As you head into the new year it might be worthwhile considering Eisenhower’s approach to task prioritization. This approach was made popular by Stephen Covey and later came to be known as the four quadrants approach.
The underlying idea is based on Eisenhower’s premise which was that urgent stuff is seldom important and the important stuff is seldom urgent.
The key takeaway is to focus on what’s important (but usually not urgent). This is what tends to help you make the big strategic gains in your business or life, and if you don’t consciously focus on these priorities they don’t get done leaving you with little long-term progress.
Examples of quadrant 1 activities (Urgent and Important). These tend to be crises and you want to handle them before they get to this point.
For example, if you stick to regular fitness routine (as we’ll see in the next quadrant) then you’re less likely to have a heart attack.
Sure, you can never completely eliminate all urgent and important tasks, but you can significantly reduce the likelihood of them occurring.
By being proactive and spending more time in quadrant 2.
Examples of quadrant 2 activities: Not Urgent but important. These are tasks aligned with your overall mission and have a strong “value-add” component.
If you stick to a regular exercise routine — i.e. execute on tasks while they are important but not yet urgent (Quadrant 2), you’re far less likely to get a heart attack — i.e. You’ve dealt with your health by exercising regularly and averted a (Quadrant 1) crisis – a heart attack.
Ideally, you want to spend as much time on quadrant 2 activities as possible. But to do this you need to understand your values and goals to know what’s truly important.
Examples of quadrant 3 activities: Urgent but Not Important. This is stuff that requires your attention now but isn’t really aligned with your long-term goals. Think interruptions, distractions, and generally directionless effort.
According to Stephen Covey, many people spend most of their time on Q3 tasks thinking they’re working on Q1 tasks. These Q3 tasks often involve other people and give us a false sense of purpose and achievement because we walk away with the feeling of having ‘helped someone’.
It’s fine and normal to spend some time each day in the third quadrant. But it’s particularly damaging to spend most of your time in Q3 particularly if you think you’re operating in Q1.
The solution? Learn to say no.
Be very selective about tasks that you take on. Plan your day the night before, when you’re emotionally uninvolved, and stick to the plan unless you’re hit with an emergency.
Examples of quadrant 4: Not Urgent and Not Important. Think downtime and recreational activities.
Don’t get me wrong. You need downtime. We all do.
But make sure these Q4 activities don’t take over your day. Fence them off in your calendar — preferably towards the end of the day.
What are your thoughts on task prioritization? How do you decide on your to-do list?