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Prioritize Your Day; Prioritize Your Life


Productivity isn’t about getting the most things done, it’s about getting the right things done. Unfortunately, it’s easy to become distracted so many of us spend too much time on activities and projects that are – or seem – urgent, but deliver little return. Prioritizing your tasks lets you target the right activities and reduce or even avoid those that aren’t worth your most valuable resource: your time.

Stephen Covey’s Time Matrix is an effective tool to characterize all the tasks on your list into one of four categories, which can also be viewed as four quadrants of a chart using urgency and importance as the axes. Applying this format:

Quadrant 1 tasks are both urgent and important, and include tasks that arise unexpectedly that must be dealt with, such as a sick child needing attention, customers experiencing problems, and essential project work that’s on deadline. This is a valuable quadrant to spend your attention as you manage these critical activities. However, spending too much time on Quadrant 1 tasks can be draining.

Quadrant 2 tasks are not urgent but are important. This is where you focus on defining strategy and planning execution of high-value projects. This is also where relationship strengthening like team-building events and renewal activities like exercise or vacation reside. It is far too easy to ignore these important tasks and processes because there is no urgency, but putting focus on these activities will deliver exceptional value in the long-term so they should be prioritized.

Quadrant 3 tasks are urgent but not important, and can include some meetings you don’t really need to attend, some emails you don’t really need to read, and interruptions that disrupt your productivity. Activities in this quadrant tend to make us feel busy but not fulfilled, and so should be avoided whenever feasible. It is OK to say “no” to these unimportant tasks so you can say “yes” to the more important.

Quadrant 4 tasks are neither urgent nor important and can take a disheartening amount of attention. Trivial work activities and time-consuming pursuits like excessive television watching enable us to avoid more profitable activities, and should be limited as far as possible.

Using the Four Quadrants as a Prioritization Tool

Start by listing all the tasks the team undertakes and then sort them into the appropriate quadrant before discussing what Quadrant 3 and 4 tasks can be eliminated, what Quadrant 2 tasks should be given more attention, and what Quadrant 1 tasks need to be prioritized. Consider as a team whether there are too many tasks in Quadrants 1, 3 and 4. Then brainstorm what tasks, planning, solutions can be done in Quadrant 2 to reduce these buckets. Keep in mind that Quadrant 2 tasks are important but often overlooked – don’t reward only your "firefighters" operating on Quadrant 1 activities.

A supplementary approach to capitalizing on the Time Matrix is the Daily Plan as described by author David Allen: each morning, list every task you need to do that day, and then apply the quadrant approach to identify Q2 and Q1 tasks where you should spend your time first.

Tip: Identify and write down the very next physical action you must take to move the situation forward. The more specific the better: For example: instead of "clean the garage" write down "purchase large trash bags."

Now, create a habit to set aside five minutes at the start or end of your day to capture and clarify tasks to be completed. Habits that help you focus your attention where it’s most valuable.

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