7 Tips for Prioritizing Tasks Effectively

Most designers, regardless of whether you are self employed or an employee, have a to-do list full of all kinds of different tasks that are fighting for attention. It may include finalizing a project for one client, working on an estimate for another client, responding to emails, recording payments and working on financials, etc. With so many different things going on and a to-do list that likely includes tasks related to several different projects, knowing how to effectively prioritize can be a real challenge.

Having productivity in your work day is important, but having productivity on the right tasks is what will really lead to a successful use of your time. In this article we’ll look at 7 tips that may be of help to you when struggling with knowing what to work on next.

7 Tips for Prioritizing Tasks Effectively

1. Respect Deadlines

When working for clients the most obvious factor that determines priority and urgency is the deadline. If your project has a deadline approaching or if you are behind the pace to meet a deadline in the future, the work should have some added urgency. Meeting deadlines is an important part of giving your clients a positive experience working with you, and most designers understand the need to use deadlines in prioritizing work.

2. Set Milestone Deadlines

If a client project only has a deadline for completion of the project, make an effort to break down the work that is needed to complete the project and put it into a few different steps or parts. Assign each part with a deadline to hit a certain milestone that will allow you to move on to the next step, and use these self-imposed deadlines to help with prioritizing. This way rather than just seeing the final deadline, which may seem like it is far off into the future, you’ll have a clear understanding of the smaller steps involved in the project and what you need to do now in order to stay on pace.

These milestone deadlines that you set for yourself may not even need to be shared with the client, they can be used just to help you stay on track and to view the big picture of the project. Staying on pace with a project can also have an impact on everything else that you are working on. If one project gets off track you may need to dedicate extra time to getting caught up, which of course takes time away from your other projects. So staying on course will allow you to prioritize effectively, rather than being forced to dedicate your time to certain things because you’re behind.

3. Consider the Consequences

Most likely there will be times where you’re not sure how you’re going to be able to get everything done. If you have several different things that are pressing for your attention and you’re not sure how to prioritize, consider the consequences of not getting the work done or not meeting the deadline. Chances are, there will be much different consequences from one task to the next.

For example, you may have a client project that would be disastrous if you can’t meet the deadline. Maybe the client has other things, such as a marketing campaign, that are dependant upon you getting your work done by a specific date. On the other hand, you may have a client project that has an upcoming deadline, but there really are no significant consequences if it falls a little behind schedule.

Another factor to consider is your relationship with the client. If it’s a client that you have worked with for a while and have always met deadlines, they may be more understanding if you’re struggling to meet a deadline (depending on the situation). Or you may have a situation where you’re working with a new client and hoping to get more work or referrals in the future from this client. In this case, your relationship with the client may be important enough to shuffle things around to get the work done.

4. Consider Payment Terms

You’ll also want to take into consideration the impact that a task will have on getting paid. You may have a project where you will be paid at various milestones throughout the project. If you are just a small step away from reaching one of those milestones you may want to give added priority to getting it done and getting paid.

Likewise, there may be a situation where a client has already paid for your services and you just need to complete the work. Completing this client’s work may take priority since they have already paid for your time.

If you’re a freelancer you’ll always need to be considering your cash flow situation. So taking into consideration the situation with money and how/when payment will be made will help you to know what you need to be working on to keep your business functioning smoothly.

5. Consider Time Required

There may be times when you have two or more equally urgent tasks that are competing for your attention. However, although they are equally urgent they may not require the same amount of time to complete. My preference is to prioritize the tasks that will take less time to complete so that I can get it crossed off my list and be able to focus more effectively on the remaining tasks.

6. Set Monthly Goals and Work Backwards

Setting goals can be very helpful for determining what needs to go on your to-do list. This process is made a little bit easier if you take a look at the big picture before setting your to-do list for a particular day. Try starting with monthly goals of what needs to be done. Then look at the specific actions or tasks that need to be done in order to reach this goal. For the first week of the month take the most urgent actions, those with deadlines and those that are foundational for other tasks, and put them onto a to-do list for the week. Then you can plan your week more effectively by splitting them up and setting certain things that need to get done each day.

This can be a much more effective way of prioritizing tasks than simply trying to decide what to work on for a particular day without really giving much though to the big picture. With weekly and monthly to-do lists in addition to a daily list you’ll be able to see how each task impacts the other things on your list, and priorities tend to clearly emerge.

7. Schedule a Percentage of Your Time for Personal Projects

There are other tasks that are important aside from just working on client projects. Things like working through tutorials, reading a book on a topic that you’d like to learn more about, re-designing your portfolio site, maintaining a blog, etc. often get pushed to the back burner because they don’t seem to have the same urgency as other things on your to-do list. In the long run though, these types of personal projects and opportunities for development or improvement are very important.

