“I have two kinds of problems: the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.” — Eisenhower
The Prioritization Problem:
Productivity is all about being and doing the essential.
However, the number of tasks that you may have to do at any given time, can get overwhelming. Here are some of the typical things you may encounter when wrestling with a growing to-do list:
- You may not have the time to do all the tasks that you have at hand
- Although all tasks may appear to be #1, not all are equally rewarding. Some may give you more rewards for lesser efforts and vice versa (80/20 principle)
- What you like to do, may not be what is the right thing to do
- If you are focused on the wrong things every day, you can’t expect different results
We all know the quote credited to Albert Einstein:
Insanity : Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results
In other words, if prioritization is not part of your priorities, you may very well continue to be ineffective. If you don’t prioritize your tasks, the impact can range from minimal to severe.
It may be as trivial as delayed payments of bills, moderate such as missing flights or severe such as damaged credit history or lost opportunities, that may have been life-changing (for good). Sometimes, you may not even realize what you missed.
If you get Prioritization right, you have addressed a Big part of your Productivity challenge. As Peter Drucker said:
Doing the right thing is more important than doing the thing right.
Prioritization helps you to get the right things to work on. There are numerous methods to prioritize your tasks. Let us review some simple yet powerful ones. Before that let’s understand some foundational prerequisites of prioritization
Prerequisites of Prioritization
Irrespective of the technique or tool you choose to adopt, you need to keep in mind certain foundational principles that will make your prioritization effective.
Weekly (or Daily) Review of tasks
You need to quietly reflect, get all the tasks out of your head. Review all your tasks on a weekly if not on a daily basis. There is no shortcut to this.
If you fail to do this, you may miss some of the crucial tasks that may be life-altering. You may instead pick up something that is least significant or much less significant, thereby reducing your chances of success.
Say No to commitments that you can’t keep or you aren’t interested in
You need to be ruthless about this point. In some cultures, saying No is considered rude. However, that shouldn’t deter you in your quest to focus on the most important priorities.
If you fail to do this, you will not only replace time required for the right tasks with meaningless tasks but also end up being remorseful and stressed.
Be Creative and Include Stretch Goals
You need to Think Big and Creative. You need to include some of your seemingly stretch goals and tasks, as part of your review. These may be things that may not directly be related to your work but may help you in other unimaginable ways, if you are willing to prioritize.
For e.g., Pick up a course about a new field of study, that may not directly contribute to your work performance today, but may help you land a job or a second career in future.
Let us jump into the methods now.
This is a very simple but effective method. Here the tasks are plotted on Urgent and Important dimensions in a 2 * 2 grid.
Tasks can be viewed in 2 dimensions.
Important tasks are those that have a profound impact on your life. These have great value and other tasks or people may depend on their completion. They are things that contribute to your long-term mission, values, and goals. They put you in a responsive, proactive mode; where you can remain calm, rational, and open to new opportunities.
Urgent tasks are those that have a fast-approaching deadline, or already past due; they demand immediate attention, and have immediate consequences of not doing. They put you in a reactive mode and can make you defensive, negative, hurried, and narrowly-focused.
What should you put in the Quadrants?
Q1: Important and Urgent tasks: Tax deadlines, paying credit cards, bills by due-dates etc., These are crisis, deadlines, problems.
Q2: Important but not Urgent tasks: Exercise, Financial planning, Career Planning, Personal growth planning, Year-end review, Relationship planning etc., Note that if you spend most of your quality time on these activities, you may not even have many things in other quadrants. This is the most pro-active quadrant.
Q3: Not Important but Urgent tasks: Responding to instant messaging notifications, interruptions, doorbells, phone calls from unknown numbers etc.,
Q4: Not important and Not Urgent tasks: These are time wasters like browsing aimlessly, pleasure activities like spending time on social networks etc.,
It is inevitable that you will spend some time here. Some of your serendipitous ideas and inspiration may be a result of these tasks.
The idea is not to suppress your fun moments, but to keep it outside your productive hours.
Here’s the method :
- On a weekly basis and even daily basis Review your task list.
- Distribute your tasks into the 4 quadrants.
- Note that you need to cut the time for Q1, Q3, and Q4 tasks, and focus most on Q2 activities.
- You may also need to sort your list within the quadrants to further refine and decide on your next actions.
Tools to help
- iPhone: Eisenhower Application for Apple helps you to implement the above matrix. This app allows you to easily organize your task according to the Eisenhower Decision Matrix. I played around with it a bit and liked what I saw. It also has a web application.
- Android: My Effectiveness, Todo, Tasks. This app is similar to the above and has a high rating. I haven’t personally tried this, but the reviews look good.
- If you want a simpler method, draw or create a graph with 4 quadrants as above and bucketize your tasks, during your daily or weekly review. If you are the pen and paper kind, you can very well do it in a notebook.
ABCDE Method from Brian Tracey
Let us say you have a long list of tasks that you want to prioritize. Write them down on a paper or keep them on an excel sheet.
- Place one of A,B,C,D or E letters in the margin before each of the tasks on your list before you begin.
- “A” stands for “very important;” it is a must do task. There can be serious negative consequences if you don’t do it.
- “B” stands for “important;” something you should do. This is not as important as your ‘A’ tasks. There are only minor negative consequences if it is not completed.
- “C” stands for things that are “nice to do;” but which are not as important as ‘A’ or ‘B,’ tasks. There are no negative consequences for not completing it.
- “D” stands for “delegate.” You can assign this task to someone else who can do the job instead of you.
- “E” stands for “eliminate, whenever possible.” You should eliminate every single activity you possibly can, to free up your time.
- Within each of the tasks with A, append the numbers that indicate the order in which you will execute.
- Repeat until all tasks have letters and numbers.
- Don’t start on a new letter until the previous letter is fully complete.
Zen Habits prioritization method by Leo Babauta
Zen Habits recommends the simplest prioritization method.
Leo Babauta says:
“At the beginning of each day, review your list, and write down 1-3 MITs [most important tasks] that you’d like to accomplish for the day. That’s your whole planning system. You don’t need any more than that.” — Zen to Done
Using the other methods above, you should be well positioned to pick your 1-3 MITs quickly and get on the path to hitting to-do list zero.
This method relies on your intuition. After a few projects, or dealing with an overpowering to-do list enough times, your intuition helps you to know which tasks are your most important.
In this method, there’s no complete mathematical formula for working it out; but the emphasis is on prioritizing your tasks a habit. This then is a skill you can hone to get work done faster.
There are scores of other qualitative and quantitative methods, which can help you prioritize your list. You can also personalize these methods to suit your preference and style.
Post your preferred methods and ideas in the comments.