Are You Working on the Wrong Things?
By Dave Ulacia
Do you frequently feel overwhelmed by all the tasks on your to-do list? Is every day a struggle to meet deadline after deadline, no matter how hard you work? Do you forget (or double-book) appointments because you don’t have time to check your schedule first? Do important projects get sidelined by the smaller “fires” you need to put out? These are all symptoms of poor prioritizing.
At a glance, it may appear as if all the tasks on your list are equally urgent and important. But with only a few minutes of your time, the differences quickly become clear when you know how to identify your priorities, then organize and execute around them.
Deciding what is most important is a skill you develop with mindful practice. Since each of us has our own unique set of duties, goals, and responsibilities, there is no one formula that works for everybody. To prioritize effectively, you must first understand your own roles and dreams. What are your job duties? What commitments do you have to family or community? What are your personal and professional long-term aspirations? How are you moving toward them? Once you know these things, you will find it easier to define your priorities and schedule your time to make better use of it. Spend a few minutes contemplating these questions before you proceed.
In his bestseller The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey, he says that we spend time in one of four ways, as seen in this matrix below.
As you can see, every task falls into one of the four categories or “quadrants.” An urgent matter is usually visible; it is the ringing phone, the person standing in your doorway, the looming deadline. Urgent matters press on you but they may not be important to the big picture of your personal or professional life. Importance, however, specifically has to do with results and is easier to identify. Quite simply, if something is important, it contributes to your mission, values, and goals.
According to Dr. Covey, 90 percent of most people’s time is spent in Quadrant 1, the Urgent and Important, while the remaining 10 percent is spent “vegging out” in Not Urgent and Not Important Quadrant IV. Some people spend all their time in Quadrant III under the illusion that they are dealing with important Quadrant I matters, but they’re really just wasting time. Quadrants III and IV may contain either entertaining or seemingly important tasks, but Dr. Covey says, “effective people stay out of Quadrants III and IV because, urgent or not, they aren’t important.” If you have problems prioritizing, it’s a good bet that you will find most of your daily activities can be put into these quadrants.
The secret to good time management and effective prioritization is simple: make sure you spend most of your time in Quadrant II. Quadrant II deals with things that are important but not urgent, such as relationship-building and investing time in planning the future. You not only get all your tasks completed, but you also build a strong foundation for the future by putting your time where it will reap benefits instead of going to waste. Dr. Covey says that if you live in Quadrant II, “Your effectiveness would increase dramatically. Your crises and problems would shrink to manageable proportions because you would be thinking ahead, working on the roots.”
To become more productive immediately, try spending a few moments every morning evaluating your priorities with this simple chart in hand. Write each of your daily tasks in whichever quadrant it belongs. The things that count, the things that are your priorities, will show up repeatedly in one or more quadrants over the course of a week. Try to identify which quadrant(s) you spend the majority of your time in (it may surprise you) and you’ll have a clear picture of what’s most important to you. Then, all you have to do is get in the habit of evaluating each task with this chart in mind. If given the choice to spend time on a wasteful Quadrant IV activity, why not choose something from Quadrant II? If someone asks you to continually solve his or her Quadrant III problems, why not decline and move on to a task in Quadrant I?
Prioritizing is about choosing what to do and what not to do. No matter what your goals and pressures are, remember that your time is under your control. Once you get comfortable evaluating the usefulness of your tasks—planned or unplanned—you will see an immediate increase in your productivity, your success, and your energy in all areas of your life. FranklinCovey’s Planners and Refills can help you wrangle tasks and events for every day, while items like the Better Than a Yellow Pad and Nothingelse.pad® let organize your thoughts in your own unique way.