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How Do I Know Which Priority to Give Tasks?

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Most projects have so many tasks that it can be difficult to sort out which gets first priority. And often, those initial tasks open up a whole chain of other tasks to complete, adding to a project managers’ already-excessive list of choices. But if the project manager has an established, approved system for managing task priority, it can go a long way towards taking the stress out of deadlines.

There are many different systems you can use—you can event create one yourself. What’s important is that the system works for your situation and project environment, and is something everyone can buy into. Here are a few suggestions for you to try out:

Prioritize By Deadline

If you’ve planned your project properly, then your deadlines are going to be realistic and give you enough breathing room to actually get things done. Deadlines will arrive in the order the tasks are needed, and the project will flow in a more or less structured manner.

In the real world, however, “prioritize by deadline” often means “focus on what’s late”. It’s sad to admit, but many of us have had to resort to this method sooner or later, regardless of what deliverables would actually be better for moving the project forward. Even so, it’s still possible to track and finish late tasks without bringing the whole project over deadline.

Critical Path

This is a more formal task prioritization method that tries to find the shortest task chain towards project completion. It takes into account the most important dependencies and categorizes everything else as “nice to haves”. Although this approach is definitely good at identifying your most direct route to project completion, keep in mind that it does not suggest that that’s the only thing you should do. Following only the critical path will get you a bare-bones deliverable that will only be slightly better than getting one that’s half-finished.

Resource Availability

Sometimes project managers can’t prioritize based on what needs to be done, but by what they have to work with. This is especially true for small or incomplete project teams, who don’t have the expertise or the manpower to accomplish every task. In such a situation, the team is better of working on what can be done while the project manager tries to find the right resources from elsewhere.

Management or Stakeholder Priority

Management or stakeholders will sometimes have “pet tasks” that a team should prioritize, whether or not it actually makes sense for the team to do so. In this case, task priority is determined by an external party, with the project manager trying to get some synchronization going between the “pet tasks” and what actually needs to get done.

What other methods do you have for prioritizing tasks? Share your ideas in the comments below!

Image credit, mrbill78636, Flickr

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