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Career Tips

Taming your to-do list

by Brought to you by ACS Careers
September 4, 2020 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 98, Issue 34


Illustration of a person being crushed by the to-do list.
Credit: Shutterstock
Get out from underneath.

Now that work, home, and leisure are completely intermixed, prioritizing your to-do list has never been more important. How do you decide what you should do with the limited time that you have? Here are some questions you can ask yourself to help tame your to-do list.

Is it important? Think about whether a specific task is important and really needs to be done. Will there be severe consequences if you don’t complete it? In 5 years, will it matter if this task wasn’t done? When making these decisions, you will want to consider impact, cost, risk, and likelihood of success. Important tasks might include finishing a grant proposal, collecting a certain piece of data, or buying groceries to feed your family.

Is it urgent? What is the deadline to complete this task? In the next hour? The next day? The next week? Determine what the deadline is. The request may be, “This has to be done by close of business today,” but what that really means is, “I need it when I log in to work tomorrow morning.”

Now. In light of the current pandemic, you need to add “now” to the end of each question. Changes in your personal and professional circumstances caused by recent events may have altered your personal values and made you rethink what is truly important. Things that were very important 6 months ago may not be possible now, and other things may have become more important. Prioritize your tasks by determining whether they are urgent and/or important.

Once you have prioritized your tasks, you can create a plan of attack. A good place to start is with the important but not urgent activities. These are things like catching up with former colleagues and strengthening your professional network. Block time on your calendar for these tasks, then stop worrying about them. Maybe you can find a buddy and pair up for regular check-ins to provide accountability.

For urgent but not important tasks, think about delegating to someone else, dividing into smaller pieces, or doing the minimum amount necessary to call it done. Identify any obstacles keeping you from doing this and figure out how to overcome them. You may not want to do less than your best, but doing something now may be better than doing everything later.

For tasks that are neither important nor urgent, decide whether you should do them fast and get a quick win, or admit they are not going to get done and remove them from your list. Letting go can be hard, but it will free up your time and mental energy for more important tasks.

Finally, once you have the majority of your tasks scheduled, delegated, or deleted, you can focus on the tasks that are both important and urgent and get them off your list by getting them done.

Get involved in the discussion. The ACS Career Tips column is published the first issue of every month in C&EN. Send your comments and ideas for topics for future columns to


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