How to prioritize the endless list of to-dos



The task of juggling multiple goals at once can be difficult. No matter how hard you try, you’ll always hit a point where you realize you can’t do it all. Only so much time in a day, right? Fortunately, there is a solution to the problem: prioritizing. 

A study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology examined the factors that can affect how individuals prioritize their goals and tasks. When faced with conflicting goals, it can be difficult to decide which one to prioritize. The goal that is deemed less essential can often get pushed to the side, leading to procrastination. 

In today’s chaotic working world, you need to be able to navigate the busyness of business, lest you be left behind. Consider, a study found that higher levels of procrastination were linked to lower salaries, a greater likelihood of being unemployed, and shorter durations of employment. 

So, what factors affect how individuals prioritize goals? The researchers for the current study proposed that individuals are more motivated to pursue goals with a shorter deadline for two reasons.

How we (sometimes mistakenly) prioritize our goals 

The first reason can be explained by the time pressure ratio (TPR). This ratio is defined as the time required to complete a task to the time that is available. The less time you have to complete a task, the more pressure you feel. The TPR also integrates a distance factor. Distance, in this case, is a measure of the difference between your current progress on a task (the actual) and your goal for the task (the ideal). Being aware of the discrepancy between your goal’s actual state versus ideal outcome can motivate you to pursue that goal over another one. 

The second reason why individuals are motivated to pursue goals with a shorter deadline relates to temporal discounting (TD). If you could receive $50 right now or $55 in one month, which would you choose? Most would choose the first option. A study showed that individuals will often choose an immediate lower-quality reward over a delayed higher-quality reward. In the current study, TD was used to suggest that individuals rely on the deadline – rather than the importance of the goal – when determining how to prioritize their goals.  

The researchers utilized time pressure, distance, and temporal discounting to test how individuals manage multiple goals at once and where the pitfalls lie.



The Study and Findings

Four experiments were performed to test their theory. The first experiment examined how people make prioritization decisions while pursuing two goals with varying deadlines. This experiment consisted of 48 participants. Each participant completed an online task requiring them to virtually water a set of crops during the growing season. 

The deadlines for this experiment were manipulated by varying the number of weeks in the growing season (between 10 to 50 weeks). Distance was also manipulated by varying the starting height of the crops (between 30 to 150 cm). The goal of the simulation was to grow the crops to 180 cm. 

Each week the participants were given an update of how much their crops had grown. This allowed them to make decisions about when or how often to irrigate their crops for the following week. Each participant made a total of 1,800 decisions. Additionally, if their goal height was met before the deadline, the participant still had to water their crops to maintain optimal height.

In line with the hypothesis, people were more likely to prioritize the experimental goal when it had a shorter deadline. The only instance when this didn’t occur was when the distance between their starting height and their goal height was large. In this case, a shorter deadline made the goal subjectively more difficult to achieve, leading many participants to abandon their goal in favor of other pursuits. 

In the second experiment, the range of deadlines and starting heights stayed the same as the first experiment. However, the amount of growth that could be achieved varied, allowing time pressure to remain constant. For example, if their starting height was 90 cm and their deadline was 30 weeks, the mean growth was 6 cm. If their starting height and deadline was three times that, their mean growth would be 18 cm. 

The results of the second experiment showed that participants were less likely to prioritize a goal when it had a longer deadline. This can be explained by temporal discounting. Goals with a longer deadline were neglected because any reward associated with these goals wouldn’t be received until a later date. The lengthy time delay between reaching the goal and receiving a reward caused these goals to be deemed as less important.   

In the third experiment, the range of deadlines remained the same as the first two experiments and the mean growth was altered once again. However, unlike the other experiments, the starting height for all participants was 90 cm. 

As a result, at shorter deadlines, there was an inverted U-shape effect of time pressure. People were most likely to prioritize the experimental goal when the time pressure was moderate. In cases where the time pressure was too high or too low (or if they had a long deadline), the goal was less of a priority.  

In the fourth and final experiment, the deadlines for the experimental goals ranged from 20 to 40 weeks. The starting heights ranged from 60 to 120 cm. Time pressure was manipulated in the same manner as the third experiment. The results were in line with those in the previous studies: People were more likely to prioritize a goal when the deadline was shorter.



Altogether, the four experiments supported the hypothesis that shortening a deadline increases prioritization of a goal, unless the goal is perceived as too difficult to achieve. Further, these experiments supported the two hypothesized reasons for why shorter deadlines affect goal prioritization. First, the researchers found that time pressure does in fact matter. Second, by manipulating the deadlines, they found that whether someone acts on a goal can be affected by temporal discounting. That is, individuals were more likely to procrastinate or ‘discount’ a goal if the deadline was far away.   

The researchers also discussed how these results can play out in a work environment. By ‘discounting’ goals with a longer deadline, you run the risk of under-prioritizing these goals. This can lead you to procrastinate and to overestimate how much time you realistically have to complete this goal. In turn, this can hinder your performance or cause you to abandon a goal altogether. However, with the proper techniques, these setbacks can be avoided.

Results applied: How to properly prioritize multiple goals

Give yourself just enough time

Shorter deadlines often work because they don’t give you room to procrastinate. It allows you to be as productive as possible for a sufficient amount of time. Studies show that when employees are given just enough time to complete a task, they work at a faster pace and their performance is improved. Try the following tips to create deadlines that work best for you:

  • Write a list of all the tasks you need to complete for the next two months

  • Next to each task, write down how much time you realistically think you’ll need

  • Now determine a start date and deadline for each task 

  • Input these dates into a calendar 

To maximize the benefits from this technique, it’s essential that your deadlines are just the right length. If they’re too short, you may add unnecessary stress. If you have a habit of creating deadlines that are too short, try giving yourself 20% more time. For example, if you’ve decided that you need 5 weeks to complete a task, make it 6 weeks instead.



Determine what’s eating up your time

When it comes to juggling multiple tasks, time management is essential. In order to be as productive as possible, you need to ensure that you’re not wasting time on unimportant tasks. Luckily, there are some great apps for determining your productivity level: Toggl, Rescue Time, and Tsheets. These applications will tell you how much time you’re spending on social media, checking your emails, etc. Once you get your results, determine what’s eating up too much of your time and cut back.

Be productive in the morning

According to a study, the best time of day to get work done is the morning. In the study, participants completed two logical reasoning tests at six different times during the day, starting at 8:00 am. Overall, the participants’ accuracy steadily declined throughout the day, and after 2:00 pm their speed on the test dropped rapidly. This is likely due to mental fatigue

A similar study found that afternoon calls between analysts and managers, compared to morning calls, were significantly more negative. This was associated with temporary stock mispricing and overreactions to bad news. This led the researchers to suggest that important managerial decisions and negotiations should take place earlier in the day. So, try working on your more strenuous tasks in the morning. Leave the less challenging tasks for after lunch.