Not everything is important.

If you care about your job, your work, or even your hobbies at all, it’s not hard to imagine this scenario.

You want things to go well. You want to do a good job. You want to be the person that people talk about when they think of someone dependable, professional, and impressive at the things they do.

Obviously, if that’s your goal, you start by trying to do your job well. Then, once you’ve got that nailed, you might get restless—technically complacent, but not satisfied. You begin to follow your dreams in your spare time—a novel, a screenplay. More hours of work on “important things.”

You may start to look into different niches and avenues of your job that you can pick up and excel at, too. Take some work off your co-worker’s plate. Send your boss an email asking if there’s anything else you can do for them. You’re the go-to person now. The go-to person who answers every email as soon as you get it, who then becomes the person doing it at 11:38 pm, and then on the weekends.


Your workload quickly expands in commensurate measure. Your head gets positioned onto a restless swivel.

Soon, you don’t know which way is up or down—and, more than anything, what’s truly important. It’s a scary easy spiral to fall into.

And—here’s the part you might not want to hear—ultimately, it’s not productive. In fact, left unchecked, you will only leave a path of half-finished work and anxiety in your wake. Your boring slow-and-steady co-worker gets the promotion instead. What a nightmare, right?

This is the strange allure of “everything is important” syndrome. Quarterly reports are approached with the same fervor as having to call security because the intern got locked out of his filing cabinet. And that’s not even mentioning your novel, which, yes, is important too. But it’s been falling by the wayside, hasn’t it?

But don’t worry, there’s an answer to these problems: a little thing called prioritization. And it just might turn your life around.

Doing prioritization right

Effective time management hinges on prioritization. And prioritization is all about elevating the important tasks to the top of your to-do list.

But, simple as it may sound, it’s difficult to do correctly. If you’re not deliberate in how you prioritize, it can swiftly undermine your productivity. You have to assess all potential activities, and must carefully select those deserving of your time today. However, what seemed important yesterday might not be important again today. Perhaps you’ve dedicated weeks to coding a new feature only to discover it won’t make the next release. Or maybe a month-long project suddenly unravels from its initial vision.

On the flip side, deprioritization involves actively removing tasks from your list. You scan your array of tasks, whether planned, initiated, or invested in, and declare, “This no longer holds priority for me.”

While it’s straightforward to deprioritize tasks lacking significance, what about those once deemed crucial or those you’ve poured hours into?

How to recognize the important things reliably


No matter how many prioritization techniques you try, it’s frustratingly common to find that the wrong tasks somehow end up taking precedence on your to-do list.

To shake up your priorities, the first step is understanding how those ‘wrong’ tasks got there in the first place. Let’s take a look at some typical prioritization slip-ups and how to spot them:

Putting Urgency Before Importance: Sometimes, tasks get bumped up simply because they seem urgent. Studies have shown that we tend to prioritize tasks with looming deadlines, even if they’re not the most critical or rewarding.

Warning Signs: Your to-do list is packed with items with short deadlines. Despite feeling like you’re constantly on the move, it seems like nothing substantial is getting done.

Scope creep: it’s not clear what exactly needs to be tackled.

This occurs when a project or task starts expanding beyond its initial boundaries, which happens more often than we’d like to admit. But what we often overlook is the importance of reevaluating a task’s priority when it veers off course.

Warning Signs: If a task has been lingering on your to-do list for weeks or has turned into a vague item like “finish [giant task]” or “work on [huge project].”

Adjusting priorities: You lack a defined process, whether personal or professional, for adjusting priorities.

Most of us have some method for organizing our tasks, whether it’s a structured approach like the Eisenhower Matrix or something more informal. However, very few of us have a clear strategy for deprioritizing tasks when necessary.

Warning Signs: Your task list keeps expanding despite feeling like you’re constantly busy.

Understanding the Real Worth of Tasks

The key to effective prioritization lies in recognizing the true value of each task and managing your time accordingly to maximize results. Yet, it’s common to misjudge or overlook a task’s actual importance. This tendency is particularly prevalent among “makers”—those engaged in creative endeavors such as design, coding, or writing—who may undervalue aspects like research, exploration, and experimentation.

Warning Signs: Your to-do list is stuffed with tasks that are unimportant. Or, like many, you reach the end of the day wondering, “What did I really accomplish?”

Unclear Company Objectives

Prioritization in the workplace isn’t a solitary endeavor. Your actions reverberate across your team, impacting everyone’s efforts. Surprisingly, a staggering 90% of individuals express confusion regarding their company’s overarching strategy and their role in achieving its goals.

While it’s tempting to rely on others to set priorities, it’s also important not to shoulder the entire burden of prioritization missteps.

Warning signs: Team members are unsure about their priorities, and management hesitates to outline a clear direction.

The deprioritization paradox


Even when you’re aware that you’re spending time on tasks that aren’t serving your goals, it can feel challenging to hit the brakes and redirect your efforts. We’ve all heard those clichéd pieces of advice:

“It’s easy to give up…”

“Quitting becomes a habit once you start…”

“The real challenge begins when you try to stop…”

Despite knowing that saying no to certain projects would free up valuable time for more important endeavors, there’s often a nagging sense of guilt and shame, urging you to soldier on.

But mastering the art of deprioritization means recognizing when your mind is acting like an enthusiastic partygoer pushing you into another round of beer pong, even when it’s time to call it a night.

