Prioritizing project tasks: 6-step process to avoid getting overwhelmed


Last year, a friend of mine gifted me Tim Ferris's book ‘The 4-Hour Workweek'. I am a strong believer in hard work. So, the title itself offended me. But, eventually, I got around to reading it. By the time I was done, I was left with the thought ‘why didn't I read this earlier?' The book shattered many of my illusions regarding time. But, the biggest takeaway was that a lack of time is a lack of priorities.

At first, I went ‘Really? That can't be true!' But, as I kept reading I realized that being busy doesn't mean you are efficient. That got me thinking about the Parkinson's Law, which states that ‘Work expands to fill time'.

Are you busy the entire day and still scramble or rush to complete things? Do you struggle to meet deadlines? You have a ton of work and you have no clue where to start? Do you wish that there were more hours in a day? If you are nodding yes to all these questions, then, maybe you need to work on ‘Prioritization'. Particularly, for a project manager, an ability to identify priorities as well as work with competing priorities is considered a make or break skill.

What is a priority?

A task which is regarded as more important than others is a priority. Prioritization is organizing tasks in terms of importance relative to one another. For example, meeting a deadline for a project is a priority over answering a mail from a friend.

A project manager deals with competing priorities on a daily basis. There are multiple software tools out there to help you identify priorities. But, essentially it is the discretion of the manager which determines what a priority is and what is not. 

Why is it important to prioritize tasks?

Dealing with a long list of things to do is a something that the project manager has to live with. So, knowing how to prioritize tasks can help you determine where you want to invest your time. Also, it gives you clarity about which task should be assigned to a team member thereby freeing up your time to do more important work. Further, workload prioritization interview questions are quite common and if you can answer these questions, you can land that dream job you wanted.

Below are some tips for prioritizing tasks that help you prioritize workload and meet deadlines.

Steps to set project priorities: 

  1. Make a list of tasks and responsibilities
    Write down everything that you need to get done in a day. At this point, don't worry about the order and the number of tasks you are noting down.

  2. Evaluate the importance of each task
    Next step is to rank the tasks in terms of the value they add to the project. You can also identify priorities based on the number of people impacted. Answering what consequence certain project carries can also help in the ranking of the task. Moving forward, we will discuss some of the important prioritization techniques that can help you in this step.

  3. Learn to manage time better
    One important aspect of prioritizing also involves how much time you want to dedicate to a responsibility. People either spend too little time or too much time on a task. In both the cases, productivity gets affected.  Ensure that you only devote optimal time to a project.

  4. Get it done
    What's the use of having a priority list if you can't stick to it? For many of us, the problem lies not in making a list and prioritizing but in staying true to it. So, don't get overwhelmed by the tasks that pile up during the day if they are not important. Don't be reactive to everything that comes your way.

  5. Be ready to change and adapt
    At the same time, be open to changing priorities. Ideally, you should just do what you set out during the course of the day. But, as a project manager, you constantly deal with new tasks and responsibilities. Decide which ones you want to add to your list based on urgency and importance.

  6. Know when to say NO
    This is probably the most important step in the entire process. As mentioned before, it is not just about which tasks you do but also which tasks you choose not to do. Since time is a limited resource, there are those tasks which you may not be able to finish. In such scenarios, don't let the perfectionist syndrome in you stop you from eliminating these tasks from the list. Further, learn the art of delegating to your team members those tasks which they can easily handle.

To help you with the second step of evaluating the importance of each task, below are some of the work prioritization tools or techniques that you can use to handle competing priorities:

1. Eisenhower Matrix

Dwight Eisenhower, 34th president of the United States, is known for his incredible productivity. Hence, his techniques for time management are advocated by a lot of people.

Eisenhower Matrix is one of his most popular productivity strategies. Stephen Covey in his book ‘The 7 habits of highly effective people' popularized this principle. It is a simple time management tool which helps you prioritize tasks. How does it do that? By making you segregate actions into four categories based on urgency and importance.

  • Q1: Urgent and Important

  • Q2: Important, but not urgent

  • Q3: Urgent, but not important

  • Q4: Neither urgent nor important

Urgent Vs. Important

“What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.”

- Dwight Eisenhower

Urgent jobs are those which make you react. Tasks such as answering calls and replying to emails fall into this category. On the other hand, important tasks are those that help you achieve your long-term goals. The problem that most of us face is focussing on urgent tasks more than the important ones. The modern communication which constantly bombards us with information aggravates this mind-set.  

How to prioritize tasks according to Eisenhower Matrix?

Q1 tasks (Urgent and important) are critical and stand above all other tasks. Examples include answering a client's mail and informing the team about project changes etc. For obvious reasons, these tasks should be done as soon as possible. Not doing them will lead to negative consequences.

Q2 tasks (Important, but not urgent) are the ones on which you should spend maximum time. As these tasks are not urgent most of us tend to neglect them. But, if you want to become an efficient project manager, make sure you give these tasks required time as they determine your long-term career growth.

