How to prioritize business tasksIf you enjoy reality shows in which competitors are charged with completing demanding assignments against extremely tight deadlines, you may recognize that the most important mistakes are made right at the beginning.

Because there is so little time, teams rush into the work too quickly. They shortchange the planning step. They fail to collect enough information to proceed intelligently. They cut certain team members out of the discussion or they dive in with insufficient consensus on how to function effectively.

Sometimes the workload is unevenly distributed. At other times some members may not understand their assignment or do not receive even minimal instructions on how to contribute to the effort.

Simply stated, participants may function efficiently but they do not function effectively because they have unwisely rushed the decision process. 

The problem is similar when we work independently. We are tempted to rush ahead without considering the desired result and the resources we will need on hand.

Alas, there are days—or even weeks—when everything is top priority. It’s all needed STAT.

What should we do first? we ask ourselves.

Unless FedEx pickup is scheduled for five minutes from now, the most immediate priority is to take a few moments to list out everything that must be done soon so nothing falls between the cracks.

Pause for a moment, take a deep breath, and review the competing projects.

Here are six questions to ask yourself when determining what is a priority and where should you start first:

1. Which assigned deadline is first? All things being equal, move projects with the first due dates to the front of the line. However, even if projects have the same stated deadline, find out if those are hard deadlines demanded by a valid process or if they are arbitrarily assigned dates chosen on the assumption that most work is handed in late.

2. What does your supervisor think is the most pressing work? Some managers see asking such a question as avoiding responsibility and delegating upwards, but others will quite willingly discuss it with you. So ask if possible.

3. What is the most important work today? Urgency counts for a lot even if the work does not impact major, long-range projects.

4. What is the most important work in the long run? Consider the big picture. Do not readily postpone a project that can assure your company’s future and possibly boost your career. However, you may not be able to do it today.

5. Can you delegate some of the work to someone else? Instead of digging in and doing it all, why not ask a coworker to help? Even if it takes a few minutes to explain the task, you can still free up hours of your own time for other responsibilities. You will position yourself as a leader instead of a martyr.

6. Can you work late or come in early to get more done? The answer depends on many factors. One factor is your employment status and whether you must be paid overtime. Others include whether your company values or scorns people who stay late and if the demands placed upon you are regularly excessive. Sometimes it is simply less tiring to stay late and work at a measured pace than to hyperventilate and proceed at breakneck speed.

A final piece of advice: Don’t waste time complaining to everyone who will listen about how busy you are. Nothing is more annoying to fellow employees than a whiner. You look like a nervous Nelly and paint yourself as someone who cannot tolerate stress or cope with higher responsibilities.

Now set your priorities and get busy!

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I have freelanced and consulted since 1992 while also holding full-time corporate marketing positions during some of that period. Freelance writer specializing in the insurance industry. Marketing communications, market research reports and competitive intelligence for insurance, asset management and general business.