How to Prioritize a To-Do List in 2021

February 6, 2021
“There’s never enough time to do everything, but there’s always enough time to do the most important thing.” 

- John Maxwell

2020 is officially over and done with … yay!

And how different are things … really … in 2021?

If this time delivered major life events for you, it’s easy to spot contrasts between years or even months and weeks.

Or if things are relatively stable, just somewhat awkward and weird as the vaccine rolls out and social distancing and masks linger on, it’s safe to say that it’s going to be a while before things return to a predictable rhythm again.

Back in March of last year, we could hold out hope that this whole COVID thing was a short-term problem. 

Almost a year later, those “temporary” adjustments—working from home, virtual school, and celebrating when we can find cleaning supplies—are here to stay.

And everyone I talk with is TIRED. Mentally, emotionally, and physically.

And when we’re tired, it’s easy to lose focus. So the question is: did COVID shake your priorities up, and is it time to review them and move forward in a new way? Or, was COVID an excuse to punt and just avoid thinking about your priorities?

No judgment either way.

So whether you need to update them or pick them back up, here’s how to get back in alignment with the things that light you up and make choices accordingly.


2020 was exhausting.

Suddenly, everything we thought of as normal and predictable changed.

Parents became full-time employees and part-time teachers. Teachers became front-line workers.

That kind of a shakeup has an impact across the board when it comes to our priorities.

In 2019, success might have meant getting up at 5 a.m. to work out, then making the kids breakfast before a hyper-productive workday.

In 2020, success might have meant getting up at ALL, and keeping everyone safe and healthy for one more day.

This year, what do you want to use as your metric(s) of success at home and at work? What does a successful day, week, month, or year look like for YOU in 2021?

(If you’re still stuck in last year’s shock, it’s going to be hard to move forward. So take a moment, and journal or breathe through whatever you need to, to join the rest of us in this new year.

And when that’s finished, write your definition of success down:

  • Is success finding a new job?
  • Is it growing your own produce and teaching your kids how rewarding some focused hard work can be?

Is it supporting your team in crushing your company’s Q2 goals?

  • All of the above?!

There is no wrong answer here other than NOT having an answer.

The only thing you don’t want to do is wait for someone else to step in and tell you what’s important. First of all, they may not ... and so you’re stuck in limbo waiting.

Second, you’re less likely to work toward any goals if YOU didn’t decide what success looks like this year.

(Trying to achieve someone else’s definition of success sounds like an unsatisfying and possibly doomed project anyway.)

So, once you know what success means for you in 2021, each of these goals is a “finish line.”

For more detail on how to create distinct goals based on and aligned with your values,  check out this post. . And if your to-do list is missing necessary steps toward achieving what’s important to you, you’ll want to break your goal down into milestones and steps. Fortunately, I break down how I break projects down into discrete steps here.

Ultimately, you can’t prioritize the tasks on your to-do list until you’ve finished Step 1—you won’t have a yardstick or any other way of determining which task to do first without the finish line in clear sight.

You can certainly keep yourself busy … but we know where busy with no focus gets you—tired and dissatisfied.


The overall goal of this entire process is to be successful at accomplishing what’s important to you when it comes to both your career/work AND sanity.

It won’t help your mental health to hit all your goals if you make yourself unhappy and crazy doing it, and you probably won’t be all that happy if you’re not accomplishing any of your goals.

Now, once you’ve listed out what you need to do, here’s how you prioritize each of the tasks day-to-day.

Start by asking these questions as you evaluate each task:

  • Does this have to be done today?
  • Does this have to be done by me?
  • Is this a step in a larger project or a one-off?
  • Is there something more important to do first?
  • Does this get me closer to my goal? How?

Based on your answers, you will move each task up or down the list and then schedule a discrete appointment on your calendar to work on it.

Your next step is to make sure that you have at least one task on your calendar, each day, that is moving you closer to your goal or goals.


The essential tool for this is your calendar. I’ve written several times in the past about how to use calendars, and why they’re so important. 

If you’ve forgotten, missed them or are new to our ecosystem, read this post and this post for more.

Most people under- or overestimate how long things actually take to do … especially when viewing a series of smaller tasks tied to one milestone as ONE task. Now you know to watch out for that. It will save you time and heartache when allocating the time for it in your calendar.

Keep in mind that your calendar should reflect YOUR values.

So with 1 being the minimum, aim to schedule 3-5 daily activities that support your most important goals, and actually KEEP the appointments.

This is another place it is really easy to waffle.

Resist the urge to not show up for yourself by prioritizing someone else’s goals over your own.

My daily routine in 2021 will always include:

  • A business development and/or revenue-generating work task
  • Some form of physical exercise
  • At least 5 minutes of meditation and/or focused reflection

Those reflect what’s important to me this year. What are yours?


You can’t prioritize even a simple to-do list if you don’t know what’s most important to you.

And since 2020 was a rather sobering year, your goals and values might have changed as a result … or not.

So a deliberate check in with how you define success is where to start. 

Evaluate your to-do list for what resonates and aligns with those values for this year—don’t just recycle an old list that meant something to you years ago.

Then put at least 1 or ideally 3-5 of the tasks that bring you closer to your goals on your calendar every day to keep you moving forwards.

And finally, follow through and show up for those appointments, even if they are just with yourself.

(Because there’s no point in prioritizing the list, without taking some action.)

That’s the simplest way to prioritize this year or any year.

Need help with this process for your or your business? Schedule a quick and free strategy call with our Senior Coach.

Declutter Your Life Podcast by Andrew Mellen. Available on iTunes!