Get your priorities straight.
It’s a simple phrase, but a complex job to do.
Prioritizing, when done effectively, translates into a more productive and efficient you. And a more productive you means that you’re better able to make progress on your goals and tasks, and ultimately do your best work where it matters the most.
Of course, being productive isn’t easy. If it was, everyone would be super productive.
So today we are going to go over one of the most important aspects of productivity: understanding and organizing your priorities. You cannot be productive if you’re spending time on things that don’t move you forward.
One of the best ways to prioritize your day quickly and easily is to use a prioritization matrix. What’s that? You’re about to find out as we guide you through the nuances of productivity and prioritization strategies for everyday life.
Why should you spend time prioritizing?
On busy days, it feels like there’s no time to stop and organize everything you need to do. Tasks keep coming at you, so it’s easy to feel like you just need to tackle each one as it comes in and try to get back to your to-do list.
While prioritizing does take some up-front time and effort (you have to be willing to stop the flow of responding to incoming tasks for a few minutes), the benefits of doing so are worth it.
You’ll thank yourself because, by prioritizing, you will:
- Save time. Instead of working on something that you ultimately shouldn’t have done at all or spending more time than you should, you’ll be spending your time more efficiently. Just because you’re busy doesn’t mean you can’t have focus and control over the things you do (and what order you do them in).
- Save energy. The process of prioritizing helps you identify what you should work on and when; plus it streamlines your efforts and energy along the way. Put your energy towards what you need to get done, and get comfortable setting the rest aside or delegating it.
- Save resources. When you are strategic about your priorities, you can do things in an order that makes logical sense, rather than tackling things as they come in. This allows you to batch similar tasks, so you can use your resources wisely.
- Save brain cells. No one wants to duplicate efforts or spend time on tasks that ultimately turn out to be pointless. By slowing down and prioritizing first, you can be smarter about your work. Save your focus, attention, and memory for things that matter.
How to use a prioritization matrix
There are a number of ways to prioritize your day (the little things) or your life (the big things).
The aim with prioritization is to stay focused on what you need to get done, avoid being overwhelmed by tasks and indecision, and keep up your energy and momentum.
Below are a few different ways to do just that.
The Eisenhower Prioritization Matrix: The former president and military general said: “I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.”
This method, a prioritization matrix, relies on a 2x2 grid layout, such that the 4 quadrants define types of tasks by their urgency and importance, and allow you to easily see where your priorities are:
- Top Left | Urgent and Important: All of your urgent and important tasks go in the top left corner and must be done right away. Complete these tasks first!
- Top Right | Important and Not Urgent: These tasks can be scheduled for the future. Look at your planner, set a deadline, and block out time to get these tasks done. They are important for you to do, but they don’t necessarily have to be done first thing like those tasks that are urgent and important.
- Bottom Left | Urgent and Not Important: These are often tasks that you have been asked to do by someone else, which means they come with a sense of urgency attached but are not necessarily in service of your goals. Consider delegating these tasks elsewhere, or communicating with the person who asked you to do them to see how truly “urgent” they are or if they can be put off until your more important work is done.
- Bottom Right | Not Urgent and Not Important: Lastly, any not urgent and not important tasks can go in the bottom right corner, and can be delegated to another person, scheduled for later, or maybe it doesn’t need to be done at all.
You can set up your own Eisenhower Prioritization Matrix using a piece of paper or your notebook and drawing out the quadrants as described above.
Alternatively, you can try the new Ink+Volt Priority Pad.
Based on the Eisenhower Matrix, this pad offers you a quick visual with each of the 4 quadrants beautifully laid out for you in a smart grid. It’s a perfect size to keep at your desk or travel with you on the go. Plus, the sheets tear off for added convenience.
On this prioritization matrix pad, you’ll notice that the 4 quadrants are not all the same size; your important and important/urgent quadrants are larger than the other two, giving you more space to focus on these areas because they are more, well, important.
You also have blank space to freely write or draw your important tasks, but numbered check boxes and lines for your important/urgent items gives you a more structured area that allows you to prioritize tasks by order of importance/urgency, if you choose. The other two sections along the bottom are smaller and less the center of attention, reminding you of their place among all you have to prioritize.
Here’s how to use this simple, streamlined prioritization matrix:
- Top Left: Write down your goals and endeavors - these are the things that are important to you. Start by defining or planning your biggest goals and priorities, whether that’s planning a birthday party or preparing to race a 5k. Then break that goal down into the tasks that you want to accomplish. There’s lots of blank space because this is the most important section to you.
- Top Right: Under the obligations area, record the items that you are required to do, like meetings and appointments. These are designated as both important and urgent; you can write down each item in the order you want to complete them, which is super helpful.
- Bottom Right: It’s important to allow space for and not forget about interruptions and unexpected items that come up without warning. These are your fire drills that you don't see coming. You’ll have to get them done, but they only come up every once in a while, so there are just a few lines for this area.
- Bottom Left: Lastly, those not urgent and not important tasks may not be necessary for you to do, but instead are things you want to do and are your guilty pleasures! This is a fun area of the pad.
The Ivy Lee Method: Some days you may struggle to identify and prioritize what you need to do, because it seems that everything is urgent and important. The best way to tackle such a day is utilizing the Ivy Lee Method, designed by a productivity consultant to Charles M. Schwab in 1918.
It works because of its focus on simplicity and push to cut out the extra complexity. Here’s a step by step how to compliments of productivity expert James Clear:
- At the end of each work day, write down the six most important things you need to accomplish tomorrow. Do not write down more than six tasks.
- Prioritize those six items in order of their true importance.
- When you arrive tomorrow, concentrate only on the first task. Work until the first task is finished before moving on to the second task.
- Approach the rest of your list in the same fashion. At the end of the day, move any unfinished items to a new list of six tasks for the following day.
- Repeat this process every working day.
The simplicity of this process is what makes it effective: start with your biggest task of the day and keep going until you complete it. You’ll want to deviate from this list and multitask. Do not do this.
Of course, there will still be interruptions. However, this method gives you focus for when those interruptions come up. Your goal is to stay on task, so you can ask yourself: does this interruption actually require my attention, right now?
Even if you do get pulled away, you know exactly what to work on when you get back.
Your prioritization matrix is focus with flexibility
A caveat to all of this prioritization effort is to be ready and flexible for the times when you need to reprioritize; continuing to spend time on a goal or task that is no longer in your best interest is time wasted.
By prioritizing regularly, you’re more likely to catch changes in your goals and needs, and adjust accordingly.
And don’t forget that you need to be realistic about your time and how long it actually takes to get things done. Interruptions and delays are a reality of life and can’t always be avoided. So don’t expect that you can do a million things in an hour. Instead of setting yourself up to fail, give yourself more time than you think you need.When it comes to prioritizing, keep in mind the Pareto principle: that 20% of your efforts produce 80% of your results. Use that 20% wisely by prioritizing those things that will bring you results, not just tasks crossed off of a list.