How to get better at deprioritizing work

Last updated on 
October 21, 2020

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Most of us have felt the sting of an overwhelming workload. We’re at work and the emails won’t stop flooding in. Urgent requests are piling up, deadlines are looming, feedback is due, and meetings are imminent… and that’s without factoring in all the things we have going on in our personal lives. Deciding which tasks deserve our attention most can be stressful and overwhelming.

Deep in the pressure of the situation, we lose the mental space and perspective to weigh up what really needs to be done first – and often start on tasks that could have waited. But one of the best ways to prioritize our work and focus on what matters starts starts with recognizing what doesn’t matter. Here’s why you need to get better at deprioritizing work – and how to do it.

Why deprioritization makes sense

When we’re busy at work, with a seemingly never-ending to-do list to work through, it can be hard to step back and recognize which tasks are genuinely important. And when we have a list of jobs as long as our arm and we’re struggling to meet deadlines, it’s understandable that we try to do a bit of everything. We leap from task to task and constantly switch context, which makes us feel stressed and flustered without ever producing any tangible results.

Often, it’s the needs of others or the urgency of a task that we prioritize – whether intentionally or not, and urgent yet low-value tasks often take precedence over tasks that are actually important and meaningful. We can feel pulled in too many directions, and by trying to please everyone we often end up pleasing no-one – least of us ourselves. All this is understandable... but it’s also avoidable. Much of the work that we think is so urgent doesn’t actually require our attention at all – at least not right now – and so we need to figure out which tasks to prioritize and which to deprioritize.

Learning to deprioritize can have an enormously positive effect on your life. It can reduce stress, improve focus, boost productivity, impart a powerful sense of achievement, and improve your work-life balance. At a time when many people are struggling to adapt to working remotely and are feeling overworked, anxious, and perhaps close to burnout, there’s never been a better time to master deprioritization. So what’s the best way to do this?

How to deprioritize work

When our priorities are beginning to stack up, identifying which tasks matter most can be easier said than done. To help, we’ve outlined a quick and easy way to deprioritize:

1. Create a master list

You can’t begin to deprioritize if all your tasks are circling around aimlessly in your head. Successful deprioritization means understanding the full scope of all outstanding tasks, and the simplest way to do this is to create a master list of everything you need to do. Just the basic act of writing down what you need to do can help you feel more in control, so jot down any task that pops into your head, and note when it’s due. We’d always recommend using a task management tool to do this, as it makes it much easier to sort through all your tasks and arrange by priority.

Task management apps like Todoist are great for digitally cataloguing all your tasks

While constructing your list, you’ll probably notice that some tasks need to be done today while others don’t need to be done until the end of the week, or even month. Then there are those tasks that are part of long-term goals that might not even have a due date. It might be tempting to deprioritize these tasks, but effective deprioritization isn’t about ranking jobs according to their deadline – it’s about understanding which ones are truly worthy of your time. Which brings us onto the next point...

2. Figure out what’s important vs what’s urgent

Once you have a master list, you'll know exactly which tasks need to be done and when. The next step is ranking them. Which ones are actually important, and which are just urgent? There are a couple of different prioritization techniques you can use to separate the urgent from the important.

First, there’s the Eisenhower Principle, which maintains that we should suppress the urge to prioritize those inconsequential-yet-urgent tasks and focus on those that are truly vital for our own success. A quick way to determine whether tasks are important or urgent is to remember that important tasks usually result in us accomplishing our own aims, whereas urgent tasks might require immediate attention, but are often related to helping someone else out.

Then there’s the Pareto Principle—also known as the 80/20 rule—which recognizes that generally, 20% of all our efforts produce 80% of our results. This means that you need to understand which tasks bring you real results. To know this, you need to see how much time you spend across tasks, projects and clients, and which activities dominate your day. Gathering this information might seem complex, but if you use an automatic task tracker to collect the data, it’s pretty simple. They let you review all your daily activities clean timelines and dashboards, so you know exactly how long you spend on specific tasks, projects and clients.

Automatic trackers like Timely record all the time you spend on every task

3. Decide which tasks to deprioritize

So now you know exactly which tasks you have to do, and which are most important. There are only so many hours in the week, so now it’s time to figure out what you can remove from your list. An easy way to do this is to isolate between one and three of your most important tasks. These are going to be your priorities for the next week. This means, ultimately, that everything else can be deprioritized. Your plan is to work on the tasks that matter most. Everything else can wait.

Even if you think that you’ll have time to focus on more than three tasks, don’t be tempted to add other jobs to this list. Remember that tasks often take longer than we think, distractions are all around us, and on any given day, unexpected things come up, both at work and at home. The whole point of deprioritization is to free up more time to spend on the work that’s truly important – and to do this, you need to figure out what can be put on the back burner. Always try to aim for meaningful progress that will make a difference in the long-run, and push the busyness aside. Your time is precious, so be intentional where you choose to spend it.

Keep your team ticking

Timely automatically tracks team hours,
activity and capacity to keep remote work visible.
Lead happier, healthier teams.

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Keep your team ticking

Timely automatically tracks team hours, activity
and capacity to keep everyone connected.
Lead happier, healthier teams.

Book a demo

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