Synergy Personal Development

There must be a better way to make decisions.

Tips for prioritizing from Stephen Covey and Peter Drucker

The other day, it felt like my world was going to implode. You see, Monday was the Super Bowl, and my 49ers were back in the big game looking for their first championship in a generation. Last year, they got so close, only to fall prey to some big injuries. This year, I was sure they would get to the mountaintop! Apart from that, I was behind on creating a training that I was scheduled to deliver next Friday. On Saturday, my friend informed me that they would be coming to Japan in April with their family and wanted me to plan an itinerary. And if that wasn’t enough, I was feeling the pressure of not completing several deliverables that I’d promised to other people.

What was I to do? There were so many things that seemed important, but I did not appear to have time for them all. Time to prioritize, right after the game…

In his book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephan Covey’s third habit is to Put First Things First.

Putting first things first means organizing and executing around your most important priorities. It is living and being driven by the principles you value most, not by the agendas and forces surrounding you.

If we are to organize around our principles and values, then we need to have a clear understanding of what our principles and values are. That may seem simple, but unless you’ve taken the time to understand what your core values are, you will have difficulty making decisions based on them.

Here is another way to prioritize your tasks: using the time management matrix.

Enter Section Three Heading Here

Urgent and important tasks include things that have a tight deadline and emergencies. Not urgent but important tasks can include steps towards achieving a goal, planning, and things that are part of your routine, like a week in review exercise or going to the gym. Urgent but not important tasks are the hair on fire moments the title alludes to. These can include attending unimportant meetings or events and replying to texts and emails instantaneously. And finally, there are the not urgent and not important tasks. These are time wasters that take us away from creativity and opportunities to make a difference. Those could include binge-watching TV shows or scrolling through social media.

Now that you have an idea of each quadrant of the matrix, how would you classify my activities from the beginning of this story?

Here they are again for your reference:

  • Watching the Super Bowl
  • Create training for a session next week
  • Planning my friend’s visit
  • Deliverables for other people

The answer is at the bottom of this story.

As you look at the tasks on your list, analyze which quadrant each one fits into. Initially, you may find that there are many tasks that fall into the Urgent & Important cube. This is due to not having a clear plan or a sense of urgency for getting these things done. 

Hopefully, as you learn to use the Not Urgent and Important quadrant, you will gain a better sense of control over your situation. You will become more proactive in scheduling your work and know the difference between the things that need to be done, those that can be delegated, and the ones that you can let fall through the cracks.

Let’s look at the other two areas, starting with urgent and not important. These activities may have results far off on the horizon. While we don’t want to forget them completely, we can work on them little by little until they are completed without the stress of being under an impending deadline.

 Finally, Not Urgent and Not Important tasks are where many of us spend our time, avoiding the to-dos in the other quadrants. This area is the place to escape from our principles and priorities. It is easy to put things off until later, but, in reality, later never comes.

First things first, last things never

Peter Drucker suggested that when prioritizing, we ask ourselves why. Why are we doing the thing, and why do we think it’s important?

By honestly answering these questions, and being committed to living by our principled responses, we will find that we have more time for the important things in life because we get the vital things done. That is not to say we should allow time for the unimportant things in life, those absolutely help us to re-energize, re-focus, and re-commit. But as in everything, there needs to be balance.

I challenge you to use this exercise: rather than running from task to task, take some time to sit in silence and write down all the to-dos in your life right now. Then, put each task into the matrix (there is a link to download the worksheet at the bottom of this story). Seeing your tasks on paper will immediately help you feel a sense of control. 

Then, come up with a plan for reducing your list of Urgent and Important duties by considering how long each task will take and allocating time to complete them. Once you have a handle on how to tackle those, put time in your schedule for the Not Urgent and Important things, like reading a book, going on a date with your partner, and taking a LinkedIn Learning course.

The Urgent & Not Important tasks come next. These activities are good for when you need a break from more intense work. For example, take a couple of minutes to brainstorm activities for your friend’s vacation today, and then a few days from now you may want to make a budget for the week they are visiting. A step at a time, you will conquer the itinerary.

Finally, the distractors (Not Important and Not Urgent).

How can you reduce the time you spend in this quadrant? Try these ideas:

Log your time – Log the time you spend on social media, Youtube, playing games, or generally doing things that are unproductive for three days. When you see the amount of time you are wasting, that may be enough to open your eyes and give you the impetus to make a change.

Delay gratification – Promise yourself that after a certain amount of productive time, you can do something distracting. Set the timer, and when it goes off, relax for a specified amount of time. I usually give myself 10 minutes for two hours of work. One caveat: when playtime is over, it’s back to work.

Remove the clutter –  Clear your desk, put your phone in a place you will not see it, and if possible, set your computer in do not disturb mode by closing messaging, email, and unnecessary browser windows. This will reduce the possibility of you being distracted, thus increasing your productivity.

In Summary

When we can prioritize the tasks on our plates based on our sense of value and their relative importance to our continued success, we will make better use of our time, be more productive, and still have time to enjoy a bit of time with our distractors.

I did watch the Super Bowl and spent some time commiserating with other fans after the loss. But then, I got back to work and created a very good presentation about the importance of leading with your values.

Here is the answer to prioritizing my tasks:

Priority answer

You can download the prioritization matrix from this article by clicking here.

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