Prioritization is the cornerstone of proper time management. However, if you’re not careful (and purposeful) with how you prioritize, it can quickly sabotage your productivity.
Prioritizing your work is essentially the act of moving items to the top of your list. You look at all the things you could be doing, and painstakingly choose what deserves your time today.
But who’s to say what felt like a priority at one point still is today?
Maybe you’ve spent the last few weeks prioritizing coding a new feature and have just learned it might not make it into the next release. Or, you’ve been working on a project for the last month and suddenly realize it’s just not working out as you planned.
Deprioritizing, on the other hand, is actively moving things off your list.
When you deprioritize you look at the big list of tasks you either planned to work on, have started on, or even put blood, sweat, and tears into and say “this isn’t a priority for me anymore”.
And while it’s easy to deprioritize tasks you don’t really care about (like busywork and endless status meetings), what about work that felt like a priority at one point or that you’ve already spent hours of your life working on?
In this guide, we’re going to help you learn:
- How to recognize when you’ve prioritized the wrong work
- Why your brain stops you from ‘throwing away’ your work
- How to deprioritize work: 7 strategies to help you stop, reassess, or refocus your priorities
How to recognize when you’ve prioritized the wrong work
Despite using every prioritization framework in the book, it’s common to realize later on that the wrong things still somehow ended up at the top of your list.
To deprioritize your to-do list, you first need to understand why it got filled with the ‘wrong’ work. Here are some of the most common prioritization mistakes people make and how you can recognize them:
1. You let urgency trump importance
One of the simplest reasons why you prioritize the wrong tasks is that they feel urgent. A series of new research discovered that we’re more likely to prioritize tasks with the shortest deadline–even if we know they’re not as important to us or won’t give us the biggest reward.
Warning signs: You only have tasks or projects with short deadlines on your to-do list. Everything feels like it has to be done now, yet nothing really feels like it’s getting accomplished.
2. You’re unclear from the start what needs to be done
Scope creep is when a project or task expands beyond what you initially thought it would be. While this is all-too-common, we rarely take the time to reassess a task’s priority when it does.
Warning signs: A task has been on your to-do list for multiple weeks or has morphed into a vague statement (such as “finish [giant task]” or “work on [huge project]”)
3. You don’t have a process (personal or professional) for changing priorities
Most of us have some process for prioritizing tasks whether it’s a formal system like the Eisenhower Matrix or something more casual. However, almost no one has a clear process for deprioritizing tasks.
Warning signs: Your task list keeps growing even though you feel like you’re always busy.
4. You don’t know the true value of a task
Proper prioritization comes down to understanding the value of each task and optimizing your time to get the best results. However, it’s easy to miscalculate (or just ignore) a task’s true value. This is especially the case if you’re more of a ‘maker’–someone who does creative work like a designer, coder, or writer and devalue parts of your work like research, exploration, and experimentation.
Warning signs: Your to-do list is filled with low-value work. Or, like most people, you get to the end of the workday and wonder “what did I actually get done?”
5. Your company goals are unclear
Prioritization at work is never a solo activity. Your work impacts everyone else on your team. Yet, 90% of people say they don’t understand their company’s strategy or what’s expected of them to help achieve company goals.
Don’t always assume that someone else will set your priorities for you. But also don’t place the blame of improper prioritization solely on your own shoulders.
Warning signs: No one on your team is certain what their priorities are and management won’t commit to a clear path.
The deprioritization paradox: Why your brain stops you from ‘throwing away’ work
Even if you know you’re working on the wrong tasks, it can be hard to prioritize them and ‘throw away’ all that effort. Just think about the conventional (and cliche) pieces of advice you hear:
Giving up is easy…
Once you learn to quit it becomes a habit…
The hard work starts when you want to stop…
But learning to deprioritize means recognizing when your brain is acting like an over-eager frat boy egging you on to another round of beer pong even when you know it’s time to go home.
These mental biases and fallacies are what cause us to continue to work on things we should deprioritize. This includes:
- The sunk cost fallacy: When your brain prioritizes tasks you’ve already spent time on without accepting that you can never get that time back. What’s more important is what you do going forward.
- The completion bias: Where you prioritize easy-to-finish tasks. When you tick items off a list it releases dopamine (the brain’s ‘feel-good chemical’), which makes it especially hard to deprioritize something you’re close to finishing.
- The Zeigarnik effect: This is your brain’s tendency to focus on unfinished tasks over ones you haven’t started. Or, as Atomic Habits author James Clear says, it’s like the productivity equivalent to Newton’s first law: Objects in motion tend to stay in motion.
Lastly, there’s fear of failure (or being seen as a failure). This is probably the biggest reason most people fail to deprioritize tasks. No one wants to be seen as someone who can’t do their work. Or worse, someone who gives up easily.
All of these biases cause you to continue to work on tasks that were priorities at some point but aren’t in your best interest anymore. So how do you break free from them and really focus your energies on the right things?