The best way to make sure that you get time to work on these things is to prioritize them by setting aside time in your schedule. You can decide that you’ll dedicate 10% of your time (or some other amount) to working on projects like this, and set aside time each week to do something for your own improvement. If you don’t set aside the time, most likely you won’t get around to it since other things will always come up.

What’s Your Experience

If you have any tips about prioritizing from your own experience please share them in the comments.

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19 Responses

Comments are now closed on this post.

  • Steven Snell, April 18, 2012

    Hi Philip,
    Thanks for your feedback. This article isn’t intended to be a step-by-step approach, it’s more about basic principles that can help to make better use of your time. I think your approach would definitely help most people.

  • Philip Goh, April 18, 2012

    Article is good but still too complex to implement. A simple method can be just these:

    step 1) Make all the To do List (important and least important ones, business and families) This list can be very long if you have many things to do.

    step 2) List 3 Criteria : Urgent can complete in 1 hr, Important-can complete in 2 hours, 5-Minutes Tasks

    step 3) Stike out those that does not comply with the 3 criteria, while classify with colored pen or Stars on the above 3 separate criteria.

    step 4) Do the “5-minutes” first…. then do the Urgent, 1 hr, then do the Important 2 hrs.. That’s your Today’s Tasks prioritized.

    Repeat the next day.. and in no time, your works all completed.

    Hope this helps, it works for me.

    mec Engineers

  • Chris Diamond, September 16, 2011

    Wow, I like tip 6 with the monthly goals and working backwards. But it would be better if it is 1 year goal, and working backwards. The bigger the length of time, the more space you allow integrate the thing into your life.

    If you are having an online business, but you like to prioritize things around it, check out this article: http://doubletimetoday.com/get-organized/prioritizing-your-online-business/

    Thanks for sharing!

  • jydemaestro, May 8, 2011

    Thanks for the article, it’s really a handy help. Thanks a lot!

  • A London Web Designer, April 24, 2011

    The final bit about scheduling time for personal projects is a very helpful tip for any freelancers out there. I personally set aside 4 hours a week for personal projects, which always helps keep my passion for web design healthy.

  • Jatin, April 24, 2011

    I always got mess-ed up with dead-lines. Not only me, many members of my team have the same things.

    Dead-lines make us go crazy. In past, we almost missed dead-lines on most of our projects or tasks. But now condition have brighten up.

    IMHO, I would suggest everyone to respect dead-lines.

    BTW, Great article.

  • LKenneth, April 24, 2011

    If I don’t have any deadlines I wont get anything done lol time keeping is essential

  • Cari Duit Blogmaster, April 23, 2011

    Writing a list of task sounds a great idea. But to actually proritize it is a problem to me. Setting the deadline and punish yourself if fails, is my approach to it.
    By punish yourself i didn’t mean treat yourself an ice cream :-)

  • IntelliSites Web Design, April 22, 2011

    Nice Douglas Adams quote Andy.

    Unfortunately most designers don’t have the prestige that Douglas Adams had, so blowing off deadlines is a much less feasible business practice. To-Do lists are incredibly useful, no matter what you’re doing, but with design, they need to be at just about every level. And as mentioned, they need to be well thought out, realistic, and most importantly, followed.

    Great post, I’ll make sure our PMs get a copy!

  • Nathan, April 22, 2011

    i like point 7. personal projects help to love what you do.

  • Kayla Knight, April 21, 2011

    Often times I feel like I know *how* to prioritize tasks (at least better than I used to), but my problem is just a matter of following through with getting them done in that order. Often times, a more interesting project, even if lower on the list, grabs my attention and distracts me pretty quickly. :P That’s a separate issue though, of course. Great article, well thought out and a lot of great tips!

  • Vandelay Website Design, April 21, 2011

    No doubt, reading too many blogs can suck up a lot of your time. In my opinion, that’s more an issue of productivity than prioritizing though.

  • Tim, April 21, 2011

    Tip #1 should be “Stop reading blogs and do your work!”

  • Roberto Blake, April 21, 2011

    This is a great and well thought out article. Time management is one of the biggest barriers for most designers to overcome, and often it is the key to advancing one’s career.

  • Andy @ FirstFound, April 21, 2011

    I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they fly by

  • Elly, April 21, 2011

    I’ve been struggling with “mental mess” and procrastination for years. I’ve just entered into an online course which forces me to prioritize actions and urges me to act. I don’t know if this course works in the long run but I feel I’m starting to understand and to better behave.
    Your article is important because it tells me clearly some fact I usually don’t (want to) see and consider. Thanks also for the article about Time management tools: I never thought about using any tool, apart my paper and electronic agenda. I didn’t even know how many tools have been created about it.