A 3-Step Guide to Prioritizing Goals at Work

Macgill Davis

Prioritizing goals is one of the most essential soft skills in the modern workplace. If you’re like most people, you encounter conflicting goals all the time. If you don’t have a clear way of prioritizing them, you may miss the really important tasks in the sea of mundane work.

Learning to prioritize often means taking a step back. You need to assess the situation with a cool mind and identify your top priorities and the amount of time you need to complete them. Doing this while you’re constantly busy is impossible. You need to carve out some time in your workday or workweek to prioritize your goals.

In this article, we’ll arm you with practical tools for prioritizing goals. By the end, you’ll feel less overwhelmed and ready to identify your most important goals.

What Prioritizing Goals Means in Practice

It would be ideal if, at work, you could devote all your time and energy to one professional goal. But that’s rarely the case. More often, the reality is that there are different goals competing for your attention.

A monthly report for your boss. That training you’ve been meaning to enroll in for months — or is it already years? Also, there is that new communication strategy the company board wants your team to implement. And don’t forget that project idea you came up with that you’ve been meaning to share with a colleague.

It’s easy to feel like it all needs to happen at the same time, but of course, that’s impossible. To make things happen, you need to decide what exactly you’ll do and in what order. The better you are at prioritizing goals and the tasks they involve, the more efficient you become.

Prioritizing at work allows you to define your main objectives — i.e., what you’re trying to achieve. Then, you order them based on three characteristics: urgency, importance, and value.

  • The urgency aspect: Urgency involves managing short-term goals where a deadline is imposed on you. Just because something is urgent doesn’t necessarily mean you must prioritize it — although, it might. To assess whether or not the urgency has an impact on your task, you often need to ask yourself something like. “What would happen if I ignored this for another week?”
  • The importance aspect: Importance usually competes with urgency when you’re prioritizing goals and is often connected to long-term goals. Short-term goals may be necessary to manage your workload day-to-day as well as give you a boost of satisfaction as you cross things off your task list. But long-term goals are usually the ones that create the most impact.
  • The value aspect: Assessing the value of your goals may help you decide between those that have similar importance and urgency levels. For example, you may have two reports to complete, one for your manager and one for a client. Both are important and urgent, but you can’t do them at the same time. You may need to choose the client report, as it brings more value — it has an impact on the external reputation of the whole company.

Prioritizing goals is a game of considering and weighing those three factors against each other. Sometimes, your decisions will be more motivated by urgency and sometimes by value.

Before we go into more detail about how to balance them out, let’s look at how prioritizing goals makes a difference at work.

How Prioritizing Goals Puts You Way Ahead of the Pack

Prioritizing goals: man using his phone

Let’s face it, most people don’t prioritize their goals. They try to chip away at everything at the same time, hoping that, eventually, they’ll magically “get things done.”

However, this isn’t about just getting any things done. It’s about getting the right things done. Those who don’t prioritize goals may feel like they work a lot, but more often than not, they face serious obstacles in their jobs, including:

  • They are more prone to procrastination: When you’re not sure what you should be working on, it’s easy to put off work as a way of avoiding the difficult but important tasks.
  • They run the risk of mostly focusing on urgent tasks: When you don’t take the time for goal setting and prioritizing, you may not even realize how much time you’re wasting.
  • They never seem to have enough time: People who don't prioritize goals often get to the end of the day feeling like they worked a lot but accomplished very little.
  • They get easily distracted by social media, email, and notifications: Without the focus that prioritizing goals gives you, it’s easy to lose yourself in meaningless entertainment and distractions.

On the other hand, people who prioritize often have a much calmer mind. Even if they don’t manage to accomplish everything they wanted, they’re clear about what they’re working toward at all times. According to the California Coast University, some benefits of prioritizing goals include:

  • Less stress and higher productivity: Thanks to prioritizing, you don’t feel like you need to do everything at once. This supports single-tasking, eliminates cognitive load, and improves your personal productivity.
  • Improved quality of work: Because you work in a systematic, deliberate way, you have more time to check errors and make adjustments to what you’ve done.
  • Better work-life balance: When your goals are clearly defined and organized, you’re more empowered to take breaks from work and rest. Your mind and body will thank you for it.
  • Reduced procrastination: Prioritizing goals naturally improves your time-management skills. This means you waste less time on avoiding tasks you know you need to do anyway.
  • More motivation to work: Listing and completing your goals gives you a sense of accomplishment. This creates a positive feedback loop that encourages you to keep up the good work.

