How to Decide What to Prioritize At Work

Deciding what to prioritize during work is a critical skill that every employee in any job must understand in order to excel. In my previous post,  regarding praise and criticism at work, I discussed how the coherence of priorities among members of a team results in opportunities for criticism or praise. Given that an individual’s prioritization of work tasks has direct results which other coworkers and managers evaluate, picking the correct order of priorities has high social stakes as well as obvious economic stakes.

Let’s define the term priority in the context of work. A priority is a task or collection of closely related sequential tasks which consume a worker’s time and energy resources to complete. Most workers have numerous priorities which must be completed. Priorities frequently exist in a list of importance, whether this list is explicitly stated or not– we’ll talk more about the “importance” of priorities later on. Certain priorities have dependencies on other priorities that must be completed before they can be performed; dependent priorities are often completed by a coworker.

The completion of priorities consumes the majority of an industrious worker’s time and energy spent at work, and businesses hire new employees in order to complete more priorities. The role of the manager is to assign priorities to the members of the team, and ensure that the members of the team are able to complete their priorities. Frequently, meetings are held in order to discuss which priorities are “more important” than others. Let’s unpack the concept of more important priorities versus less important priorities.

A priority is considered to be “high priority” or “more important” than other priorities if the completion of that priority is time sensitive or is a dependency of another person or group’s priority. We will define a time sensitive priority as a priority that is initiated close to its deadline. Most priorities do not fit this bill, and so there may not be a clear reason to complete one before the other.With that being said, missing or confusing the reason for arranging priorities in a certain order is a perpetual stumbling block for most employees.

Typically, employees and managers alike have only a case-by-case way of reasoning about which priorities should be completed first. I’ll try to clear this up by offering a concrete thought system for ordering priorities.

Figuring out a process to correctly determine the list of priorities requires thinking from a holistic perspective. The efficiency goal of a team is to maximize the team’s completion of high priorities; when the highest priority is completed, the next highest priority takes its place. Teams are made of individuals, and the priorities of the team are divided among the individuals in the team. For the maximum priority completion capacity of an individual team member to be met, at minimum, their priority dependencies must be completed.

If a worker’s priority dependencies are not met, they may become unable to complete a priority and instead opt to complete a different priority. If a worker can’t start on any of their priorities as a result of the dependencies not being completed, the worker is said to be blocked. If a worker is blocked, the team is wasting that worker’s time and energy resources, so organizing priorities in a way which avoids blocking is critical to a smoothly functioning team.

While dependent priorities may seem to always take the highest place on the list, there is an inherent tension between dependent priorities, time sensitive priorities, and general time management. Is it higher priority to finish writing a report by its deadline, or to proofread a coworker’s finished report so that they may start writing a new one? The answer is that it depends on how much time and other priorities you have, and also how much time and other priorities your coworker has.

A worker’s general purpose is to transmute their time and energy resources into completed priorities. Time at work is hopefully finite, and is marked by the explicit or implicit passing of deadlines. Most priorities have deadlines after which their completion will be considered discordant with expectations, likely resulting in criticism. Priority deadlines exist together simultaneously, and approach the present with equal speed regardless of the amount of resources invested. Having strong knowledge of time management and the time it takes a given worker to complete a given priority is critical.

A smart team will have a calendar with the deadlines for all of the team’s priorities as well as the individual team member priority deadlines. Having this information and mapping it out is the first step in a system for determining the most important priority.

  1. Organize all priorities onto a calendar with the deadline marked clearly. A non-calendar schedule is also fine. This organization scheme should be zoomed in to the minute, or zoomed out to the year as necessary. The more detailed and particle-sized the calendar is, the more effective it will be. A digital calendar or schedule shared by the entire team is the way to do this correctly, as a paper calendar would probably get full too quickly.
  2. Mark into the calendar or schedule who is going to devote their time to each priority. Be realistic about what each team member can do, but also recognize inertia: people in motion tend to stay in motion. An overloaded teammate making good headway is often a smarter choice for an even heavier load relative to a moderately loaded but frequently dependency stalled teammate. Time insensitive and non-dependent priorities can be left unassigned to remain as extra for whoever finishes their priorities first, but I don’t recommend it unless the team is exceptionally motivated to churn through work, which most are not. Unassigned priorities tend to fall through the cracks, so don’t set yourself up for failure by assuming someone will pick up the burden.
  3. Identify the amount of time it takes to perform each priority assuming that the priority’s dependencies are met. If you don’t have this data, I highly suggest gathering it. If you want to get fancy, you can also identify how much worker energy each priority expends per unit of time. Understanding which priorities are effort intensive can often lead to insights.
  4. Identify which priorities are dependent on the completion of other priorities. Write down exactly which other priorities need to be finished first in order to start work. Identify who is responsible for completing the dependencies, and identify if they are going to be dependent on further priorities being completed before they can unblock each other. Identify the points at which blocking is likely to happen.
  5. Identify which priorities are time sensitive. Time sensitive priorities are always close to their deadline; the affix of time sensitivity can be surreptitiously imposed by management, meaning that time sensitive priorities are not always known in advance. A priority could be time sensitive if it is a priority which is another worker’s dependency, and that worker will be stalled and unable to do any work if the priority is not finished by its deadline.
  6. Arrange priorities to eliminate blockages as much as possible. Ensure that all dependencies are completed to avoid stalling. Perfection may not be possible here. Pragmatic judgments about the harm of missing deadlines in order to maintain steady flow of priority completion will be required. Time sensitive priorities passed down from high may cause hiccups in steady flow, causing blockages– it’s best to leave some slack time between a priority’s minimum completion time and its deadline whenever possible.
  7. Assess blockages as they occur and determine whether a different ordering of priorities would prevent them. A no brainer: adjust based off of how the plan works in action. Sometimes multiple blockages can be alleviated with a single change.

I highly suggest that managers take this explicit methodology for priority ordering to heart. Conducting endless meetings to assign priorities and gather status updates on completion is one very popular (and very time-wasteful) method of ensuring the team’s priorities are ordered in the same way. Having a shared team system for picking the order of priorities reduces blockages, reduces workplace stress, and improves a team’s output.

When everyone is on the same page when it comes to priority completion, we call it good teamwork. A frequent sensation of good teamwork is the gratefulness of being handed a snack immediately before actually being hungry.

I hope you liked this article! I struggled a bit to clarify my thoughts during the final two items of the list, and I may revisit them shortly to edit. If you liked this piece, follow me on Twitter @cryoshon and if you’re feeling generous, check out my Patreon page to support me writing more articles like these!