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How To Prioritize As An Entrepreneur: What To Do When All Tasks Feel Important


Barnaby Lashbrooke

Founder and CEO of Time etc, author of The Hard Work Myth

9 minute read

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“Deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do” - Steve Jobs

It’s a common problem for many entrepreneurs, especially around the growth stages of their businesses. You feel like you have so many things that need to be done, and you don’t know where to start—or where to draw the line.

This can lead to feelings of stress, overwhelm, and even paralysis, which can prevent you from taking any action at all. Before you know it, your business’s growth slows or even comes to a grinding halt altogether.

So the question is, how do we avoid this at all costs? How do we tackle our to-do lists when everything on them feels important?

Do we start with tasks that are due tomorrow, those that are quickest to tick off our lists, or those that will have the biggest impact on our bottom line?

Keep reading to learn more about the benefits of prioritization and a few tips to help you make the best use of your time.

Why you should prioritize as an entrepreneur

Prioritizing may seem just like common sense, but it's vital to your success as an entrepreneur. When you prioritize, you're making a conscious decision about how to best use your time and energy.

And that's important because time and energy are two of the most precious commodities you have as an entrepreneur. You only have so much of both, and you must use them wisely if you want to succeed.

There are a lot of benefits that come with being an effective prioritizer, including:

Increased productivity

While some tasks may feel important, their return on investment doesn’t truly justify the effort you spend on them. When you prioritize effectively, you're committed to tackling items that will move the needle forward for your business.

When your most important tasks are always at the top of your to-do list, you avoid the risk of running out of time or mental energy later in the day, and nothing falls by the wayside.

Better time management

When you venture into entrepreneurship, one of the most crucial skills you’ll need to master for success is time management. And time management becomes a whole lot easier when you become more strategic about the tasks you work on.

Reduced stress

Your well-being is just as important to your success as the amount of profit you bring in. If that domino falls, it can take everything else down with it. Stress can come from lots of different places, but one of the biggest sources is having too much on your plate.

A recent study into entrepreneurial well-being found that role overload—when the demands of your role exceed your time, energy, and capabilities to meet them—is one of the leading causes of stress in entrepreneurs. Further research into the effects of role overload stated that it can also trigger reactions such as anxiety and depression.

This is why a never-ending to-do list is a recipe for disaster. When you prioritize your work, you can avoid overwhelming yourself and keep your stress levels from rising. And when you're less stressed, you're more productive.

Higher quality of work

Trying to do too many things at a time usually leads to subpar results. The quality of our work can suffer greatly when we're always racing against the clock trying to get everything done on time. We may find ourselves settling for "that'll do" instead of something we're proud of. Not only that, but rushing can also lead to more mistakes being made as we're more focused on getting the task finished rather than being mindful of errors.

Giving your most important tasks the time and attention they deserve leads to better quality work overall, which will take your business further.

Six steps to successfully prioritize your work

Do you find it tough to stay on top of everything in your business while still making time for what's important? Managing your time and prioritizing your tasks can be a real challenge, but these tips can help you get started.

Take time to plan

As the head of your business with so many different responsibilities to manage, chances are you’re often forced to “go with the flow” and take the day as it comes. But this is how we fall into the trap of reacting to each new task or request that pops up, no matter how important it is—or isn’t, as is often the case—instead of proactively focusing on taking your business further.

The first step to effective prioritization is making sure you have enough time to do it properly. You might even call this your first priority!

Block out 15 minutes at the beginning of each day or week to create your plan for how you’ll put your time and energy to the best use.

Understand your goals

In Stephen R. Covey’s integral book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, he describes the importance of “beginning with the end in mind”.

“To begin with the end in mind means to start with a clear understanding of your destination,” he wrote. “It’s incredibly easy to get caught up in an activity trap, in the busyness of life, to work harder and harder at climbing the ladder of success only to discover it’s leaning against the wrong wall... If the ladder is not leaning against the right wall, every step we take just gets us to the wrong place faster.”

Ask yourself, what is it you’re really working towards? What do you want to achieve?

As the saying goes, “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” but a clear awareness and understanding of your goals will make it easier to pinpoint specific tasks and projects that will help you get there.