A 3-Step, No-Brainer Guide to Goal Setting and Prioritizing

Prioritizing goals: employees writing on sticky notes

Now that you know how important goal prioritization is, it’s time for the most crucial questions: How do you actually do this? What are the practical steps to deciding which goals are more important than others?

There are many prioritization techniques out there, but don’t overcomplicate this. Prioritizing goals isn’t rocket science. You can follow three simple steps to make it work for you.

Step 1: Define and Write Down Your Goals

This step is mostly ignored, and that’s a big mistake. You can’t prioritize your goals without first knowing what they are. So, start by pulling out a good-old piece of paper and making a list of goals you’re currently trying to achieve.

Don’t differentiate at this point; simply write down all the goals you can think of. Remember that goals are different from tasks. As business coach Leslie Couch writes, “A goal states what we want to achieve; our desired outcome. ... Goals are frequently vague as to the what, when, and how but their purpose is to give a why to our actions and link our actions to our ultimate vision.”

Some examples of goals at work may include:

  • Learn a new skill
  • Meet the deadlines for an important project
  • Get promoted
  • Gather honest feedback on a piece of work you’ve done
  • Implement a new meeting format
  • Negotiate a salary raise

All such goals require specific tasks to arrive at the desired outcome. Don’t go into that part just yet. In this step, the point is to get an overview of everything you’re working toward. Breaking goals down into tasks is a separate process.

Step 2: Assess the Importance, Urgency, and Value

This step is the “meat” of the prioritization process. It starts with realizing that you can’t tackle all the things on your goal list at the same time. You may be able to accomplish all of them eventually, but to do that, you need to create a strategic plan.

That plan requires prioritizing based on the importance, urgency, and value of your goals. Here’s an example of how to assess those.

Assess Importance and Urgency

To assess importance and urgency, the most popular prioritization method is the Eisenhower matrix. The matrix consists of two axes. The horizontal axis represents urgency, and the vertical axis represents importance.

Try placing each of your goals on the matrix, depending on their importance and urgency. You can also divide a piece of paper into four boxes: urgent and important, important and not urgent, urgent and not important, and not important and not urgent.

Your highest priority tasks will derive from the urgent and important goals, followed by important and not urgent, and sometimes urgent but not important. The not important, not urgent goals are usually best put aside.

Assess Value

Sometimes, the importance versus urgency assessment is enough. It may reveal enough about your goals to help you put them in order from the highest priority to the lowest.

But if you have highly important and urgent goals still competing for your attention, you may need to base your decision on the value those goals bring — both to your professional development and to the company. This is where the Pareto analysis may be helpful.

The Pareto principle states that 80% of the success comes from 20% of the efforts. If you think about it in this way, you may be able to identify goals that create the most results in your work and focus on them first. Then, you’ll translate them into high-priority tasks to go on your to-do list.

Assess Length

If you’re still in doubt about how to prioritize your goals, this may be your last resort. Sometimes, when you’re stuck in a rut about which goal to pursue first, you can simply pick the one that takes less time.

There are moments in your professional life when doing something is better than staying paralyzed doing nothing. A quickly achievable goal may mean an easy win and a boost to your self-esteem, which will propel you forward.

To assess which goals take shorter than others, you can use a popular project management technique called work breakdown structure. It allows you to break big goals into smaller chunks and estimate how long they may take to complete.

Step 3: Decide Your Priorities and Revise Them Weekly

Once you’ve thought about various factors that contribute to your goal priority level, come back to your original list. You should now be better equipped to order your goals based on their urgency, importance, value, and in some cases, length.

Simply put numbers next to each goal, indicating which one you’ll tackle first, second, etc. Remember that this may be subject to change in the future. Your goal priorities are dynamic and depend on the wider context of your work, which tends to change.

A good rule of thumb is to revise your goals weekly, together with creating a weekly work plan. This will allow you to be more accurate about your priorities. Studies show that the time distance from a goal impacts how we perceive it. It may be that, as you get closer to completing your goal, your perception of how important it is changes.

Measure the Progress on Your Goals With Time Tracking

Speaking of time, it’s important to track how your prioritization techniques are impacting your progress at work. This is hard to do without knowing where exactly your time goes and what the outcomes are.

Once you’ve decided about your goals’ priority levels, you’ll need to break them down into daily tasks and get to work. You can verify how efficient you are by tracking time spent on those tasks and evaluating whether this is the right way to proceed.

With a time tracker like Rize, this can happen seamlessly in the background. Try the Rize app for free for the next 14 days. No credit card is required to sign up and the setup takes just a few minutes.