We lead very busy, full lives and, as a result, we all have WAY too many things on our plates: too many projects, too many commitments, and too many initiatives on the back-burner that we never quite get around to tackling. For many of us, our ‘To Do’ lists have spiralled out of control to the point that we are overwhelmed and have come to the disheartening acceptance that we will never get it all done.
And it's true ... we will never get everything done. That's why a simple task list is woefully insufficient. What we need is a system for prioritizing all the items on our list; a system that helps us determine what should be at the top of our list at any given time, to allow us to put first things first. (If you ever feel alone in this, it is an age-old problem: the first record of this adage is from 1545, almost 500 years ago, and was likely in popular use long before that.)
“The things that matter most must never be at the
mercy of the things that matter least.”
- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
One of the keys to effective time management is to understand how to prioritize your time so that important, more complex matters don't take a back seat to urgent tasks that vie for your immediate attention ... not to mention the simpler tasks that lure you into the abyss, like a siren, with the seductive promise of false productivity.
There is a right time to tackle each of these, and the perspective I'm sharing with you, here, will help you keep on top of it all.
First, a bit of history to put this in perspective. You may have previously encountered something generally referred to as an importance-urgency matrix. (This is sometimes also referred to as the 'Eisenhower Decision Matrix' or the 'Covey Time Management
Matrix' due to the popularity each leader brought to the concept (in the early 1960s and 1990s, respectively), though it has been around since the early days of modern management studies in the 1800s. It is so fundamental that I strongly suspect that it has been around since ancient times.)
If you haven't seen it before, it is a great starting point. It is the foundation for the system I use, so I will summarize it, briefly. The simple matrix pits whether or not a task is important against whether or not it is urgent, so your tasks fall into one of four categories:
- Important / Urgent: These are the pressing problems and crises that you need to actively manage right away
- Important / Not urgent: These are the strategic matters that you need to set scheduled time aside to focus on
- Urgent / Not important: These are generally busy work and interruptions that you should try to minimize, avoid or delegate if at all possible, and
- Not important / Not urgent: These are the trivial tasks that might only serve to help you manage stress (e.g., because you like doing them, or they give you as sense of comfort) and these should be kept to a minimum.
Okay, so that's Time Management 101, and it works ... but it only gets you so far.
As I applied this tool in my early management career, I soon found that it didn’t quite capture everything that I needed to include in my decision making process when faced with myriad tasks competing for my limited time.
It started with my realization that I often had brief periods of slack time in my day (15 minutes here, 20 minutes there), say, between submitting a draft report to the word processing pool (yes, such a thing existed when I started my career) and a meeting that was scheduled to start soon thereafter. I wanted a way to look at my task list and quickly identify those tasks that were really simple and quick to complete, that I could knock off (or at least make significant progress on) before the meeting. So I added another dimension to my system: Simplicity.
The addition of that criteria was a productivity tool that allowed me to identify, on-demand, the things I could move forward when I knew I had limited time available.
But then I came across a conundrum that particularly applied to important-but-not-urgent tasks. These are the ones that you have to set time aside for. That you have to plan for to make sure you actually get around to them. I realized that some important tasks were 'one-off, get-it-done-and-never-see-it-again' tasks, while others were more along the lines of, “I have to do this task every month, and it takes me more than half-a-day every single time. But if I organized my process and automated as much of that task as possible, it would take less than an hour each month.”
So, THOSE types of tasks were clearly going to allow me to leverage my time, trading a couple of days up front to save many hours every month into the foreseeable future. That’s when I added the final piece to my system: Leverage.
So, let's re-cap. We have four criteria by which to measure and set our priorities:
Now you can assign values to each criterion for each task, ranking them on a scale from 1 to 5. As you rate your tasks, consider the following:
- Importance: How important is it to complete this task? What are the potential positive impacts for you, your team and your business if this gets done? What are the potential losses if this task is neglected and does not get done?
- Urgency: How urgently does the task need to be completed? Is there a time constraint? Is someone else relying on this task to be completed? Have you made a commitment that needs to be honoured?
- Leverage: What is the effectiveness of doing this task? When you complete this task, will it be significantly easier or quicker next time ... or even better, will it become something that someone else could do in the future?
- Simplicity: How much effort will be required to complete this task? Will it be easy and quick to complete, or complex, difficult and/or time consuming?
The more important or urgent or leveraged or simple a task, the lower the number, such that when you add the four numbers, a clear picture will emerge about what tasks need to take top priority and need to be tackled first. The tasks with the lowest total scores rise to the top.
This is not to say that you should do the tasks in order based on their aggregate score. This is just a tool to group your tasks into those that should get most of your attention, those that should receive some of your attention, and those that should be delegated or simply dropped from your list.
It is also a tool to help you manage the 'urgent / not important' tasks will vie for your attention. Applying these criteria should help you see the bigger picture and recognize that your time may be better utilized by NOT doing these tasks but, instead, delegating them. This creates more time for you to focus on things that are important and on projects that will allow you to leverage your time.
This system will also give you a quick way to remind yourself of the simple tasks on your list that you can work away at when you find that you unexpectedly have a block of time to spare, but not really enough time (or the mental energy) to delve deeply into anything.
Using this system will help you determine the highest priorities for you and your team, and will help get everyone onto the same page and moving in the same direction. It will allow you all to accomplish not just more, but more of the right things -- putting first things first to drive your business forward.
It’s simple … and it works!
So, start with whatever to do list you have at hand and rate each item according to these four criteria. Look for the tasks with the lowest scores and make sure you make these your highest priorities. Set aside time in your schedule to work on the tasks that are 'important / not urgent' and those that will provide leverage. If possible, delegate tasks that are lower on your list. And the next time you have a bit of time on your hands, scan your list for a simple task that you can pick off.
Let me know how this works for you and your team, and what insights you gain as you start using this system. It may seem like a bit of work up front and when you first start to use it, but once you've been using it for a while, it will become second nature to use these criteria to sort through your priorities and put first things first.
If you're interested, I would be happy to share the spreadsheet template that I have developed to teach my clients to use this system. Click here to get in touch with me and I'll send you a copy.
To your Success, Differently,