The Best Way to Prioritize a Crazy To-Do List

July 2, 2016, 5:00 PM UTC
Businesswoman at table with head resting on hand
Businesswoman sitting at table in restaurant with head resting on hand
Photograph by Thomas Barwick via Getty Images

The MPW Insiders network is an online community where the most thoughtful and influential people in business contribute answers to timely questions about careers and leadership. Today’s answer to the question: At work, what’s the right way to say no? is written by Danielle du Toit, senior vice president of global customer success at Bullhorn.

I joined Bullhorn in April 2015 to take on the challenge of transforming the customer success organization, which included turning unhappy customers into happy ones, sharpening the department’s leadership, and creating an engaging team to deliver an incredible customer experience. As much as I wanted to tackle every issue immediately, I realized that wouldn’t result in success. Knowing I couldn’t complete everything at once, I needed to prioritize and start with the most important tasks, and approach the secondary ones later.

When a huge volume of change is required, it’s important to not only know what’s priority, but to share those priorities with the rest of your organization so your colleagues understand what you’re working on.

Sharing your priorities is as important as having them. Unless people around you understand what you’re focusing on and why, they’ll bombard you with what they view as priorities, rendering you more of a signal receiver than an effective leader or team member. That’s where having a clear plan comes in hand.

Filter tasks and ask questions
It’s extremely important to know what needs to be done today vs. tomorrow, so you need to apply a critical filter to separate now and later. You can do this by asking the right questions about projects, especially if you’re unsure how those tasks will generate immediate client revenue or value. Getting answers to valuable questions, such as, “How will this project improve my client’s bottom line?” or, “Why is this deliverable important for my customer’s business growth?” will ensure that you’re working on the right assignments at the right time. Have a general rule of prioritization that works for your business. One of my general rules to help with prioritization: The task was only a priority if it created value for a client or generated revenue for Bullhorn.

See also: The One Word You Should Never Say at Work

Focus on the context and big picture
When deciding if tasks should land on the not-now list, it’s easier to understand the context of “no” if you understand your current priorities. At the onset, be sure to clearly define objectives and goals for certain tasks and how they fit into your client’s business strategy. Knowing how assignments fit into the bigger picture allows you to either urgently jump on them or place them to the side, especially when those fire-drill requests occur.

Remain open and agile
It’s possible that the environment changes, and if it does, you should be willing to move stuff forward or push it out. Someone may come to you with something that you weren’t aware of, so be willing to evaluate issues as they arise.


Reflect and refine all the time
My not-now list is never stagnant: I’m constantly reviewing and reprioritizing it after completing current client deliverables. This doesn’t mean that if you don’t need to complete a task within the next 90 days that it’s thrown into an abyss—it just means that you should keep it on the horizon and reassess your overall strategy as you meet your goals. Constant reflection ensures that I’m working on the correct initiatives that’ll deliver the most successful client results.

Learning to say “no” has worked so well for me that some of my colleagues have asked me to help train them to do the same. Keeping a list of what can be tackled later on will allow you to clearly see what needs completion right now, hold people accountable, and, most importantly, deliver results.