When your to-do list is miles long, it’s difficult to know what to tackle first. But I’ve discovered a secret—actually 5 of them—that will take prioritizing your pages long to-do list from impossible to totally manageable. Read on to learn how to prioritize your to-do list by asking 5 simple questions!
How to Prioritize Your To-Do List by Asking 5 Questions
Prioritizing tasks is difficult on a good day. When looking at a to-do list that is pages long, prioritizing becomes almost impossible!
But by asking yourself a few questions you can whittle that overwhelming to-do list down to the tasks that are most urgent right now.
This strategy also helps you to make time for tasks that move you toward achieving your big goals and that support your highest values. We often push these tasks aside, because they don’t have looming deadlines.
Before we talk about how to prioritize your to-do list by asking 5 questions, let’s talk about the difference between urgent and important tasks. This distinction will help you to use the 5 questions more effectively!
Important vs. Urgent Tasks
Urgent tasks are inherently reactionary. They often have an external deadline and create anxiety. You probably feel the need to address these items ASAP even if it means deviating from your established plan or schedule. Urgent tasks are things like answering or returning phone calls, emails, and texts.
Important tasks help you to make progress on or achieve your goals. They allow you to honor your highest values and help you to create the life you desire. Important tasks on your to-do list might include finishing up that email marketing class you purchased, decluttering and organizing the basement, or connecting with your kiddos after school.
Now that we’ve made the distinction between urgent and important tasks, let’s jump into the questions and how to prioritize your to-do list with them!
Question #1: What MUST Be Done Today/This Week?
The first question to ask yourself when prioritizing your task list is: What MUST be done today (or this week)?
The answer to this question will highlight your urgent tasks and make sure you don’t miss any impending deadlines.
I MUST publish my clients’ social media posts (or they’ll fire me and rightly so). I MUST pay the electric bill that’s due today (or they’ll turn off my service). I MUST take my car in for an oil change (or it will break down).
I try to list NO MORE THAN 3 tasks under this question. Otherwise, I immediately get overwhelmed and this process falls apart.
This question probably isn’t that big of a secret. 😉
You likely do this on a daily basis whether you’re aware of it or not. But I mention it because it’s the first step toward prioritizing your to-do list.
Where this process really gets fun is with the next few questions that you probably don’t ask regularly!
Learn how to write a more effective task list in this post: How to Write a Better To-Do List and Actually Get Your To-Do’s Done!
Question #2: What Can I Do This Morning/Afternoon to Make My Day Go More Smoothly?
This question helps you to proactively anticipate urgent tasks with longer deadlines. More importantly, it highlights tasks that will make your life easier if they’re completed sooner rather than later.
My day will be less stressful if I complete the following tasks this morning:
- Prepare for and pack up everything I need for my meetings this afternoon.
- Make a menu plan and grocery list (because I’m grocery shopping after my meetings).
- And straighten the house before I leave for my meetings.
With these items completed, I’m prepared for my meetings and grocery shopping, and when I come home late this evening, it will be to a clean house.
If I hadn’t asked myself this question I would have:
- Left meeting prep for right before I left the house. Then, I would have been stressed and distracted on my way to and during my meetings.
- Skipped making a menu plan and grocery list and straightening the house for more urgent tasks. Then, after my meetings, I would have blown off grocery shopping and grabbed fast food for dinner. Or I’d have menu planned and made a grocery list in the grocery store parking lot. After shopping, I’d have stumbled in the door hours later than planned, and been met with a messy house.
What a difference asking one simple question made in my day!
By being proactive and completing tasks that will make your day go more smoothly, you can avoid adding to your stress level. The above tasks weren’t even on my radar until I went through my questions. But they made ALL the difference in the quality of my day!
You can take this process even further by asking two more “things going more smoothly” questions.
Question #3: What Can I Do TODAY to Make the Week Go More Smoothly?
Asking this question expands the reach of your task anticipation. Instead of focusing only on today, you identify tasks to complete that will help your entire week go more smoothly!
By asking this question I took note of the fact that I have an all-day training on Friday, and that we’re having guests for dinner on Friday night.
Instead of falling behind on my daily home and business tasks, then experiencing a moment of panic as I leave my training because we have no food or beverages to serve our Friday night guests, I can plan for these tasks ahead of time.
- Complete my Friday home and business tasks over the next few days (and get more out of my training as a result).
- Add the food and beverage items I need for Friday night to my grocery list and buy them today after my meetings instead of at the last minute.
