Prioritising in business

How to make prioritising a priority in business

In the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey tells the story of a professor who takes a jar and fills it up with big rocks. He holds the jar up for his students to see and asks them if it’s full.

The students say yes, but then the professor adds smaller rocks and then sand to fill in the little spaces to show them that it is in fact, not full.

The big rocks in this story represent our biggest priorities and the smaller rocks represent less important tasks.

The big rocks should always go in first, that way the sand and pebbles fight their way to fit into the spaces left by the big rocks. See the video below for this classic story. 

How to prioritise tasks in the workplace

Learning how to prioritise tasks can be a game changer for you and your business.

Imagine you walk into the office on Monday morning, and you’re met by a ton of work. You have been out of office for four days, and now it’s catching up with you.

Within the next 8 hours, you have 3 proposals to create and send out and emails to respond to. On top of this, there are two meetings with clients in the afternoon, and you have some pending work from the previous week.

Where do you begin?

Here are 7 ways you can prioritise in business:

1. Write down a list of all the tasks you have to do

When you arrive at your desk feeling overwhelmed by the day, the first thing you need to do is write down a to-do list. How many things do you need to get out of the way on that day?

Writing down this list gives you a picture of what your day is going to look like, and you can start to brainstorm on how to make it happen.

When you write things down, you will likely feel less overwhelmed. You’ll find that some of the tasks can take up much less time than you had imagined.

It’s also a great feeling when you tick off your tasks as you finish them and the day goes on. 

To-do lists give you a sense of organisation and can help to release the stress that you feel. Plus, there is power in writing. It makes the tasks stick within us making us more productive.

2. Identify the urgent and important tasks

The 34th president of USA – Eisenhower, was the king of prioritisation. He served as a general in the US Army, as supreme commander of the allied forces in Western Europe during World War 2, as president of Columbia University, and as President of the United States.

And on top of this, he was able to play over 800 rounds of golf while in office.

His secret? Simple… It’s called the Eisenhower matrix.

After you have written down all your tasks, you need to categorise them. 

Write down all the:

  1. Urgent and important tasks (Quadrant 1)
  2. Important but not urgent tasks (Quadrant 2)
  3. Urgent but not important tasks (Quadrant 3)
  4. Not urgent and not important tasks (Quadrant 4)

This list can be a great guiding factor. For all quadrant 1 tasks, you need to focus and do them first.

Quadrant 2 tasks can be scheduled since they are not pressed for time, but are still crucial.

Quadrant 3 tasks can be delegated to your team. You can train and encourage them to do these tasks as well as you do, since they don’t hold as much importance as others.

Lastly, delete or delegate all the quadrant 4 tasks. They are neither urgent nor important, meaning that they’re likely to take up time that would otherwise be spent on productive tasks.

3. Assess the value of your tasks 

A task can be urgent and important but of lower value than another urgent and important task.

For example, you may need to write training guides for your employees, but responding to potential clients is more urgent and important than that.

In short, within each of the quadrants, you need a to-do list in order of priority. This is also true to the fact that you can end up with 10 urgent and important tasks.

Take a look at your important work and identify what carries the highest value to your business and organisation.

One criteria that you could use is to remember that client projects are more high value than internal work. Secondly, figure out how many people are affected by the work. The more people affected, the higher the stakes.

Remember, the big rocks always go in first.

4. Order the tasks according to the estimated effort

Have you heard of the ‘eat-the-frog’ strategy? It’s a prioritisation strategy that helps you to identify the challenging tasks.

The frog is that one thing you have on your to-do list that you have absolutely no motivation to do and that you are most likely to procrastinate on.

To eat the frog means to complete this task before you start working on anything else. It sets you up for success early in the day.

Someone I once knew used to say, “What needs to be done today has to be done today.”

Procrastinating the hard tasks does not make them any easier. In fact, it leads to a pile of hard, unwanted tasks, and prolonged suffering. If you have two tasks that are both urgent and important, start with the one that requires the most effort in terms of time and the energy you use.

Why? According to productivity experts, doing so makes you more motivated to do the rest of the tasks.

5. Make a timeline for each task

Let’s be honest, most of us waste A LOT of time. Every single day.

And sometimes, we waste this time without even knowing it. One minute you’re checking your work Whatsapp group for an important message, and the next, you are chatting with friends. This comes in the way of prioritising in business.

Today there are a million things trying to draw on your time. You have to be very intentional about not wasting time, and one of the ways to do this is to make timelines for your tasks.

If you’ve handled a similar task before, you can always estimate how long it will take you to finish it.

Making this timeline helps you to focus and avoid distractions. If you have an hour to get something done, you’re likely to pay full attention to it knowing that at the end of the hour, there’s another task waiting for you.

6. Use working time management systems

Be honest. How many of you have started looking at your gadgets or checked something else while reading this article?

I wouldn’t blame you…

The average user attention span is currently at 8 seconds, and it continues to go lower as people get older.

For this reason, it might be correct to conclude that we also don’t pay attention to our tasks.

One of the things that has recently been working for me is scheduling time for your distractions. So if you REALLY want to go on Tiktok, reward yourself with 5 minutes of Tiktok every hour or so. 

Don’t cut yourself off from your distractions completely. It doesn’t work, and you’ll start resenting your work. Schedule time for them. 

Remember that while prioritising in business is important, it shouldn’t feel like a chore.

The pomodoro technique can help you to stay refreshed and mentally focussed. It was invented by Francesco Cirillo, a developer and entrepreneur.

How does it work? 

You select a task to work on, set a timer, and focus on it for 25 minutes. Once the timer dings, you’re allowed a break of 5 minutes. During this time, you’re encouraged to stretch, refill your coffee,go on social media, or do anything else that isn’t work related.

And then, back to the 25 minutes of focussed work. Within an hour, you focus for a complete 50 minutes.

You can download apps such as Tick Tick or even Focus-to-do to experience the magic of pomodoro for yourself.

7. Avoid meaningless meetings

How many times have you caught yourself veering off topic and discussing things that aren’t urgent or important in meetings?

Meaningless meetings can lead you away from prioritising in business.

As business owners, we need to make sure that every meeting has an agenda and that we stick to it. It’s okay to veer off a little, but not for too long.

In case new tasks and projects come up during the brainstorming sessions, schedule meetings for them in the future. This will help you to save time and check off your to-do list.

8. Be adaptable

I can guarantee you one thing…

Your to-do list will NOT always go as planned. Things come up during the day, taking time which was unplanned for and slowing you down.

How do you deal with this? Be adaptable.

Plan for the unexpected. While working on your tasks, try to forecast other project requirements that will follow your priorities so you can better prepare for what lies ahead.


Prioritising in business is a really important skill, and helps keep you in check. You will not drop the ball if you prioritise your tasks well. At least not often.

In summary, here are the 8 ways to prioritise in your business:

  1. Write down a list of all the tasks you have to do.
  2. Identify the urgent and important tasks.
  3. Assess the value of your tasks.
  4. Order the tasks according to the estimated effort.
  5. Make a timeline for each task.
  6. Use working time management systems.
  7. Avoid meaningless meetings.
  8. Be adaptable.

Now, what would you say are your big rocks in life or work? Can you think of three rocks (tasks) that should go into your jar (calendar) first?

If you would like help prioritising in business, and sorting out your big rocks vs little rocks, get in touch. Outside ideas are on a mission to help people and businesses grow, we have a range of support that can help you. 


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