Knowing how to prioritize tasks is an essential skill for students of any age. Students who know how to prioritize tasks and responsibilities have an advantage over classmates who approach homework and studying haphazardly. Prioritization keeps students organized and productive while ensuring they have plenty of time to finish assignments, study, complete household chores, and enjoy social and extracurricular activities.
Knowing how to prioritize work and responsibilities is a lifelong skill. Like any skill, prioritization improves with practice and can be taught at any age.
What Are Prioritization Skills?
Prioritization skills help students determine which tasks are the most important and urgent and how much time to allocate to each task. Knowing how to prioritize tasks helps students be more productive by making the best use of their time.
Prioritization is an executive functioning skill. Executive functioning describes the skills needed to plan, organize, focus, and follow instructions. Executive functioning skills include time management and organization.
How to Prioritize Tasks
With proper planning, students can list tasks and prioritize them by urgency and importance, allowing order to emerge from chaos and preventing “analysis paralysis,” which increases stress and decreases productivity.
Students should spend some time each day listing their school assignments and other activities and then identify the tasks requiring their immediate attention. For younger students, this can be as simple as making a to-do list and assigning each item on the list a priority number using the Ivy Lee Prioritization Template. Students then work on the highest priority task first, then the next most important, and so on down the list.
Older students can use more complex prioritization tools, such as a prioritization matrix. Also called the Eisenhower Matrix, a prioritization index uses a simple table to prioritize tasks by importance and urgency, as follows:
|Urgent and important||Important but not urgent|
|Not important but urgent||Neither urgent nor important|
Tasks that are urgent and important should be finished first. Once these tasks are complete, students can move on to tasks that are urgent but not important and then important but not urgent. Tasks that are neither urgent nor important can be completed when the student has less pressing responsibilities.
For instance, let’s say a student has to prioritize the following six tasks:
- Study for an exam at the end of the week
- Complete algebra homework for tomorrow
- Research a major science project due in two months
- Complete household chores
- Go swimming with friends
- Attend a family gathering over the weekend
Using a prioritization index, your child might organize their priorities like this:
|Urgent and Important
Complete algebra homework
Study for exam
|Important but Not Urgent
Research science project
|Urgent but Not Important
Complete household chores
Go to family gathering
|Neither Important Nor Urgent
A prioritization matrix helps students identify their most pressing tasks and responsibilities. Different students will prioritize tasks in slightly different ways. For instance, some might consider household chores urgent and important or move swimming with friends into the important but not urgent square.
Tips to Help Prioritize Work
- When prioritizing tasks, keep the Pareto Principle in mind. The Pareto Principle, or 80/20 rule, states that you get 80% of your results out of 20% of your efforts. Students should prioritize tasks that bring real, lasting results or move them toward a long-term goal.
- Make sure that each task has a clear deadline.
- Use a student planner to budget time each morning for prioritization.
- When in doubt, start with the least exciting task, as getting that out of the way will provide motivation for later assignments.
- Regularly reevaluate priorities as circumstances change. Learn to avoid the “sunk cost fallacy” of continuing tasks or activities that have decreased in urgency or importance due to changing conditions.
- Consider how spending time wisely today frees up time for other activities.
How Do Students Learn How to Prioritize?
A child’s prioritization and executive functioning skills begin to develop between ages three and five. According to the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, executive functioning skills strengthen once again during adolescence and early adult years. While these periods are prime opportunities to teach executive development skills, students can learn how to prioritize tasks at any age.
Some schools and individual teachers incorporate executive functioning skills into their curriculums, but this isn’t always universal. Many schools lack the resources to teach prioritization or expect students to have already mastered executive functioning skills. Revolution Prep tutors pride themselves on the teaching and application of prioritization skills — skills that provide both immediate and long-term academic benefits.
Need more information on prioritization and executive functioning skills? Check out our executive functioning guide. It’s a great starting resource for students to develop their prioritization skills. And consider working with a Revolution Prep private tutor for students who want to develop and hone their executive functioning skills.