These mental traps, biases, and fallacies keep us tethered to tasks we should be letting go of. They include:

  • The sunk cost fallacy: Fixating on tasks simply because we’ve invested time in them, ignoring the fact that what matters most is our future actions.
  • The completion bias: Prioritizing easy-to-finish tasks because crossing them off our list triggers a rush of dopamine, making it tough to let go, even when it’s time.
  • The Zeigarnik effect: Our brain’s tendency to dwell on unfinished tasks, often causing us to prioritize them over new ones. It’s like Newton’s first law applied to productivity: tasks in motion tend to stay in motion.
  • And then there’s the fear of failure, perhaps the most potent force keeping us from deprioritizing. None of us wants to be labeled as someone who shirks responsibility or gives up at the first sign of trouble.

All these biases conspire to keep us tethered to tasks that were once important but no longer serve us. So, how do we break free from their grip and channel our energies toward what truly matters?

How to truly deprioritize work: 5 strategies

Spending endless hours trying to figure out what should be your top priority isn’t the most productive use of your time. But neither is simply setting tasks and forgetting about them altogether.

The trick lies in establishing a deliberate and consistent process for reevaluating your priorities. This way, you can continue focusing on what’s effective and sideline what’s not pulling its weight.

Here are a few strategies to kick-start this process:

1. “Time-bind” your tasks:

The longer you dedicate to a misguided priority, the tougher it gets to let it go. By setting time constraints, you create natural opportunities to pause and reassess.

Integrating these time limits into your broader projects is key. For instance, you can schedule a ‘check-in’ moment for a week or two down the line. Set your time limit, mark a reminder in your calendar or project management tool, and establish clear criteria for evaluating its priority status.

For example:

“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 requires you to bring in other people to give you an outside perspective. Ask for high-level feedback and reassess when you’re 30% finished. And then ask for more specific feedback when you’re at 90%.

2. Craft a “Do Not Do” List

Just as vital as determining what you want to focus on is identifying what you don’t. A “do not do” list is exactly what it sounds like. However, the trick is to see it not as a list of “never” tasks, but rather as a guide for tasks to set aside for the time being.

No matter your preferred method for organizing your workload, it’s helpful to designate a distinct section for tasks—or types of tasks—that aren’t a priority at the moment.

For instance, you might have a strong inclination to dive into a personal project, but you simply don’t have the time or energy to prioritize it right now. In such a scenario, jotting down on your to-do list that you’ll revisit that project next month can provide clarity and focus.

3. A weekly review to reevaluate your priorities

With all the cognitive biases we’ve touched on earlier, it can often be tough to push aside tasks in the heat of the moment. Regular check-ins, however, offer the breathing room needed to assess whether ongoing tasks still warrant your attention.

A weekly review stands out as one of the most effective methods for this purpose.

We’ve put together a comprehensive guide on conducting a thorough weekly review, which you can find here. However, for the sake of deprioritization, here are the key steps:

  • Carve out 5–10 minutes to reflect on your to-do list from the past week.
  • Assign a score of 1–5 to each completed task (1 being low priority, 5 being high priority).
  • Include any tasks that scored 1–3 in the “not to do” list.
  • Repeat the process for any tasks left untouched or partially completed.
  • Deprioritize any unfinished tasks that don’t score a 4 or 5.

4. Focus on the key components of important tasks

Sometimes, you don’t have to tackle the entire task or project at once. Try a scaled-down version of your goal—perhaps just a fraction of its original size. This approach makes the goal more attainable and emphasizes its core importance.

For instance, instead of drafting a comprehensive strategy document, which can feel lofty and big and scary, and thus lead you to prioritize creating an outline first. Similarly, rather than revamping the entire marketing website, start with the landing page. By focusing on essential elements, you can efficiently manage your workload and postpone less critical tasks for later.”

5. Choose what’s most crucial by committee

Start by engaging with your team, clients, or boss to gauge their perspectives on what they consider most crucial. Sometimes, when you decide to shift focus away from a task or project that others know you’re tackling, it might trigger feelings of inadequacy or even regret for taking it on initially.

However, it’s perfectly okay to adjust your priorities without worrying about being judged. Openly communicating about tasks you’ve deprioritized can kick off valuable discussions about what truly matters for both you and your company.

For instance, at Zapier, some senior team members dedicate a section in their weekly updates to ‘Things they’ve deprioritized.’ Take Michael Shen, Zapier’s director of advertising and paid media, for example:

What I’ve deprioritized:

  • Attending the All Hands Meeting and team update: This one was a tough call, but I needed to recuperate after a particularly rough night where I only managed three hours of sleep.
  • Pursuing internationalization efforts: Although I’m passionate about a certain idea, I’ve decided to postpone this until mid-next week.

The bigger picture is the biggest picture


When you decide to deprioritize tasks, you’re essentially reclaiming control over your time. As Greg McKeown, the author of Essentialism, points out in his book, “if you don’t take charge of your schedule, someone else will gladly do it for you.”

The challenge arises when you’re buried in urgent tasks; it’s tough to keep the bigger picture in mind. While the strategies mentioned above can help you step back, tools like RescueTime can offer valuable insights into how you’re truly allocating your time.

For someone like a graduate student, RescueTime’s Weekly Report is particularly useful. It provides a quick overview of your time usage and productivity levels. Just a weekly check-in can shed light on whether you’re focusing on the right things or if there are tasks that could be shifted down the priority list.

It’s crucial to recognize that productivity suffers when priorities are unclear. Each day, you’re faced with limited time, energy, and attention. Effectively allocating these finite resources distinguishes a satisfying, productive day from one that leaves you feeling overwhelmed and unaccomplished.

Don’t assume that your initial priorities are set in stone. Take the time to reassess periodically, and don’t hesitate to adjust them as needed. Remember, hard work loses its meaning if it’s directed toward the wrong tasks.

Robin Copple

Robin Copple is a writer and editor from Los Angeles, California.

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