Q3 tasks (Urgent, but not important) are deceptive. They make you feel compelled do them on an urgent basis. In reality, these tasks distract you and bring down your productivity. Hence, these tasks should be delegated. On the other hand,

Q4 tasks (Neither urgent nor important) should be eliminated altogether.

In all, Eisenhower matrix allows you to answer 2 questions. What task is a priority? And, which tasks can be eliminated altogether?

2. Brian Tracy's Method

“If it's your job to eat a frog, it's best to do it first thing in the morning.” “And if it's your job to eat two frogs, it's best to eat the biggest one first.

- Mark Twain

The above quote summarizes what Brian Tracy advocates for prioritizing tasks. If you eat a live frog first thing in the morning, there can't be anything worse than anything you have to face for the rest of the day. Replacing frogs with tasks, Tracy says that one should do the most difficult task first. Once you finish it, all the other tasks become easy.

Unlike the Eisenhower Matrix, this method focusses on how you feel about a certain task. Accordingly, tasks fall into four categories.

A. Things you don't want to do, and actually, don't need to do.

B. Things you don't want to do, but actually, need to do.

C. Things you want to do and actually need to do.

D. Things you want to do, but actually, don't need to do.

Most of the times you struggle to complete tasks not because you don't understand the importance of the task but because you have a negative feeling towards it. That's when you start procrastinating. But, once you become aware of this fact, you can start prioritizing those tasks which are important but are reluctant to do.  

3. ABCDE Method

Let's say that you have a list of competing priorities? How do you manage your work then? ABCDE method gives you an answer. This is another of Brian Tracy's prioritization techniques.

Tasks in this technique are divided in the following manner.

‘A' Tasks  have serious Consequences

‘B' Tasks  have minor Consequences

‘C' Tasks are nice to do with no Consequences

‘D' Tasks should be delegated

‘E' Tasks should be eliminated

All the tasks in ‘A' category should be prioritized over others. Tasks in ‘A' should then be ranked as A1, A2, A3, etc. This listing implies that A1 is a higher priority task than A2. When every task seems urgent and important, this can act as a powerful tool for organizing tasks at work.

4. Bubble Sort Technique

‘Bubble Sort' is an algorithm that compares requirements and swaps them if they are in the wrong order. The same could be done with the tasks.

Let's say you have 3 tasks: A, B, and C. Take A and B and compare them. If A has a higher priority over B, keep A. Next, compare A with C. If C is more important than A, keep C. What this means is C has the highest priority among the given 3 tasks. The order of priority is C, A and B.

This technique is particularly useful when you have to do that one task which is extremely crucial. The other advantage is that each task will be ranked in terms of priority. However, when you have a long list of tasks, it could become time-consuming to sort all the tasks through this technique.

5. MoSCoW Method

This is another popular prioritization method used in project management. It categorizes tasks into 4 groups:

A. Must-Have: A task which if not done on time, could lead to the failure of the entire project becomes a ‘Must Have' task. 

B. Should Have: Although ‘Should Have' tasks are important, they are not critical. These tasks can be postponed to a future date.

C. Could Have: These tasks need to be completed but not necessarily by you. Hence, delegate such tasks to get the most of your time.

D. Wouldn't Have: Tasks which are time-consuming with little value should be eliminated altogether.

The above segregation allows you to define essential and non-essential tasks. This, in turn, allows you to define priorities and focus on them.

6. Pareto Principle

It is also known as ‘80/20 Rule' or the ‘Law of the Vital Few'. It states 80% of the project success is determined by 20% of the tasks.

Using this knowledge, you can analyze and sort tasks into the 20% important category and the other 80% unimportant category. Focus your energy and time on completing the 20% category tasks. The other tasks can either be delegated or eliminated altogether.

7. Zen habit

Do all the above techniques sound complicated? Then let's take a look at a really simple prioritization technique.

In the book ‘Zen to Done', Leo Babuta suggests that you review your list of tasks at the beginning of each day. Afterwards, write down 1-3 Most Important Tasks (MITs) that you would like to complete on that day. And, get on with completing them.

The best part of this Zen habit is that it helps you set realistic goals. A problem most of us face is making everything a priority and not completing any task in a day. Though 3 tasks in a day sound small, over a period of time you have a cumulative effect of completing really important and value-adding tasks on a daily basis.

So, which of the above methods should you use to prioritize projects? Well, it depends on the project and the amount of time you have. Using a combination of these methods based on the project can significantly hone your time management skills.


The common problem that many project managers face is getting overwhelmed by the number of things that they need to get done. Every task feels important and urgent enough for you to respond to. But, your success as a project manager depends on what tasks you choose to do and what you leave out. If you want to work productively, list out the tasks and prioritize them based on their value to the project. At the same time, the art of saying ‘No' and delegation is an important skill that you need to nurture. In the end, the goal is to ensure that you spend your time on only those tasks that matter.

Enroll now, & become a successful Project Manager!

About Author
Madhavi B