Get Better at Prioritizing

Learning Outcomes

  • Evaluate techniques for prioritizing tasks

Get Better at Prioritizing

Due dates are important. Set your short and long-term goals accordingly. Ask yourself the following:

  • What needs to get done today?
  • What needs to get done this week?
  • What needs to get done by the end the first month of the semester?
  • What needs to get done by the end the second month of the semester?
  • What needs to get done by the end of the semester?

Prioritization: Self-Management of What You Do and When You Do It

Prioritization is a key component to time management. Prioritizing tasks requires you to decide which tasks are most important and in what order you plan to complete them. This process depends on a number of factors, including how important that task is to your goals and values, what is required for each task, and whether or not you need to complete that task to move on to other items in your to-do list.

This next section provides some insight into prioritizing and how to better understand the factors that contribute to prioritization.

Try It

How to Prioritize

The enemy of good prioritization is panic, or at least making decisions based on strictly emotional reactions. It can be easy to immediately respond to a problem as soon as it pops up without thinking of the consequences of that reaction and how it might impact other priorities. It is natural for us to want to take care of a stressful situation as soon as we can. But when it comes to juggling multiple problems or tasks to complete, prioritizing them first can mean the difference between completing everything satisfactorily and completing nothing at all.

How Important Is this Task?

The importance of a task can be measured in many different ways. You might measure the importance of a school assignment by how many points it’s worth, when it’s due, or whether it’s for a class you’re doing well in or doing poorly in. You will certainly have other priorities in your life beyond school work. Perhaps the most important task for the day is making the deadline for a job application or getting your grandmother to her doctor’s appointment. Truly understanding the importance of each task can take some time, and may change depending on the day, but try to keep your long-term goals and personal values in mind as you evaluate the importance of your daily tasks, and you’ll be able to better evaluate your priorities with time.

What Are the Requirements of This Task?

You need to understand the requirements of each task to make a good decision about prioritizing your workload. If you have multiple assignments to complete and you assume one of those assignments will only take an hour, you may decide to put it off until the others are finished. If you find, once you begin the assignment, that there are several extra components that you did not account for and the time to complete will be four times as long as you estimated, you won’t be able to finish your assignment, or you’ll stay up late or have to cancel other plans you’d made when you thought your assignment would be done in an hour.

Are Other Tasks Depending on this Task?

Or, one of the assignments may be dependent on the results of another—like participating in a study and then writing a report on the results. If you are not aware that one assignment depends upon the completion of the other before you begin, you could inadvertently do the assignments out of order and have to start over. Because of situations like this, it is critically important to understand exactly what needs to be done to complete a task before you determine its priority.

Many learning activities have multiple components and sometimes they must occur in a specific order. Some elements may not only be dependent on the order they are completed, but can also be dependent on how they are completed. To illustrate, we will analyze a task that is usually considered to be a simple one: attending a class session. In this analysis, we will look at not only what must be accomplished to get the most out of the experience, but also at how each element is dependent upon others and must be done in a specific order. The graphic below shows the interrelationship between the different activities, many of which might not initially seem significant enough to warrant mention, but it becomes obvious that other elements depend upon them when they are listed out this way.

See image caption for link to appropriate alternative text.

Many of your learning activities are dependent on others, and some are the gateways to other steps. Access the text only version of this image here.

As you can see from the graphic above, even a task as simple as going to class can be broken down into a number of different elements that have a good deal of dependency on other tasks. One example is preparing for the class lecture by reading materials ahead of time in order to make the lecture and any complex concepts easier to follow. If you did it the other way around, you might miss opportunities to ask questions or receive clarification on the information presented during the lecture.

Understanding what you need to do and when you need to do it can be applied to any task, no matter how simple or how complex. Knowing what you need to do and planning for it can go a long way toward success and preventing unpleasant surprises.