How to deprioritize work: 5 strategies to help you stop, reassess, or refocus your priorities
You can’t spend all day thinking about what’s a priority and what’s not. But it’s equally as unproductive to take a set-it-and-forget-it approach to your task list.
Instead, the answer is to create a purposeful and repeatable process for reassessing your priorities so you can keep doing what’s working and deprioritize what’s not.
Here are a few strategies to help you get started.
1. Set limits on how long you’ll work on a task
The more time you spend on the wrong priority, the harder it becomes to ‘quit’ it. But by setting time limits you create a natural moment to stop and reassess.
You can bake these time limits right into any larger project in a number of ways.
First, you can set a ‘check-in’ moment for after a week or two. Set your time limit, add a reminder in your calendar or project management app, and make sure you have a set of clear criteria to judge it against and see if it’s still a priority.
“We’ll try this for two weeks and then evaluate. This is what we’ll look at to see if it worked.”
Otherwise, another option is to use the 30/90 feedback framework.
This is where you bring in other people at strategic moments to help give you an outside perspective. Ask for high-level feedback and reassess when you’re 30% done. And then ask for more specific feedback when you’re at 90%.
2. Create a ‘not to do’ list
Just as important as what you want to prioritize are the things that you don’t want to. A ‘not to do’ list is exactly what it sounds like. However, the key is to think of it not as a ‘not ever’ list but rather as a list for ‘not now’ tasks.
No matter what method you use to prioritize your workload, you can include a clear section of tasks–or types of tasks–that shouldn’t be on it for now.
For example, you might feel strongly about working on a personal project but not have the time or energy to really prioritize it right now. In this case, it can help to physically write down on your to-do list that you won’t be working on that project until next month.
3. Use a weekly review to reassess your priorities
Thanks to all the cognitive biases we listed before, it can feel impossible to deprioritize tasks in the moment. Instead, regular moments of review can give you the space you need to properly decide whether ongoing work still deserves your attention.
A weekly review is probably the best way to do this.
We wrote a full guide on how to do a proper weekly review here. But the basic elements for the purpose of deprioritizing would be:
- Set aside 5–10 minutes to reflect on your to-do list from the previous week
- For each item you completed, give it a score from 1–5 (1 = not a priority, 5 = high priority)
- Add any ‘type’ of task that scored 1–3 to your ‘not to do’ list
- Do the same for each item unstarted or partially done
- Deprioritize any unfinished tasks that don’t score a 4 or 5
4. Isolate only the most impactful elements of important tasks
Sometimes you only need to deprioritize certain parts of a task or project, not the whole thing. This helps you keep only what’s most valuable and get rid of the rest.
Here’s how Dr. Alice Boyles explains the process:
“When you consider a goal, also consider a half-size version… You might end up with a goal that’s one-fourth or one-tenth the size of what you initially considered but that’s more achievable (and more important).”
Do you need to prioritize writing out an entire strategy document? Or just the outline? Do you need to redesign the entire new marketing site? Or just the landing page for now?
Prioritize only the parts of a project that need to be done and deprioritize the rest until later.
5. Ask your team, clients, or boss what they think is most important
When you deprioritize a task or project that other people know you’re working on, it can make you feel like a failure. Or worse, like it was a stupid choice to take it on in the first place.
But you’re allowed to change your priorities without fear of judgment. In fact, sharing that you’ve deprioritized certain tasks can help start a conversation about what’s truly important for you and your company.
At Zapier, a few of the senior teammates include a section on ‘Things they deprioritized’ in their weekly updates.
Here’s an example from Michael Shen, Zapier’s director of advertising and paid media:
What I deprioritized:
– All Hands Meeting and team update: this one hurt, but I needed to recover from a really rough evening where I got three hours of sleep.
– Exploring internationalization – I’m passionate about a certain idea but have dropped this until mid-next week.
Bonus: Pay attention to what helps you see the bigger picture
When you deprioritize tasks you take back control of your time. As Greg McKeown, the author of Essentialism shares, if you don’t prioritize your time, someone else will.
The problem is it’s hard to think about this when you’re focused on urgent work. While the above strategies can help you step away, a tool like RescueTime can open your eyes to how you’re actually spending your time.
Even just checking in on a weekly basis will help you understand if you’re truly working on the right things. Or if there are tasks and activities that need to be deprioritized.
Productivity falls apart if you don’t have your priorities in order
You have limited time, energy, and attention each day. And choosing the right things to commit those limited resources to is what separates a good day from one that leaves you feeling frustrated, stressed, and unaccomplished.
Don’t assume that you got your priorities right the first time around. Take some time to reassess and don’t feel guilty if you have to reprioritize something. Working hard doesn’t matter if you’re working on the wrong tasks.
How do you deprioritize or ‘quit’ projects and tasks? Let us know in the comments below!