” We all rely on the help of others to accomplish our goals and it’s easy to forget to express gratitude. Setting aside some time, even just ten minutes, at the end of each day as a recurring daily appointment on the calendar is a convenient way of remembering to say thanks, to think about what I did accomplish that day, and to also follow up on action items. By blocking off time on the calendar, it also minimizes the chances of others scheduling that time for calls or meetings.

I don’t know any working mother who doesn’t struggle with prioritizing at work. I don’t have all of the answers, but I do know that when I am on my game and getting through my work-related activities, I am a better and calmer mother and the rest of my life falls into place more quickly. My to-do list will never be done, it’s always growing, and I’m incredibly grateful for that. Getting into a habit of ruthless prioritization is challenging, but the pay off can be huge.

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