How to prioritise everything you need to do

You’ve got a lot on, right? And you don’t know where to start.

If you’re a regular reader (hi) you might have seen my posts on using a star chart, upping your star chart game and how a schedule helps you get things done.

But even if you do all that, you still need to prioritise. You need to know what to put on your star chart, and what needs to go on your schedule.

There are a few different ways of prioritising your “to do”s. Which one you choose will depend on what you’ve got to do, how much you’ve got to do, and how you feel about it. Have a read of the different ways you can prioritise your tasks below, pick one, and give it a shot.

These are listed in order of complexity – with the simplest being first and the most complicated being last.

Way 1: Just pick something

The simplest way. Just pick something.

Those of us with perfectionist tendencies find this really hard. Perfectionism is common amongst those with mental health issues, particularly anxiety.

The “just pick something” method is also difficult if you have trouble making decisions – autisics in particular can find decision-making hard sometimes.

However, sometimes we don’t have a choice. Sometimes we don’t have time. Sometimes we don’t have the energy to prioritise. Technically, “just pick something” isn’t actually a method of prioritising, it’s a way of taking away that decision-making load so you can use your energy to actually do the task.

If you just pick something, you can get started. Even if it’s not the most important thing. Often, if you choose something less important, like tidying, it gives you the momentum to do something more important later on, like paying a bill.

You also get the feeling of achievement. It might not be as intense as when you do a bigger or more important task but it’s better than nothing. And sometimes “better than nothing” is all we can manage.

Way 2: The ABC method

My accountability partner taught me this one! On your “to-do” list (if you have one), assign each task A, B or C.

A is Absolutely must be done today.

B is Be nice if it got done.

C is Can wait.

You do your “A” tasks first, then the “B” ones and the “C” ones get done if you’ve got time.

This is a great technique if you like simplicity but feel you need to prioritise a bit, rather than simply picking something and doing it.

It’s quick, it’s simple and it forces you to focus – which is useful if you have ADHD!

Way 3: Using a priority matrix

You’ve probably seen one of these before. It looks like this:

A priority matrix. There is a cross in the middle. The top point is marked “Urgent” and the bottom is marked “Not urgent”. On the left is “Unimportant” and on the right is “Important.”

You grab your list of what you need to do (or just think of your tasks if you don’t have your “to do” list written down), and write the tasks on the matrix according to how urgent and important they are.

You can write them anywhere on the matrix – you may have two important and urgent tasks, for example, but one is slightly more important and the other is more urgent.

Here are some examples.

The things you need to do first are in the urgent and important section. The most obvious examples of urgent and important tasks are ones where you will suffer financially if you don’t get it done now. So paying bills will go here, or finishing work you promised to a client. You might also have something like making a medical appointment or doing a favour for a friend (not everything is about money!)

Something that is urgent but unimportant might be to book yourself on to a course. It’s urgent, because you have to book it before the course starts, but it’s not particularly important because if you miss it, there’s another one in a few months. You could also have something like buying a new printer – it needs replacing now but it’s not vital, because you have alternatives.

Something that is important but not urgent could be to fill in a form that doesn’t need to be in for another month. Or you might have a longer term project that you want to get started on, and there’s no particular deadline. Finding new suppliers could also go here, or networking.

Finally, we have the unimportant and not urgent section. Work you end up doing for other people can go in here – fulfilling a favour you promised in a moment of weakness that won’t actually benefit you. Perhaps a project you aren’t that excited about and are not even sure if it will pay off. This stuff should get done last, and you may find that you don’t end up doing it at all.

A priority matrix can be a really useful way of clarifying what actually needs doing, and also what needs doing first.

You can download a priority matrix here. (A4, pdf)

Way 4: Using a benefits and consequences “to do” list

I developed this “benefits and consequences” technique during therapy. I still use a benefits and consequences worksheet for myself and my clients to help in making decisions, and I realised you could use it for a “to do” list as well!

It’s fairly simple and like the matrix above, it helps to clarify your thoughts around the tasks you have to do. It’s especially useful for people with ADHD who tend to be driven by instant rewards. If there’s no instant reward, they can use this list to see how they will avoid future punishment, which is sometimes more motivating!

You begin by writing down your tasks. Then you write out the benefits of doing each one and the consequences of not doing each one.

A “to do” list with columns for “Task”, “Benefits” and “Consequences”

So for example, task one might be “Phone Rob”. The benefit of it might be that he can find you more clients. The consequence of not doing it could be minor (you could find clients elsewhere) or major (you could run out of clients). Fairly straightforward.

