There are a few articles online about time management: many of them point to common mistakes, narrow down some good practices, but they hardly describe some sound methodology, such as the priority matrix, first used by the president D.D. Eisenhower and thus also known as Eisenhower matrix. I consider it one of the most effective ways of focusing on what matters and let go of tasks that are not useful in any of the ongoing projects.
The matrix, in the end, is no more than a visual way of distributing our activities according to two discriminant, importance and urgency, to define which tasks you should take care of first and which ones should not start at all.
What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important. (D.D. Eisenhower)
First Step: Write a List
The very first step is writing down all the tasks, activities and issues for which we are either accountable or responsible. At this stage, do not define any priority. Just be thorough: do not neglect any task – for how pointless or unrelated it could sound – and do not hesitate in dividing activities into smaller tasks if you believe that you may need more than a single action to complete them.
Now that you have your baseline, you will have to review the list on a daily basis to ensure that you added any new task, removed unnecessary actions and updated the status (and the priority) of existing tasks.
Second Step: Ask the Right Questions
Prioritising is not as simple as wondering “is it important/urgent or not?”. You need to look for the right questions to understand in which area every task belong.
- Is the company or the project benefiting from it?
- Can I neglect it without damaging either the company or the project?
- Does it comply with the ultimate objectives if the company or the project?
- Is there a hard date on it?
- Is it blocking other activities?
- Can I avoid to do it now?
Third Step: Four Quadrants
We can now group up the tasks crossing our answers to the questions we listed above. In fact, we will have four groups of works:
Important & Urgent:
- activities from whose execution the company or the project would significantly benefit and are blocking other activities;
- activities that could damage the company or the project if not taken care of immediately.
Important & Not Urgent
- activities that could heavily damage the company or the project if neglected for a long time;
- activities that complies with the ultimate objectives of the company or the project but depends on other activities.
Not Important & Urgent
- activities that require immediate attention but they do not bring any real benefit to the business or the project;
- activities that do not comply with the ultimate objectives of the company or the project, but you can execute now only.
Not Important & Not Urgent
- activities that bring no benefit to the business or the project and do not require to be executed immediately.
The first quadrant (Important & Urgent) contains the tasks that should be done first because they are important, and they must be done now. The final objective is to keep this quadrant empty managing the task way in advance so that they do not become urgent. This is the quadrant of what you must DO.
This is why the second quadrant (Important & Not Urgent) is the most important: it contains the tasks on which we will have to focus in the long run. Managing these tasks correctly the first quadrant will stay empty, and we will work without stress, ensuring that what we deliver meets high-quality standards. For example, do not wait for the last moment to work on a vital document when you can start writing it some week in advance. Good performance and good quality of life: do I need to say anything else?
Note that this is the quadrant of what you must PLAN.
The third quadrant is the primary source of distraction. It contains tasks that are not important, but somehow they try getting our immediate attention. Push them back: the only time you have to spend on this activities is just the one required to delegate them or make them easily manageable. For example, discussions on secondary topics may be solved with a short (but useful) email exchange instead of arranging a meeting that would require much more time than we can afford. This is the quadrant of what you should DELEGATE.
The fourth quadrant contains tasks that should be canceled or seriously reconsidered since they are unlikely ever to happen. This is the quadrant of what you should ELIMINATE.