Compile a master task list

To prioritize effectively, you need to understand the full scope of everything that needs to be done. Start by writing down all the tasks, projects, and commitments you have, both big and small.

How you create and store this list is completely up to you. Whether it’s a physical list on paper or you prefer a digital app on your phone, what matters is that your list is easily accessible to you.

Urgent versus important

Once you have everything written down in your master list, it’s time to split them into four categories:

  1. Urgent and important
  2. Important but not urgent
  3. Urgent but not important
  4. Not urgent and not important

Tasks in category 1 should be dealt with first, to avoid missing deadlines and to keep the momentum going toward your goals. Then you can move on to category 2. These tasks are usually easy to put off but provide lots of value when they do get done, so it pays to have these at the higher end of your to-do list. Aim to steer clear of non-important and non-urgent work as much as possible—if not completely.

But what happens when you’re still left with a long list of tasks in your “urgent and important” category and you feel like you’re right back at square one?

Simply repeat the process in a similar way, and rate each task based on how close the deadline is and what you’ll gain from completing it. If, for example, you have ten tasks in this category, score them from 1-10. You’ll soon see a clear order of the best way to tackle this list.

And what happens to the less-important but still-necessary tasks in category 3, I hear you ask?

Automate or delegate

As a busy business owner, you can't do everything yourself. Automation and delegation are two of the best methods for allowing you to focus on what’s most important. Tasks that are time-consuming or repetitive are prime candidates for automation or delegation.

While you can't automate everything in your business, automating certain tasks can make them much more efficient. One example of this is order tracking. A computer program can easily keep track of when orders are placed, dispatched, delivered, and so on. This eliminates the need for manually inputting this information into a spreadsheet yourself, making the process much simpler and more efficient.

And as a business owner, the ability to delegate is a crucial skill. The internet has revolutionized the way we work and opened up a whole new world of options to get help for the tasks you shouldn’t be doing yourself. You can hire a virtual assistant for things like administrative work or managing your social media accounts, or you can outsource creative work to a freelancer, for example.

Whatever you choose to offload from your plate, you’ll free up valuable time and energy for the more mission-critical tasks that will drive your business forward.

Avoid distractions

When the tasks on your list aren’t particularly challenging, it’s easy to breeze through them. But no matter how important it is, if a task feels too mentally taxing, our natural inclination is to take the path of least resistance.

Although it’s definitely frustrating when we feel like we’ve not been as productive as we should have been, the truth is that humans secretly enjoy distractions. They save us from the difficult tasks or complex problems we should be spending our mental energy on.

Distractions come in many different forms, whether it’s an ad-hoc request from a colleague, a new email in your inbox, or a notification on your business’s social media page. We may feel like we’re accomplishing something, but every time this happens, we’re diverting time, energy, and focus away from our goal progress.

Block out time in your schedule to dedicate solely to getting your most important work done. Be mindful of taking on additional responsibilities, and always ask yourself whether it is the best use of your time. Only accept the request if it falls within your area of responsibility and you have time available. Otherwise, it’s fine to politely decline and offer an alternative solution.

There is also a wide range of tech tools to help you stay on track. For example, the Chrome extension Momentum displays what your focus is for the day each time you open a new browser tab, and the StayFocusd extension allows you to block or set a limit on the amount of time you can spend on distracting websites.

What’s the bottom line?

One thing that sets successful entrepreneurs apart from the rest is their ability to prioritize. They understand that not everything is equally important and that some things must take precedence over others. By following the tips in this article, you can learn to prioritize effectively in your own business. Doing so will help you accomplish more in less time and achieve greater success.

Do you currently have too much on your plate?

Are there tasks that you keep putting off because you just don't have the time?

A virtual assistant can help take care of those things for you. Our expert Time etc team will match you with an experienced and skilled VA who can handle all of the little details so that you can focus on what's really important.

Speak to expert team to start saving time today, or try a skilled virtual assistant for free.

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About the author

Barnaby Lashbrooke is the founder and CEO of Virtual Assistant service Time etc as well as the author of The Hard Work Myth, recently recommended by Sir Richard Branson. Barnaby is a Forbes Columnist on productivity and is also an accomplished entrepreneur, selling more than $35 million worth of services.

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