Let’s look at another example. Your next task is to “Pay your tax bill.” There’s very little reward here! You have to watch money leave your account, it’s boring and you don’t feel good about doing it. So let’s fill in the consequence of not doing it. You will have it hanging over your head, you will get a snotty letter from HMRC, you might get fined. And you’ll still have to pay it!

You might find you suffer emotional consequences from not doing something as well, particularly if you have ADHD or a mental health issue. You could find yourself anxious about doing it and the anxiety gets worse the longer you put it off. And that anxiety can seep into other areas of your life, or come out in weird ways, like when you get angry at nothing.

Using a benefits and consequences list for your tasks helps you bring clarity to your “to do” list, particularly with seeing the rewards and punishments that come with doing (or procrastinating with) each task.

You can download a benefits and consequences list here. (A4, pdf)

Way 5: Listing your tasks, ranking them by importance and fun

“To do” lists often include how important something is but not how much fun a task is.

If you have ADHD, “eating the frog” (doing the most difficult task first) doesn’t always work. In fact, it sometimes doesn’t work even if you don’t have ADHD! You can try but you end up procrastinating and not getting anything done, because the difficult task makes you so anxious.

So sometimes, doing the fun stuff first can help. It gets the momentum going so you can build on it. It can get you excited about your work and projects too. Motivation comes from doing, not thinking about stuff, so the sooner you can actually do something, the better.

This is where the fun and important list comes in.

You list your tasks, then you assign each two numbers. One is for how fun a task is, and the other is for how important it is. I rank them out of 5, but you can choose your own system. 5 is good because it’s quick and easy and it doesn’t matter if two items have the same number.

“To do” list – with columns headed “Task”, “Fun”, and “Importance”

You can also rank them in reverse order if it makes more sense to you (ie number 1 is the most fun or important).

Look over your list. You should find a few tasks that are both fun and important. These are the ones you start with, then you can move onto less fun, or less important.

I use this one for the big lists I make that are to do with each project. I list the tasks for each project on different coloured paper (colours make it easier to see at a glance what bit of paper is for which project) then rank them by fun and importance. For these project tasks, none are particularly urgent, which is why this way works.

You can download a “to do” list with importance and fun columns here. (A4, pdf)

If you want to step it up a bit, you can do the same list but estimate the time for each task, then track the actual time it took. Estimating the time means you have an idea of what project task you can do in the time you have available, and it also helps with getting a few of those 5-minute tasks done.

Tracking the time it actually took and comparing it to the estimated time is incredibly useful, especially if you’re time blind (which you will be if you have ADHD). You will be able to see if you’re consistently over-estimating or under-estimating the time it takes you to do things. This will help you plan better in the future.

You can download a “to do” list with fun and importance columns, plus estimated time and actual time columns, here. (A4, pdf)

Way 6: Calculating importance, fun, and time taken

This is the most complicated way of planning and prioritising what you’ve got to to, and will appeal to you if you’re autistic and/or you just like spending more time planning than actually doing work!

It is very similar to Way 5 above, but with more fiddling about with the numbers. This is enjoyable and relaxing for some people, which is a good way to start! Also, it brings much more clarity to a list if you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed. Not so overwhelmed you can’t think about it (if that’s the case, Way 1 is for you) but if you feel sorting stuff out would help you think clearly and approach your tasks more carefully.

Complex “to do” list with columns for task, fun, importance, estimated time, task number, and actual time.

So with this one, you start by writing your task in, then ranking it out of fun and importance, like in Way 5. But – this is really important – you have to do it in reverse order for this one, or it doesn’t work.

So 1 is the most fun. 5 is the least fun

1 is the most important. 5 is the least important.

Then you estimate how long the task will take, in minutes. You write this in the third column.

You now have 3 numbers. You add these together and put them in the Task number box.

You start with the lowest number on the list, then work you way up. By doing this, you will have sorted your tasks so you’re doing the most fun, the most important and the quickest, first.

So the most fun and the quickest help to build your motivation, and the importance brings that sense of accomplishment.

There’s a final column too – that’s the actual time taken for the task. As in Way 5, this helps you to see if you’re over- or under-estimating the time you need for each task, and it will help you plan your time better for future tasks.

You can download the complex “to do” list here. (A4, pdf)

Prioritising everything you have to do

I have always had difficulty prioritising what I need to do, and I find using one or more of the ways above really helps. I actually enjoy the planning side of it – and not just because it puts off the tasks that I don’t want to do!

Planning and prioritising like this brings clarity to what I need to do, which helps reduce anxiety, and helps me get motivated as well.

But all of us need to remember – motivation doesn’t come from doing. It comes from action.

Good luck!

If you need more help getting stuff done, drop me an email.

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