In the bustling environment of today’s workplaces, knowing which tasks to tackle first in your day or week can be a challenge. While sometimes a team lead or resource manager may be responsible for assigning tasks and prioritizing the work, some developers find themselves in a situation where they have little organizational guidance and are left to prioritize work on their own.
A haphazard approach can result in missed deadlines, elevated stress, and lackluster work. So, how can you optimize your task list for peak efficiency? My friend, you need task management techniques. Let’s explore the principles of prioritizing tasks based on urgency, importance, and estimated time duration. We’ll also discuss context, real world examples, and some helpful tools.
Distinguish Between Urgency and Importance
While every task that comes your way might seem equally crucial at first glance, that’s seldom the case. Understanding the difference between urgency and importance is foundational in effective task management.
Urgent tasks are those that require immediate attention. These are the ‘do it now’ tasks, often tied to a deadline. They may or may not align with your long-term goals, but they can’t be put off.
Important tasks are those that contribute to your long-term mission, values, and goals. These might not need to be tackled immediately, but they are essential for long-term success.
Use the Urgent-Important Matrix (sometimes called the Eisenhower Box) to categorize tasks and determine their correct priority. This method divides tasks into four categories:
- Important and Urgent
- These tasks should be of highest priority because there is a deadline (they need to be completed fast) but their completion are also important or necessary to the larger objective.
- Important and Not Urgent
- These are tasks whose purpose or contribution is important to the larger objective or scope of work but do not have urgency. Either they do not have a deadline at all or the deadline is a way off, giving you ample time to plan, prepare, and complete.
- Not Important and Urgent
- These tasks that are not that important to the larger scope of work but have an urgent deadline. Often these are tasks that were set aside originally to work on higher priority tasks but now the deadline is quickly approaching and need to be completed.
- Not Important and Not Urgent
- All other tasks fall into this category.
Here is an example of the matrix:
|Important||Important and Urgent tasks||Important and Not Urgent tasks|
|Not Important||Not Important and Urgent tasks||Not Important and Not Urgent tasks|
You can create your own matrix using a spreadsheet like Microsoft Excel or Google Sheets or take advantage of software that offers Kanban boards. These allow you to easily sort your tasks into columns, add details, move them around with ease, and mark when completed. Here is an example using the free version of Trello but you can do the same with Asana and others. I adjusted the column names slightly but the concept behind the display is the same.
By categorizing tasks within this matrix, you can address the tasks that require immediate attention. Then schedule time to work on the significant yet less urgent tasks. If at any time you are unsure how to categorize a task, reach out to your team lead or supervisor for guidance or insight.
Estimate Time Duration
It is pivotal for your decision-making to know how long a task will take to complete. However, if you are new to your role or new tasks are being sent your way, it may take practice and patience to become good at estimating time duration. A good rule of thumb is to figure out the most ideal estimate, the worst estimate, and then choose a logical middle estimate that has a little bit of buffer for the unforeseeable delays. When in doubt, ask a more senior member of your team or your team lead for a typical average.
Then you can prioritize based on how much time a task is likely to take to complete.
Short tasks can sometimes be tackled in between larger projects or during mental breaks. They can offer a sense of achievement and momentum.
Long tasks require dedicated blocks of time. By estimating the duration it will take to complete, you can better allocate appropriate slots in your schedule, ensuring you remain focused and efficient.
If you find yourself losing focus during a larger block of focused time, give the Pomodoro Technique a try. It involves short bursts of concentrated work followed by a short break, to help manage time effectively. Use a timer to break your work into intervals, typically 25 minutes in length.
In between these work intervals, take short mental breaks. You can use that break to reply to an email, do some stretching, or take a bathroom break. For tasks requiring deeper concentration, a short walk post-interval can reinvigorate your focus.
Re-evaluate and Adjust
Priorities can and will shift.
Yes, it can be frustrating when you are working hard and you receive a major change. A task that was deemed vital one week might become redundant the next. A project you are a part of may pivot and go in a completely different direction, changing the tasks you are responsible for or the urgency/importance of tasks you already planned for.
Life is unpredictable. As the late businessman and author, Phil Crosby, said, “If anything is certain, it is that change is certain.” Though task management attempts to plan a few days or week ahead, you need to prepare for possible changes.
Regularly reassessing your task list and the status of the large projects they are attached to ensures you meet your milestones, stay aligned with your goals, and can adapt to changing circumstances.
Consider Task Dependencies
When prioritizing, one area that can be easily overlooked is task dependencies. Some tasks might be contingent on the completion of others. Mapping out these dependencies can provide a clear pathway, ensuring tasks are tackled in the right order and at the right time.
Utilize Task Management Technology
There are a plethora of tools to assist in prioritizing your tasks. From a simple handwritten to-do list to enterprise-level work management software like Jira, Monday.com, and FunctionFox and the wide variety of task management tools like Trello, Asana, and Todoist in between.
First, you should see what tools and software are available to you through your employer. Many organizations have specific tools they have paid to use and there may be internal processes you should follow.
Second, if your company does not have a task management tool or software available, investigate some free or low cost options you can trial. This will allow you to see what technology is useful and build a business case you can present to your manager for wider adoption of the tool.
Whatever method or tool you use, modern technology can help you prioritize and manage tasks more efficiently than the handwritten to do lists. They also provide a record of your work activities that can be presented to team leads, managers, or help you glean important information to add to your resume.
While it’s tempting to jump into tasks as they come, taking a step back to prioritize can result in increased productivity, reduced stress, and a clearer pathway to achieving both short-term and long-term project objectives and your own goals. By focusing on urgency, importance, and the time duration, you can create an optimized task list tailored to success. Considering task dependencies, utilizing technology and being prepared for changes will also help you re-evaluate and pivot when needed.
Until next time, let your task management shine! ✨
If you enjoyed this guide to task management, check out A Developer’s Guide to Better Work Habits for more best practice tips.