We all have too many things to do. If only we could prioritize like a President. Actually, we can.
I’ve never been a fan of to-do lists. I see them as a necessary evil. I know I need to write down what I need to do or else I’ll forget. I know to-do lists help me get better results. But as the list grows and grows I get disillusioned. I find myself wasting time looking at lists instead of working on what’s on them.
When I worked at Apple I would track up to 50 items that “needed doing.” Requests from management, project deliverables, issues that sprung up, and internal process improvements all had to be balanced with my daily deliverables. A good day was just seeing the list get shorter. A great day was actually working on the thing I personally wanted to work on.
On top of this, I’d have weekly meetings where I’d have to update on my progress. It sucked to say, “I didn’t get to it,” over and over, even when my managers understood.
At some point I learned about the Eisenhower Matrix, which is a simple 2 x 2 grid that former US President Dwight D. Eisenhower created. It categorizes all items into four buckets based on their urgency and their importance.
Everybody understands these two variables, and yet, they interpret them differently. What I think is urgent or important might be different from my manager (or my wife, or my kids). This frames our discussion. It allows us to get on the same page.
Once we’re on the same page, the buckets outline what steps to take next. Keeping each other updated becomes easier. And when we get out of sync, we can quickly determine why. Did the urgency or importance change? Did something new come up?
It’s a powerful tool, both at work and at home. It is especially powerful when everybody is using it. Here’s how to get started.
1. DO IT
These are tasks you need to focus on right now, to be completed today.
You can only put a few items in this bucket. I try and keep it to three. You don’t get to say, “Everything is urgent and important.” Of course it is. This is about time management, though, and you have a fixed amount of time. Put only the most important and schedule or delegate anything that isn’t important or urgent enough.
What do you do if you have too many items in this bucket? How do you choose which to start on? I recommend the focusing question used by Gary Keller, from his book The One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results
What is the ONE thing you can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?
The beauty of this question is the emphasis on how our work in this moment affects the work we will do later. It pushes us to look for points of leverage.
When you finish your “Do It Now” items, start on your Scheduled items.
2. SCHEDULE IT
These items are important but not urgent. They have to happen, but you can pick the best time to do them.
Find a time and block it on your calendar. If you feel like you can’t, you’re wrong. Find a way. These items are important!
Once you’ve finished all the items in your “Do It” bucket, you’re going to start on these. So prioritize them and know which ones you want to do first.
Consider also how much time they require. Know which ones are quick wins and line them up to be completed if you free up the time.
Scheduling items makes them much easier to do. So here are a few important items you should absolutely schedule into your calendar:
Learning / Self-improvement
3. DELEGATE IT
I find these to be the most difficult. We have a cognitive bias that makes anything urgent feel important. Watch out for this! The more urgent something feels, the more you need to take a few seconds to question how important it is.
When it’s urgent but not important enough for you to do it now, you have to get it off your plate. Either give it to someone else, or push back. I try to stick to two rules.
Rule #1: If it’s not important, I’m not doing it. Even if it’s urgent.
Rule #2: If someone else can’t do it, then it doesn’t get done.
Either the urgency will pass or its importance will rise. If the urgency passes it shifts to the Eliminate It bucket and goes away. If it becomes important, it moves to the Do It bucket and I work on it.
It’s hard to accept that some things just won’t get done. It’s even harder to tell that to your manager (or wife, or kids). If you are both on the same page as to why, it gets easier.
The freedom to do great work starts with avoiding unimportant work.
4. ELIMINATE IT
The Eliminate It bucket is not a “To Do” List. It is a “Do Not Do” List. Definitely track things here, so you can remember you decided not to do them.
Items in this bucket will move back into other buckets. That’s to be expected. But let that happen when it happens. Don’t waste any more time on these than you need to.
FIVE THINGS TO KEEP IN MIND
The Eisenhower Matrix is a tool. If used well, it is empowering. You have to commit to learning how to use it. It will take a little time but will be worth it in the end.
90% of problems are due to communication. The Eisenhower Matrix provides the most value when it helps to structure your communication in terms of urgency and importance.
Having four buckets instead of one long list doesn’t magically get anything done. It still takes hard work and focus to make progress on the list.
The Schedule It and Delegate it buckets are the hardest to master but provide the most value. It is difficult to schedule well and then work off that schedule. It’s also difficult to find people you can delegate to confidently. Successful people build a strong support network.
Not everything is going to get done. Don’t pretend it will. It adds stress to keep things on your list that you know you’ll never get to. Don’t hesitate to eliminate, strikethrough and delete any unnecessary tasks on your to-do list. You want to do great work. Keep the distraction of unimportant work at bay.
Bryan Green is the co-founder, Editor, and COO of Go Be More. He enjoys moving things to the Eliminate It bucket a little too much. You can give him feedback at bryan◎gobemore.co or on our Facebook page.