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Career Tips

How to prioritize tasks

by Brought to you by ACS Careers
November 4, 2022 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 100, Issue 39


A person on a ladder hangs very large sticky notes labeled "1," "2," and "3."
Credit: Shutterstock

Everyone has more things they want to do than time to accomplish them. The most productive people prioritize and accomplish the most important projects first, leaving time for medium-priority projects and, sometimes, low-priority projects. Developing an organizational system can help you better prioritize and be more productive overall.

Create a comprehensive list. It may sound trivial, but a complete task list is necessary to compare options and decide what is most important and most urgent. It could be a lab-style notebook, a to-do list on your phone, file folders, or 3 × 5 cards on a bulletin board—find what works for you. Whatever the system, you need to be able to edit and rearrange the items as conditions change and delete items you have completed.

When building your list, consider the size of the pieces included. A huge project may be better added as a series of smaller stages, or at least with subtasks identified.

Determine its importance to you. Is this something you absolutely must accomplish, with no alternative (for example, failure would result in job loss)? If so, this project will have highest priority. Is the result of this task a nice enhancement but not something people will notice is missing? If so, maybe it can be assigned a lower priority. Look out for hidden dependencies, in which one task must be completed before another can be started.

Determine its importance to others. Maybe this task’s outcome does not affect you. Is someone else waiting for you to finish so they can start their own project or present the results to upper management? How important is your relationship with that person? How urgent or unmovable is their deadline? Could the task be delegated?

Estimate the time investment. Is the task very complex, requiring coordination with other people and multiple blocks of effort spread out over a long period? Or is it something quick, needing only a couple of hours of dedicated effort? Maybe you need to add a task to scope out the project, divide it into stages, and set the priority of each stage. Also consider how much mental effort the task will require. Something that requires quiet, concentration, and a big block of time may need a higher priority to take advantage of those times when the right environment is available. Otherwise, a bunch of smaller tasks can easily use up a big block of time that could have been used more productively.

Anticipate the results. What is the expected outcome of this project? Will it cause a big change in your organization, or are the effects more localized? Will it prepare you better for your next task or opportunity? How are you going to feel when it is done: proud that you accomplished something worthwhile or just happy it’s off your plate?

It can seem as if organizing and prioritizing tasks just takes time away from actually doing them. But investing the time up front ensures that you are working on the most important things first and are being as efficient and productive as possible.

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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