How to Prioritize Your To Do Lists

by | Apr 16, 2020 | Tips & Tricks

Learn to focus only on what is in front of you in 5 easy steps

By Susan Jerrell, TOFT Founder

Prioritize your To Do lists to increase productivity and help you stay organized. It’s easy to get overwhelmed with all the things you need to do at school and at home. The tasks seem endless, and your lists grow everyday. 

This, in turn, leads to additional stress. That is why it’s important to simplify your life one step at a time. 

The simplest way to do this is to physically have only one task in front of you. If your desk contains piles of papers, your laptop waits with emails to return, and your voicemail light blinks with messages, it is hard to focus. Likewise, when you see the stack of mail on the counter, toys strewn all over the floor, and dirty laundry piled up, it is also hard to focus at home.

Sometimes, getting organized by simply clearing your work area does wonders in also clearing your mind. 

Step one: Prioritize your To Do lists by importance 

First, organize your tasks into categories Must Do, Need To Do, Want To Do, and Not That Important.

Must do list of priorities

Must Do

This is the non-negotiable pile and should be dealt with first. 

Put things like return parent calls and emails, write tests, complete required lesson plans, grade a test in this pile of tasks. 

At home your Must Do list might say pay bills, feed kids, and walk the dog.

Need to do priority list

Need To Do 

This pile represents those things you really need to do, however, they do not rate as a top priority. If you get to this pile later, it will not impact you or other people immediately. 

This pile at work might include planning the next project, checking journals, rearranging a seating chart, grading a short homework assignment. 

Your home Need To Do list might include mop the floor, empty the trash, and clean the bathroom. It sure would be nice, but one more day will not kill anyone.

Want to do list of priorities

Want To Do 

These represent things we would like to accomplish, but in the grand scheme of your day do not have to be completed. 

Tasks like redoing a bulletin board, visiting another classroom, sending out a class newsletter, serving on a committee, and reading a professional development book can go on this list. 

At home, a Want to Do List might be to wash the windows, paint the front door, or plant some flowers.

Not that important priority list

Not That Important

Anything else that does not fit above is in your Not That Important list. If we are honest with ourselves, we waste a lot of time doing things in this category in order to avoid doing the things on our Must Do or Need to Do lists. How many times have you been sucked into Pinterest looking for an idea then 30 pins and an hour of time later you haven’t accomplished anything?

Our Not That Important lists are the shiny distractions that keep us from being productive. “I’ll just take a 10 minute break and scroll through Facebook.” “Just a couple of funny pet videos on Youtube and I’ll be ready to work.” “Just one Netflix show, and then I’ll grade these papers.” This may work for totally disciplined people (are there any?), but if you are the average person you’ll glance over at the clock and realize that an hour or two have passed and you are on episode 3 of the latest Netflix binge watching craze. 

Beware of shiny objects when you are trying to be productive and learn to prioritize your To Do lists and to prioritize your responsibilities.

Step two: Select your most important task first

After you have your four lists, remove everything except the one task you plan to work on first from your Must Do list. If this is not feasible (depends on how messy your work area is) then remove yourself and take one thing from your Must Do pile you need to work on.

Take that one task, turn off your phone, shut your door, and get down to business. If your class comes back or you get interrupted, make a note and go back to that same task when you have time. Do not start another task until that one is completed.

The same thing applies at home. If you sit down to pay bills, put away other distractions, go to a place you won’t be disturbed, and complete the entire task in one sitting. 

Research shows that task switching hurts productivity

Staying focused on one task and completing it results in higher efficiency than switching tasks.  Teachers are asked to multitask all day long, but when you have work time, research by Stanford University found that people who try to juggle multiple electronic tasks like email, texting, television, and web research cannot separate the different tasks in their minds and actually complete them more slowly and with less skill than those who focus on one thing at a time.

Susan Weinschenk Ph.D., in Psychology Today, claims the term multitasking is not what we are doing because our brains are not capable of multitasking. Instead, we “task switch.” As we move from one task to another throughout the day, we may be decreasing our productivity by as much as 40%. People also tend to make more mistakes when they switch from one task to another.

As I work from home, I am tempted by many distractions, especially right now while the rest of my family shares the same space while working and studying at home.

While writing this last section I have been interrupted by the roofing company banging on the shingles of our roof, my son interrupting me twice, my husband coming in while he ate lunch, and the radio blaring in another room. This was after I removed myself to the office with the door closed! Each time I stop, I must refocus and rethink about where I am and what I am doing. 

Besides people and noise, to stay focused on my one task, I also remove my phone and shut down my email so that I don’t check every time I hear my text messages ding or see my email count increase. 

Step Three: Work your way down your list

Once your first task is completed, select your next task and do the same thing. Remove all other distractions and concentrate on just that one task. Continue this until you have your Must Do list complete. 

By following this routine, you are completing the absolute necessary tasks to survive. Knowing that you completed the things you must do will decrease your overall stress. 

Step Four: Move on to your Need To Do list

When you have completed your Must Do list, prioritize the Need To do list of tasks from most to least important. Once that is finished, focus on the first task on your list and remove all others. Focus on only that one activity until it is complete. Sometimes along the way, items on this Need To Do list get moved to the Must Do if they are timely. That is not a problem; it just means you will get them accomplished one way or  another.

Step Five: Rinse and repeat, even at home

Follow this same routine each day at school and at home at night. Do not drag home all the papers you need to grade. First of all, it is overwhelming, and second of all, you will end up convincing yourself it can’t be done, so you won’t do any of it. 

Instead, realistically take home only what you know you will grade. For example, tell yourself that you will grade one set of tests, grade 6 research papers, or check all the science questions for the last lab. Another idea is to determine that you will devote one hour to grading, so only bring home what you know you can grade in that one hour.

What if you never make it to your Want to Do or Not That Important lists? It’s simple. Don’t do them. That is the beauty of prioritizing and simplifying your life.

Learning to prioritize your To Do lists simplifies your life

When you prioritize your To Do lists and take one thing at a time you simplify your life. Sometimes we add to our own stress by setting goals that are impractical, time consuming, or not necessary. 

Save those big Pinterest ideas for new room decorations, bulletin boards, and special activities for breaks when you have more time to develop them. And even then, select only those you really want to do.

Keep a list of those Want To Do home projects for when you have time to complete them. Having several started projects, but no finished projects actually adds to your stress. Choose one you can complete in a weekend or during a break and focus on only that one project.

Learning to prioritize your To Do lists one step at a time is key to avoiding overwhelm. You will find your life simplified and your stress reduced. Ignore the long lists, the tall stacks of papers, the shiny objects, and the other distractions that get in the way. Focus on one task until it is completed, and then move on to the next.  



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Susan Jerrell, TOFT Founder


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