Most designers, regardless of whether you’re 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 tasks can be a real challenge. Prioritizing tasks effectively may seem to be a daunting task for new freelancers entering into the industry or getting fearful of an immense workload immediately.
Having productivity in your workday is important, but having productivity on the right tasks is what will really lead to the successful use of your time.
How to Prioritize Tasks for Work Effectively
Let’s look at 7 tips on how to prioritize tasks and the criteria for prioritizing tasks when you’re struggling with managing a creative project.
1. Respect Deadlines for Tasks
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’re behind the pace to meet a deadline, 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.
As a freelancer, you’re working as the business partner of your client and you must hold onto the responsibility of doing all the tasks in the proper time for efficient results. People who work hard and smart consider prioritizing their tasks in the most effective manner so that they can get the most out of them.
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 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’s 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 catch up.
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 tasks, consider the consequences of not getting the work done or not meeting the deadline. Chances are, there will be very 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 is dependent 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 the 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’ll be paid at various milestones throughout the project. If you’re just a small step away from reaching one of those milestones, you may want to give added priority to get 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 know what you need to be working on to keep your business functioning smoothly.
5. Consider the Time Required
There may be times when you have two or more equally urgent tasks that competing for your attention. However, although they’re equally urgent, they may not require the same amount of time to complete.
My preference is to prioritize tasks that will take less time to complete so I can get them crossed off my list and be able to focus more effectively on fewer remaining tasks.
6. Set Monthly Goals and Work Backward
Setting goals can be very helpful in 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 thought 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.
In addition, you may want to set some specific financial goals that will help to keep you motivated and on task.
7. Schedule a Percentage of Your Time for Personal Projects
There are other important tasks 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 for your career.
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 take action 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.
Additional Tips for Balancing Priorities
Tip: Manage Client Interruptions
If you’re juggling multiple clients, you can’t be constantly fielding unexpected phone calls and still get any work done. Studies show that even short interruptions can have a disastrous effect on productivity.
Interruptions can cause you to lose your train of thought, which can cause you to spend more time on your project than you intended to. In extreme cases, too many interruptions could result in missed deadlines.
Here are three ideas for minimizing phone interruptions:
- Schedule calls. Let your clients know that you only take calls by appointment. Ask them to send you an email when they need to schedule a conference call with you. Let them know that you will answer short questions through email.
- Office hours. Some freelancers dedicate an hour or two every day for client calls. If you decide to schedule open office hours, let your clients know when you are available. You can work on non-critical tasks while you wait to see if any clients will call.
- Hire a call screener. Another solution is to hire a virtual assistant to screen calls. If your clients are used to you being “on-call,” this may be the best solution. They get to speak to a live person right away and the assistant can make you aware of any true emergencies quickly.
When all else fails, if a client absolutely must have you on call, be sure to charge extra for that service.
Tip: Always Negotiate for Extra Time for Important Tasks
The fact is, despite their best efforts, most freelancers underestimate how long a project will take. That’s because estimating is tough and there are lots of variables. It’s easy for an estimate to get off track.
Before the deadlines pile up, the best way to keep from missing a deadline due to estimating error or unexpected circumstances is to ask for a little more time to complete the project than you anticipate the project will take. This gives you a buffer for the prioritized task in case something goes wrong. And if nothing does go wrong, you can always deliver the project early.
Tip: Communicate Regularly
Another important tip for juggling multiple clients and task prioritization is to keep in touch with each client regularly. That doesn’t mean that you need to overwhelm them with emails or meetings. But you should check in regularly on longer projects, especially when you reach milestones, and make sure to answer their emails promptly.
It’s also really important to communicate any problems or questions that you have. And be sure to let your client know as soon as possible if you won’t be able to deliver on time. Communicating and updating your client consistently will help your client plan for the future in a better way.
Tip: Follow the Instructions of Each Task
One of the biggest causes of client dissatisfaction is freelancers who don’t follow instructions. Now, if you’re new to freelancing you may be thinking to yourself, “I’d never do that.” But the truth is that misreading or misunderstanding a client’s instruction is very easy to do when you’re in a hurry. It’s also easy to mix up instructions between clients.
To make sure you’re on track, review all of your communications with the clients several times before you start work and during the course of the project. You should also review your work agreement. If there’s anything that seems unclear to you, ask about it.
Tip: Over Deliver for Repeat Business
The final tip for dealing with multiple clients has to do with retaining them. Unlike in a traditional job where your employer typically gives you severance pay when the relationship ends, your clients could choose to end the relationship at any time. So naturally, it’s important to keep them happy.
One way to ensure that your clients come back to you for future projects is to over-deliver. You can do this by:
- Completing the project early.
- Calling the client’s attention to information that could help them.
- Promote the project through your social media profiles.
Tip: Create a Master Task List to Help Prioritize
Having a master to-do list will help you to miss important things that need to be completed. Of course, you’ll still have to prioritize the list so you know what to do first, but having a master task list is essential for ensuring that things don’t get overlooked.
Start by writing down everything that needs to be done as part of a project, and then organize the items by what is most important and urgent. With a relatively small amount of effort, you’ll have a prioritized task list that will keep you on the right track.
Tip: Understand that Prioritizing Isn’t an Exact Science
While creating a task list is easy, perfectly prioritizing isn’t always so simple. Sometimes you’ll need to use a judgment call to prioritize project tasks. However, you’ll get better with practice and project management will take less time and effort.
Project Management Apps for Freelancers and Designers
Managing client projects is a major requirement for efficiency and for creating a positive experience for clients. Regardless of whether you freelance, work for a small agency, or work with a large team, there are a lot of details and communication involved in client projects. Having an efficient system for managing those projects is essential. Project management software can help. Here are a few of our favorites with great features for you to check out:
Final Thoughts on Prioritizing Tasks
While it’s not one of the most glamorous skills a freelancer or designer can have, being able to prioritize is a necessity. By following the tips presented in this article, you’ll have a method whenever you need to decide how to prioritize tasks at work. Remember these factors to consider when prioritizing tasks and you’ll be well on your way. Use it to make project management a strength instead of a weakness.