- Work extra time into my schedule on Thursday afternoon to clean the house before I leave for my training on Friday morning (and threaten my kids with months of hideous chores if they make a mess…buuuuut that’s a topic for another day). 😉
Again, by asking myself a few questions, I avoided added stress and frustration!
Proactively prepare for the week ahead with the tips in this post: 6 Things To Do on Sunday for the Best Work Week EVER!
Question #4: What Can I Do THIS WEEK to Make the Month Go More Smoothly?
This is the final “things going more smoothly” question. It’s also one of the more difficult, because you can’t always anticipate what your schedule will look like far in advance. But that doesn’t mean you can’t try to prepare ahead of time.
When I asked myself this question, I checked the calendar and was reminded that my oldest daughter and her boyfriend are coming for a week-long visit at the end of the month. I was so focused on the tasks right in front of me that it slipped my mind.
There are a few things I need and want to do before they arrive:
- Buy a new set of guest sheets and towels.
- Work buying a new set of guest sheets and towels into the budget.
- Deep clean the guest room and guest bathroom.
- Get ahead of my work load so that I can take some time off during their visit.
- Talk to my husband and two younger kids about taking time off during their visit.
- Plan a grocery run for right before they arrive.
- Complete a thorough cleaning of the rest of our house.
Consciously asking myself this final “things going more smoothly” question will make preparations more manageable and make my daughter and her boyfriend’s visit more fun, because the work will be done ahead of time and I won’t be exhausted!
Pretty nifty, huh?!
There’s one more question that rounds out this strategy for how to prioritize your to-do list, and I dare say it’s the most crucial of the five!
Question #5: What Are a Few Things I WANT To Do Today/This Week?
You know the saying, “All work and no play makes [insert your name here] burn out faster than a match when lighting a three-wick candle!”
Okay, that’s not exactly how the saying goes, but you get my point. 🙂
Being a spouse, parent, grocery shopper, chef, house cleaner, chauffeur, launderer, and business owner require a lot of energy and a ton of time. It’s incredibly important to include a few just-for-fun tasks when prioritizing your to-do list!
Sometimes my idea of fun is a two-hour block of uninterrupted blog time. At other times I just want to sit on my butt and read a good book. And then there are days when all I want to do is journal or nap, take a bubble bath or drink a bottle of wine.
Whatever your idea of fun, make sure you include nurturing tasks in your schedule each week. Otherwise, you’ll crash and burn!
Putting It All Together
Okay, so I’ve answered my 5 questions, but what do I actually do with that information?
You’ll develop a unique process for this as you work with the questions, but here’s how I make a plan with the tasks from each question.
My “must do” tasks go at the top of my task list.
I try to tackle those first thing, because I get a burst of energy knowing that there aren’t any MUST do tasks hanging over my head.
One exception to this are tasks like errands. I knew I was going to be out and about this afternoon for my meetings, so I planned to get my car’s oil changed after my meetings and before grocery shopping.
Review items from questions #2 and #3 and Schedule Want To Do Activity/ies
The next step is to review the tasks I wrote under questions #2 and #3 (the tasks to complete this morning and today).
I make sure that these tasks actually need to be completed today, then I number them to create an order of attack.
I also include my “want to do” tasks here.
Here’s how my order of attack looked:
- Make a menu plan and grocery list (including items needed for Friday night)
- Prepare for and pack up everything I need for my meetings
- Straighten the house, dust and vacuum the main floor (cleaning tasks for today and tomorrow, so I can work ahead since I’ll be at my training on Friday)
Assign Days to Tasks from Question #4
Finally, I assign a day to each task that I listed under question #4. This is a good time to check in with your calendar, so that you don’t overload one day or week.
I record this information in my Trello “Weekly Workflow” board under the appropriate day’s list. That way I don’t forget to complete these tasks!
There’s a Printable for That
If you’d like a place to answer your questions each day, there’s a printable for that!
Grab your copy here: 5 Questions to Help Prioritize Tasks Printable.
And that’s a wrap on how to prioritize your to-do list with questions!
How to Prioritize Your To-Do List by Asking 5 Questions
By asking yourself these questions on a regular basis, you can anticipate challenging tasks and deadlines, proactively manage your to-do’s, make progress on your big goals, honor your values, and create a less stressful, more enjoyable life. Not bad for a few minutes of intentional reflection!
If you found today’s post helpful, you might enjoy these related posts:
- 6 Tips for a More Productive Work Day
- Add Hours to Your Day with One Simple Tool
- The Ultimate End of the Work Day Routine
What strategies have you discovered for prioritizing your to-do list and planning ahead?
Don’t forget to pin it!
Now, let’s go get those tasks prioritized and get them DONE!
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