Understanding prioritization takes concentration, organization, and flexibility
It’s 2025, and the world has mostly recovered from the great pandemic. You, however, are still sitting in front of your laptop in your “home office.” Whether this a dystopian view of the future depends on how you view working remotely. But, of course, your feelings can’t change reality. And the reality is this: all indications are that a good number of us will not be returning to “life as we once knew it,” ever. The reasons for this are pretty simple. Companies have realized they didn’t need to congregate dozens or more people in buildings where they have to pay for rent, air conditioning, security, insurance, etc. We’ve gotten used to having meetings over Zoom. And plenty of workers have come to decide they generally like working in “civilian clothes” and not having to waste hours commuting. More fundamentally, employees want to hold on to their newly won flexibility. Choosing to get up early and knock out a couple of things before taking part of the afternoon off for a jog or time with family, and then perhaps firing up the computer for a little more work after dinner was once a luxury, but now for many – a lifestyle they wouldn’t willingly give up.
When major changes or revolutions occur, or when disruptive technology is invented – from the wheel to the spinning wheel – history shows it’s extremely rare for things to return to “normal.” Those who haven’t yet realized that what the world has been through over the last couple of years was epoch-changing are in for a rude surprise – even after the planet “re-opens.” A fundamental shift has occurred, but we’ve only seen the opening pages. Over the next decade, a new concept and definition of “work” will evolve – with remote becoming more normal than not for many. Those who have mastered how to get things done efficiently and productively – how to block out distractions and work without “supervision” – are going to conquer the future. The winners will be those who’ve learned how to prioritize, ruthlessly. Those who still haven’t figured out how to organize a daily schedule or how to concentrate long enough to get a single task done and move on, are going to be left behind.
Beating the “Everything is Important” Paradox
You might be good at making “to-do” lists; many people are. The problem with these lists – which, are in themselves, excellent ways of keeping track of what needs to be done – is that they present you with a dilemma. How is finishing a financial report “more important” than updating a customer database? –To use two random examples. What’s more: they may both have the same deadline. This isn’t easy. Everything needs to get done, and often at the same time. The scientific evidence is clear that multitasking or task-switching isn’t a good idea. Instead, you need to learn and master “task dependencies.” This fancy-sounding term is really just understanding that “A” must come before “B”.
Try sitting down with an old-fashioned yellow pad and writing down, in a numbered order, which tasks are dependent on other tasks. If “B” cannot come before “A” then it becomes easy to see which is more important. Then, list the parts of these jobs that will take up most of your time. Now you’re ready to prioritize. After this first sifting, move work into three categories, sort of like an email box:
Reply now: These require action and other things will be delayed by not attending to these tasks first.
Archive: These are important, but action isn’t immediately necessary.
Discard: These are tasks that, after a close second look, can – if needed – be ignored or even cancelled.
But we’re not done yet! Now it’s time to look through the first category and again divide it into three:
Immediate: This would be something that’s quick to complete and doesn’t require anything or anyone other than you and your full concertation.
Pause: Important but requires another party to complete.
Schedule: Any task that requires multiple steps and multiple actors to complete.
And there you go! Clearly, the jobs in the “immediate” folder should be tackled first as they meet two requirements – they are both urgent and you can get it done yourself. Block out distractions (some apps literally block you from doing anything but work for a period of time – consider using one!) Then, move to section two, and finally, section three.
Don’t forget that “No Battle Plan Survives Contact with the Enemy”
Finally, be willing to toss out the plans you just spent so long organizing if an opportunity arises. Flexibility is a strength. Like the bamboo stalk, you never snap, but always bend. If say, the two key people needed for a “category two” task are suddenly available, you’d be foolish not to grab the moment and run with it. Importance and urgency can be very different things. Successful prioritization involves understanding the difference between the two while keeping your eyes open for “lucky” breaks and good opportunities.
People who learn to ruthlessly prioritize often end up finding they actually do have time to get everything done – and time to spare. Try prioritizing each day early, and – as you get things done faster than you thought possible – enjoy the inspiration of momentum. In your work life, there are few things more satisfying than looking at a well-organized “to-do” list that’s all crossed off.