How to prioritise tasks if everything seems important

How to prioritise tasks if everything seems important

At my firm, we often made mistakes with priorities - we took on the wrong tasks, constantly revised everything, got confused, etc. Partly because of this chaos, we worked in a reactive mode - we acted "according to the situation", not "according to plan." It's pretty common for a startup, but our goal is to help people and teams get things done.

Therefore, we pulled ourselves together and learned how to properly prioritize tasks. In this article I will talk about the logic that we have groped for ourselves and which we have been following for several years.
Why can't you just do all the tasks?

At the very beginning of any project, there is such an exciting feeling when you anticipate success; you believe that the team will achieve great results. And then (not as a matter of fact, but it happens too often) all this clashes with reality, and it turns out that you couldn't do something in time, get your customers upset, demoralised yourself demoralised and lost all the enthusiasm.

It happened so often with us. Instead of accomplishing tasks that would create a value of the product, we were exited by new features, cool things and awesome stuff, as we thought. For example, we spent 3 weeks to make the chat inside the task manager, which turned out to be very "raw" - just a normal chat that could replace Telegram or Slack commands would take a lot of time.

One of the most common reasons why this happens is because of the wrong prioritisation. Prioritisation is not easy. There are so many things to consider, and indeed “all the tasks are important”. There is a strong temptation not to set any priorities at all. Because of this, following the tendency of our brain to be lazy, we first of all do the simplest tasks (the brain wants a free dose of dopamine), forgetting about the really important ones. As a result, business suffers.

Prioritisation helps us:

a) increase team's productivity,

b) stay on track and find issues faster

c) manage time and other resources more efficiently,

d) meet deadlines.

So let's see what needs to be done to effectively prioritise tasks in a team.

Where to start if everything seems important

Almost all task prioritisation methods are based on three dimensions: importance, urgency, and complexity. Importance is the value of the task for the business, the degree of influence on the project success. Urgency is the need to react immediately. Complexity is how labor-intense to complete the task.

So, prioritisation is about defining these three parameters and choosing what to do first. Before you start sorting the tasks, let us make a few steps prior to it.

1. Collect all tasks into one list

First, the most important thing is compile a list of all the tasks that the team have to do (usually it is called a backlog). Do not forget to decompose complex tasks, so it would be easier to wire dependencies.

You can make a list of tasks by gathering the whole team in a meeting room and sticking stickers on the board, or you can collect everything in some project and task management system. If your project is complex I recommend to build it by stages, reviewing the results after each stage. The stages result must be reachable in a short period of time - the team shouldn't work in each stage for more than 3-4 months. Remember, the tasks should be simple, clear and measurable.

2. Set a timeline

Specify the deadlines for each stage or part of the project. There are might be other people waiting for your team accomplish their part, which means it will be very, very difficult to postpone such tasks.


Deadlines are generally a very important thing. They alone can help the team prioritise.

For other tasks, it would also good to specify the deadlines, but it depends on their importance for the business. That's why…

3. Rate the importance of tasks

Your team wants to move things forward. That is why you need to take a close look at each task and ask a few questions:

a) Why we do this?

b) What result will it give?

c) What is affected (in the business)?

d) Can you get more business having this feature?

e) Do users / clients need it and why?

Answering these questions will help you categorise tasks into several groups, according to the matrix prioritization method, also called the Eisenhower matrix:

Cool, now our tasks are divided into 4 groups, and it even seems to be already clear in which direction to move. But the question is: in what order should the tasks be done within each of the groups? If tasks have deadlines, everything becomes much easier - we just do first of all those tasks that have a closer deadline. But what if several tasks seem to be equally urgent and equally important? You will need to assess their complexity.

4. Organise tasks based on difficulty

Complexity is the most difficult to assess, because everything is too subjective here. There are three options for how to evaluate it:

Get an assessment from the top - a manager or some expert says how difficult the task is, and you agree with this.

Calculate the most probable estimate - estimate an optimistic, realistic and pessimistic estimate and calculate a probable estimate using the formula:

Optimistic estimation + (3 x Realistic estimation) + Pessimistic estimation / 6

Use Planning Poker - a scoring technique commonly used in agile development.

For prioritisation, it is not necessary to estimate the complexity in hours - it is enough to give some abstract estimate, let's say, from 1 to 10. Taking into account the complexity, it will be much easier to sort tasks within each of the groups (it turns out something like an ICE/RICE methods).

When new tasks appear, you will need to drive them along the same steps - assess the timing, importance and complexity - and then decide at what point what to do.

Prioritising means working productively

Setting priorities correctly and clearly help to better manage time, meet deadlines and increase team productivity. Communicate plans with your team more often, manage priorities in a timely manner, and use team-based task management tools to keep everything in one place.