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The Friday Five

How to Prioritize When Everything Is Urgent and Important

By Jamie Spannhake

Facing a busier than ever week ahead? Use these steps to figure out how to prioritize when you are overwhelmed.

how to prioritize

Here’s my week: I have three transactions closing on Friday and I need to work on them all right now. One is not more important than the other. I have two articles due today by the end of business, both of which require my immediate attention. I am changing jobs and must figure out my medical insurance. Of course, I need to call during business hours to do that, and I have to accomplish this by Thursday or I won’t have coverage. Also: There are two contracts that needed to be reviewed last week that I still haven’t looked at, one client who needs revisions to his estate planning documents so he can sign on Friday before he travels out of the country, and another client who is very ill and needs legal advice regarding her will.

Plus, my daughter has back-to-school activities, needs to be driven to her extracurricular programs — and we adopted a puppy!

How the heck am I supposed to prioritize when everything is important and needs to be handled at the same time? Help!

Five Steps for Figuring Out How to Prioritize It All

Here’s what I do when I am faced with times such as this, when there is too much to do and no easy way to prioritize.

1. The first step is to breathe.

When we take deep breaths, it calms our bodies and minds so that we can think more clearly and make better decisions. Deep breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the “rest and digest” system that allows us to remain calm in the midst of the chaos of our busy lives. Once we are calm, we can take the time to assess and plan. This sometimes seems counterintuitive — taking out time to plan when there is so much to do. But making a plan allows us to be focused and efficient, which is key to managing our competing priorities.

2. List out everything that needs to be done.

I call this a brain dump. It is a great tool for relieving the anxiety of feeling overwhelmed when the to-do list seems impossible. A reason it helps is that we no longer fear we are going to forget an important task. It’s all written down. Don’t worry about prioritizing or figuring out how long each task will take. Just get it all down on paper or in your electronic file.

This is a helpful tool when not all the tasks are important and urgent, and I use it regularly. However, during the week described above, nearly all the tasks fit into the urgent-important category. When that’s the case, we need another tool to help us prioritize.

3. Assess urgency and importance before you prioritize.

You may be familiar with the Eisenhower productivity matrix. It is a square in four quadrants like this — obviously, any tasks that are both important and urgent take priority:

4. Delegate and get real.

Looking over all your tasks from the brain dump, especially ones that are both urgent and important, determine if someone else can handle any of the work. For me, I reached out to my paralegal to have her deal with the emails and documents associated with two of the transactions closing on Friday. I still had to monitor the communications to deal with issues that required my input, but her assistance freed me up to focus on the third transaction and write one of the articles. I also had to get real about the time commitments. I could not meet the deadline for one of the articles unless I stayed up all night to get it out before the editor woke up the next morning. I could have stayed up, but instead, I asked if there was any wiggle room for the deadline; there was. It gave me an extra day to write the article, which was incredibly helpful.

5. Estimate the amount of time for each project or task.

If you’ve done all the above and still have difficulty figuring out where to focus your efforts first, estimate the amount of time each project will take. Sometimes it is best to focus first on the task that will take the most time so that you are at least started on that time-consuming work. Sometimes it is best to knock out a few short tasks to alleviate the feeling of overwhelm. You’ll have to figure out which is best in any given situation, but just knowing that you have a plan for handling it all will help tremendously.

If you haven’t figured it out by now, this was the second article.

Now it’s written, a day later than originally planned. If you are facing a similarly busy week, use these steps to prioritize and succeed.

Back to legal work!

You might also like: “Organize Your Time With a Good Thoughtful Plan”

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Jamie Spannhake Jamie Spannhake

Jamie Jackson Spannhake is a writer, coach for lawyers, and speaker. She helps busy lawyers create lives they truly want, lives with time and space to do all the things she was told she couldn’t do as a successful lawyer. Her work with clients is based upon the principles in her book, “The Lawyer, the Lion, & the Laundry.” She spent nearly 20 years practicing law in New York and Connecticut, in BigLaw, as a solo, and as a partner in a small firm. Learn more about her at, or connect with her on LinkedIn.

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