“It’s 10 AM, do you know what your team is working on?”
You may recognize that as a spoof of an old public service announcement ad, but it’s a great question.
Prioritizing tasks is the lifeblood of a thriving project. Without task prioritization, your team is either frozen in place or aimlessly checking boxes and completing tasks that may or may not add up to something shippable.
Learning how to prioritize tasks is the kind of lesson that benefits everyone. It empowers your team to stay on track free of micromanagement, and as the project manager, you get to deliver projects in scope, within budget, and on time. What more could you ask for?
In this article, we’ll share the core framework project managers use to streamline task management:
Why prioritizing project tasks is critical
Projects often have hundreds or even thousands of tasks that require strict scheduling based on client due dates, available resources, and employee capacity. Creating an efficient machine like that takes discipline, clear procedures, and oversight.
Unfortunately, we’re all subject to what Daniel Kahneman refers to as the planning fallacy. Which means we have a tendency to underestimate the time and resources necessary to complete a future task, due to a reliance on overly optimistic performance scenarios.
Put plainly, we fall into the trap of thinking the future isn’t as full of obstacles as it is right now and tend to overextend ourselves as a result.
Here’s where task prioritization is so important. Without it, our deliverables ship late, and our long-term goals stay goals — not realities.
Instead of stretching ourselves thin or settling for poor performance, we can prioritize the essential workload and see a monumental difference in returns. Here’s how:
8 steps for prioritizing project tasks
The first step to learning how to prioritize tasks is by taking a step back from your task list.
Take a step further than even the project and head up to a 30,000-foot view so you can take stock of the big picture and put things into perspective. Realign yourself with the overall strategy, top priority, and long term goals you’re hoping to achieve.
With a fresh perspective, make your descent lower into the project details and dive in:
1. Develop a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS)
Nothing helps you prioritize your task list quite like creating a master list of all your tasks and breaking them down into smaller chunks that individuals and small teams can easily handle.
An excellent WBS is one that is mutually exclusive and completely exhaustive, which means there’s no task overlap. Without overlap, every single task is distinct from all other tasks, thus reducing unnecessary ambiguity or double-work.
There are two types of WBS:
- Functional WBS: centers around the business’s functional aspects, such as project management, software engineering, and system engineering.
- Deliverable WBS: focuses on the different deliverables a project creates and provides a more cohesive setup.
The deliverable WBS provides the greatest control and traceability, meaning you can follow a critical path for deliverables from beginning to end and increased collaboration since no department is working in a silo.
2. Designate work packages
Work packages are the lowest level of detail in a WBS, and they’re often structured in a “verb-noun” fashion to illustrate the action required to accomplish a specific item.
A work package might be to “develop requirement traceability matrix” or to “program sort routine.” That specificity is key to understanding what’s possible considering the constraints of cost, time, quality, and scope.
3. Define the necessary activities
Activities are often referred to as “tasks” in modern project management software. Tasks are another notch below work packages and are essentially the steps taken by individuals or groups that are measurable.
Measurability is an essential component here since project managers need to determine their current state subjectively.
Some measures work better than others.
For instance, gauging development completion by percentage (E.g., 25% complete) is often imperfect since it’s hard to objectively measure 25% or 50% of any given task.
A better gauge is a specific accomplishment (E.g., develop outline) since you can tell whether it’s complete or not.
4. Decide on logic framework
Logic is what really moves the needle on prioritizing tasks. Logic dictates what order you do your tasks based on common sense. The three types of logic are hard, soft, and false.
It’s best to use hard logic, which means there are valid links between activities. A great analogy here is laying the foundation for a house is essential before you can put walls up.
Soft logic references start/stop dates based on an activity’s perceived requirements. Following the same analogy scheme, rough electrical can’t start until rough plumbing is complete. While that’s true for most construction projects, it’s not technically a hard-and-fast rule.
Finally, there’s false logic, which means there are false preconceived notions of when an activity can start or stop.
An example here might be telling someone you can’t do landscaping work until the driveway concrete cures completely. That logic is simply not true. You can absolutely do both simultaneously, hence it’s false logic.
It’s always good to run your timeline by subject matter experts to ensure all dependencies in your schedule are true dependencies and not based on false logic.
5. Assign work effort and resources
There are few things as valuable as estimates that accurately reflect reality. Defining resources in a structured way is challenging but doable. Start by defining a few resource types, such as:
- Project experience and technical expertise
- Hardware such as computers or tangible resources
- Software or intangible assets
- Materials and subcontractors
Then jump into defining the amount of work for each resource. Not the exact quantity but the amount.
For example, a task could require 40 hours of work by a technical expert, 30 tons of material, or the reservation of a testing center. All of these are resources you’ll need to plan for.
6. Designate a timeframe
How long will your tasks take, and when do they need to begin?
If you know a task requires 40 hours of work but must be done in 2 days, you’ll need to tackle it differently (I.e., with more people) than if it can be completed over 2 weeks.
By figuring out when you need material and how long lead times are, you can determine when orders have to go out, and whether you’ll have to pay for rush shipping or not.
The primary focus here is creating a plan of attack for some immediate milestones in the schedule that aren’t necessarily hard deadlines or requirements but preferred expectations to keep the project on pace.
It’s also a good idea to overestimate how long some tasks will take, especially if there are a lot of unknowns. For instance, if you think a task will take 3 hours to complete but you’ve never done it before, you may want to schedule 4. That 25% buffer can make a world of difference when priorities inevitably shift mid-project.
7. Analyze the schedule
Does your plan and schedule make sense? A quick review should give you a rough idea of whether it sounds doable or not. It’s also important to consider whether you’ll meet your contractual obligations with it.Once you’ve plotted out workloads, dependencies, and timelines, it’s easy to see what has to be completed first. You’ll have a clear path of which tasks must be worked on for you to hit your targets.
Make task prioritization effortless with monday.com
Learning how to prioritize the right way may seem daunting, but not if you use the right tool for the job. monday.com is a platform that strikes a rare balance between being feature-rich and still simple to use.
We also make it incredibly easy to get started with the 100+ templates you can copy, so you’re not building workflows from scratch. Try creating a custom WBS with the Work Breakdown Schedule Template (shown below).
Nothing gets to the heart of learning how to prioritize tasks like an in-depth board that will visually show you all moving project pieces at once. Status, timeline, expenses, resources, importance, effort tracking, it’s all there!
The WBS template will help you prioritize what’s urgent, and when you’re all set, you can create task tracking views so you can get a granular view when you’re ready.
The WBS and task prioritization features of monday.com are just the tip of the iceberg. Here are some other game-changing features you’ll enjoy:
- Stay on top of your priority list with custom automations and notifications
- Tap into your existing workflow and tools with 40+ integrations
- Stay mobile with iOS and Android apps
- Collaborate and communicate about work tasks with real-time messaging and tagging
- Stay on top of your entire portfolio with 8 different data visualizations
- Use resource management for workload reports to see who’s underutilized and who’s overworked
As you can see, task prioritization matters, and so does having the right software.
Putting a project in motion without proper resources, inputs, materials, and task assignments is a recipe for disaster. One that will likely create bottlenecks, duplicate efforts, and an inefficient delivery schedule.
Alternatively, when your task schedule is air-tight and flexible, great things happen. Productivity soars, stakeholders applaud, and you no longer feel a false sense of urgency. Instead, you get clarity and work life balance knowing everything’s under control.
Chat with our sales team to see how monday.com will help your team prioritize.