Managers are drawn in many directions daily. Emails, complaints and petty personnel issues have a way of sucking up any time that would otherwise be productive. If you take the time to put out all of the fires that pop up during a given day, you will never get any work done. Instead, prioritizing tasks is the way to go.

Fortunately, prioritizing tasks is a skill anyone can learn. Successful managers understand that their time is limited, so without priorities, they can become unproductive — or worse, they can burn out. The following information addresses the importance of prioritizing tasks and how to do it.

Agendas Are Your Friends

One way of prioritizing tasks is to make a daily agenda. Agendas need not be formal documents. In fact, many managers find formal agendas tedious, making them the wrong tool for the job. Researchers David Barry, Catherine Durne Cramton and Stephen J. Carroll, writing for Academy of Management’s Perspectives column, point out that “Finely articulated and prioritized agendas are useful for some kinds of jobs and conditions, while flexible agendas that are prioritized by theme are more appropriate for others.” Finding the right kind of agenda is largely a matter of trial and error, but there are some techniques for determining the right direction.

Lifehacker lists a variety of strategies for prioritizing tasks. Among these are strategies for determining what is important and what is extraneous distraction. Their first suggestion is to ask your boss. Barry et al go on to say, “at work, you can lean in and tell your boss that you really need their help.” Sometimes this means swallowing a bit of pride, but the ultimate goal is better productivity. What boss would not consider that worth his or her time?

Being the Boss

Sometimes, though, you are the boss, and others are coming to you to get help with prioritization. What to do then? Lifehacker suggests first realizing that not everything is equally important. There are tasks that need doing immediately, and there are others that can wait. Moreover, there are even tasks you should avoid altogether.

Leadership expert Dan Rockwell suggests that you “Ignore things or [avoid wasting] your leadership on things that don’t matter.” Many of the things he lists as time-wasters have to do with petty office politics. Insults and people who say “I told you so” are some of the more obvious distractions, but Rockwell also stresses that you should avoid “counsel from advisors that don’t ask questions. They’re uninformed, misinformed, or close minded.” One caveat he raises, though, is that “Sometimes wise counsel sounds stupid. When people with a proven track record sound stupid, listen again. Ask questions.” Don’t become the counsel that does not ask questions.

Systems of Prioritizing Tasks

Because distractions are such a nuisance, and because prioritizing tasks is so important, there are entire readymade systems of prioritizing. One of these is Getting Things Done, or GTD for short. Allen Henry, writing for Lifehacker, elucidates the advantage of GTD: “it emphasizes getting your to-dos out of your head and into some system that will help you work.” Rather than taking up precious brain power keeping all your tasks in mind, writing them down frees your mind to focus on the task at hand.

Whatever your approach, prioritizing tasks is a skill all managers will need. The benefits of prioritization are numerous, from increased productivity to reduced stress. If everyone understands what is important to a business and what can fall to the wayside, they can work as a team to get things done.

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Academy of Management: Navigating the Garbage Can: How Agendas Help Managers Cope With Job Realities

Leadership Freak: 7 Things Successful Leaders Ignore

Lifehacker: How to Prioritize When Everything Is Important