Let’s talk priorities. Because (obviously) they’re really important. But specifically, I want to talk about an #adulting skill that nobody ever really teaches you but that you’re expected to do: prioritize. Even more specifically, I want to talk about how to prioritize your never-ending to-do list of important things that must get done. How do you know where to start? This is a topic that I have really struggled with in the past and it effected both my personal life and my career until I was able to get it all in check. Not everything is a top priority.
I personally love making lists. They calm my brain and my nerves because there is something about putting everything down on paper just makes the world feel a little less intimidating; writing it all down also somehow makes me feel a little more capable, too. Something about putting words to all the things swimming around in my brain gives me confidence and motivation to accomplish them. You know?
So the question then becomes: how do I distinguish the differing importance between two important things?
But seriously though, I can usually identify what’s important but how do I know what’s most important? How do I put those things in order?
How to prioritize when everything feels important.
So many successful people talk about the importance of prioritizing and how it’s such a necessary skill in being able to get things done. But I’m over here, nodding my head, like yes yes yes. Okay totally. I agree, but the question is: HOW? How do I actually prioritize when literally everything feels (and seems) super important? I clearly can’t do it all at once. Even though I still struggle with this, I’ve learned a lot along the way. So here is exactly what I do when I need to figure out how to prioritize my overwhelming list of things to do, step-by-step.
Take a deep breath.
First things first, let’s chill out a second, okay? It’s all going to be okay. We’ll get through this, I promise. I know that is easier said than done but take that first deep breath, it is a starting point.
I know the feeling of having a list of 3,687 things that NEED to be done like yesterday (and they’re all important) so please, if you haven’t taken that deep breath yet do it NOW. I feel overwhelmed by my to-do list and ideas on the regular but stopping to remind myself that it’ll be OK always helps. Always. Talk to yourself if you need to. But don’t underestimate the power in taking a long, deep, intentional breath; it can do more for you (your brain and body!) than you realize.
I get that not feeling overwhelmed is easier said than done (I should know), but if you don’t take a second to get yourself out of there, you’ll likely end up paralyzed by your to-do list to the point where you won’t get anything done. Know what I mean? So just stop for a second, take a deep breath and remember it’ll all be OK. You’ve got this.
Brain dump: put all your thoughts on paper.
One of my favorite things to do when I’m feeling overwhelmed is to do a good ‘ole brain dump .You have heard me talk about this time and time again. Because I’m addicted and do them all the time.
If you don’t know what a brain dump is, it’s pretty much exactly what it sounds like – it’s taking pen to paper and getting all of your thoughts OUT of your brain. It’s a release and it’s also you facing facts. It’s taking everything you’re worrying about, questioning, feeling and needing to do, and putting it somewhere that you can actually look at them.
Get your journal (it’s better to write than type), cozy up on the couch and get ALL THE THINGS out of your brain and onto the page. In the next step I’ll tell you what to do with it but for now, just write write write. Don’t censor yourself or write down what you wish you were thinking. Just be honest with yourself, write down anything that pops up and don’t judge yourself for any of it.
If you’ve never tried one before, I promise you’ll be hooked after the first one (there’s something so therapeutic about getting everything out of your head). I break down how to do a brain dump in detail in this post .
Categorize the brain dump.
Once you’ve got everything out of your brain and onto paper, the next step is to categorize your tasks. This will help you figure out what needs to be done immediately, what needs to be scheduled, what can be delegated and what can be flat out deleted.
What you want to do is look over all the things you’ve written down and either use a different colored highlighter for each category or rewrite your list into the four groups so you can see things clearly. And deleting as much as you possibly can is ALWAYS a good productivity tip, so don’t be afraid to cross off things that won’t help move you closer to your goals (and sometimes you just have to be ruthless).
Prioritize the important.
This is the hardest part – figuring out what to do when you’ve got A LOT in the “not urgent but still important” category. As I was saying before, knowing how to distinguish different levels of importance can be challenging and no one’s really telling us how to prioritize it. What I share below is my process for figuring out what’s most important.
Th area that I tend to spend the most time in are the tasks that are not urgent but important. They’re the ones that help you achieve your most important goals and have to do with relationships, planning, and self-improvement. Basically, they’re all the things you want to be doing in your life but haven’t got around to yet (because they’ve never been urgent!).
Here are some examples of activities that fall into that section, dependent on your lifestyle:
- Getting enough sleep
- Going for a morning walk
- Working on your side hustle
- Spending time with family and friends
- Spending time alone/reflecting
- Listening to a podcast
- Getting your life organized
So the question remains – how to figure out which of these things to do first? Again, take a deep breath and then have a look over your list and start assessing the value of each task. Let’s be real – everything on your list isn’t going to get you the same result. There are some things on that list that will make a huuuge difference in your life and some that will only change it a little bit. For example, making sure you get enough sleep each night is going to have a much bigger impact on your life than listening to a podcast (even though I love podcasts ) because if you’re not looking after your health then everything else suffers.
Looking at the value of each task is super important (because what’s the point of doing stuff if it doesn’t get you to your goals??) so what I suggest is go through your list and give each item a 1 if it’s just a nice-to-have all the way up to a 10 if it would be completely life-changing (if you can’t tell yet, we’re basically just refining that first list you wrote again and again and again until it’s not overwhelming). And if you think everything on your list would be life-changing, remind yourself that it’s better to focus on a couple of things rather than attempting all of them at once. Try not to give two or more things the same rating if you can avoid it.
When you’re figuring out how to prioritize the important stuff, it’s also good to consider how long things will take, whether you have other people depending on you, deadlines etc. I recommend going back over your list again (ha!) and make sure that the items you scored as a 10 are the ones that are the most impactful AND make the most sense when you consider the time and effort involved as well as other people (but having said that… it’s important you’re not just living your life to please others).
Put tasks in order.
I don’t recommend working from your messy, color-coded brain dump; that’s NOT going to help with the overwhelming feelings. In order to prioritize the list, we’ve got to sort through it a bit, reorder some things, assign different weights to others, and so on. The key to figuring out how to prioritize your forever-long brain dump is to write a new, fresh list. Stay with me, friends.
Once you’ve got everything in order, write a new list of the things you’re going to do based on the ratings you gave each. Be sure to keep your list short and make sure each of the tasks you want to do is specific (this helps with planning).
If there are any unimportant tasks that landed onto your lists, cross them off ASAP. We can tend to those later. Challenge yourself to focus on just the important items.
Run over your list and make sure you feel good and confident (about the importance of) everything that’s on there. Easier said than done, but it’s best to do this before you’ve started any of the work, not after. Go through each item and be honest with the reason why it is on the list and ask yourself what makes it important and why. Make sure that none of the tasks you’re doing are coming from a place of fear or a desire to people-please.
Strive for progress over perfection.
To-do lists are a place where perfectionism can flare up (in a BIG way) and you might feel like you need to have everything perfectly prioritized before you can get started. Or that you need to do everything for it to be worth it.
But I know for sure that it’s better to be doing something imperfectly than to not being doing it at all. Strive for progress, not perfection. And remember that none of us have our lives perfectly organized – I wish!
Related: How to overcome the pressure to be perfect.
What about you?
How do you figure out what’s most important?
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