Task Urgency

To better see how things may need to be prioritized, some people make a list of the tasks they need to complete and then arrange the tasks in a quadrant map based on importance and task urgency. Traditionally, this map is called the Eisenhower Decision Matrix. Before becoming the 34th president of the United States, Dwight Eisenhower served as the Allied forces supreme commander during World War II and said he used this technique to better prioritize the things he needed to get done.

Two by two matrix labeled urgent, non urgent, and important, not important, Urgent and Important: paper due tomorrow and apply for internship by deadline. Not urgent and important: exam next week and flue shot. Urgent and Not Important: amazon sale and laundry. Not urgent and not important: check social and TV show.

The Eisenhower Matrix can help organize priorities and ensure that you focus on the correct tasks.

Eisenhower Matrix Activity

Make a list of things you need or want to do today and then draw your own version of the grid above. Write each item in one of the four squares; choose the square that best describes it based on its urgency and its importance. When you have completed writing each of the tasks in its appropriate square, you will see a prioritization order of your tasks. Obviously, those listed in the Important and Urgent square will be the things you need to finish first. After that will come things that are “important but not urgent,” followed by “not important, but urgent,” and finally “not urgent and not important.”

Who Is Driving Your Tasks?

Many of your tasks are being driven by a number of different individuals in your life. These people are likely not only unaware of the other things you need to do, but they often have goals that are in conflict with your other tasks. This means that different instructors, your manager at work, or even your friends may be trying to assert their needs into your priorities. An example of this conflict might be a boss that would like you to work a few hours of overtime, but you were planning on using that time to do research for a paper.

Taking the time to assess how others may be influencing your available time can be an important part of time management. In some cases, keeping others informed about your priorities may help avert possible conflicts (e.g., letting your boss know you will need time on a certain evening to study, letting your friends know you plan to do a journal project on Saturday but can do something on Sunday, etc.).

It will be important to be aware of how others can drive your priorities and for you to listen to your own good judgment. In essence, time management in college is as much about managing all the elements of your life as it is about managing time for class and to complete assignments.

Making the Tough Decision When It Is Needed

Occasionally, regardless of how much you have planned or how well you have managed your time, events arise where it becomes almost impossible to accomplish everything you need to by the time required. While this is very unfortunate, it simply cannot be helped. As the saying goes, “things happen.”

Finding yourself in this kind of situation is when prioritization becomes most important. You may find yourself in the uncomfortable position of only being able to complete one task or another in the time given. When this occurs with college assignments, the dilemma can be extremely stressful, but it is important to not feel overwhelmed by the anxiety of the situation so that you can make a carefully calculated decision based on the value and impact of your choice.

Priority Conflicts

As an illustration, imagine a situation where you think you can only complete one of two assignments that are both important and urgent, and you must make a choice of which one you will finish and which one you will not. This is when it becomes critical to understand all the factors involved. While it may seem that whichever assignment is worth the most points to your grade is how you make the choice, there is actually a number of other attributes that can influence your decision in order to make the most of a bad situation. For example, one of the assignments may only be worth a minimal number of points toward your total grade, but it may be foundational to the rest of the course. Not finishing it, or finishing it late, may put other future assignments in jeopardy as well. Or the instructor for one of the courses might have a late assignment policy that is more forgiving—something that would allow you to turn in the work a little late without too much of a penalty.

If you find yourself in a similar predicament, the first step is to try to find a way to get everything finished, regardless of the challenges. If that simply cannot happen, the next immediate step would be to communicate with your instructors to let them know about the situation. They may be able to help you decide on a course of action, or they may have options you had not thought of. Only then can you make the choices about prioritizing in a tough situation.

The key here is to make certain you are aware of and understand all the ramifications so you can make the best decision when the situation dictates you make a hard choice among priorities.


prioritization: the process of deciding which tasks are the most important and in what order we plan to complete them

task urgency: the degree of importance we ascribe to different tasks, a measure that helps us place them in an appropriate order