One of the greatest challenges we all face is how to prioritize our time.
How often do you get to the end of the day not having started, let alone completed, all the tasks you’d planned to do?
We frequently get interrupted, and try as we might to get on with what we’ve planned, it just doesn’t happen.
Prioritization is the key.
How Urgent Things Get in the Way of What’s Important
It goes without saying that urgent tasks need your immediate attention. But they aren’t necessarily the things that lead to the accomplishment of your personal, family and work goals.
In contrast, important tasks are the ones that help you achieve all the things you really want in life. And yet they often have a long term focus, so don’t necessarily have to be done right away.
Failure to deal with urgent things can lead to an increase in acute stress. So understandably, the temptation is to focus on dealing with them immediately, because the consequences of ignoring them are only too painful right now.
But the downside is that ignoring the important things in life can lead to a build-up of chronic stress. Over time, you become more and more frustrated with not achieving everything that really matters to you.
So it’s essential to prioritize important tasks ahead of the urgent ones as often as possible.
Life being what it is, however, the things you have to do are seldom just important or just urgent. So you need a prioritization technique to help work out how to use your time effectively. And keep your stress levels under control.
How to Prioritize
One of the most effective ways of prioritizing your time is to use the important-urgent matrix, developed by Stephen Covey
It allows you to prioritize the important things in life, while at the same time, managing the urgent.
It works really well for planning ahead and scheduling your diary. And it’s also great for handling overwhelming circumstances, when there’s a danger that everything will spiral out-of-control.
The first step is to draw up a to do list, covering everything you have to do both in and out of work. This action alone can help relieve some of the stress you might be feeling.
You then need to rate each task on your list in terms of whether it’s important or not important. And whether it’s urgent or not urgent.
Once you’ve rated all your tasks, split them into four separate lists, which is the key to effective priorization:
- Important and urgent
- Important, but not urgent
- Urgent, but not important
- Neither urgent or important
1 Prioritize Tasks That Are Both Important and Urgent
Tasks that are both important and urgent should be your top priority. These are the ones where you should devote your time and energy.
If you find you have a lot of tasks in this category, you will need to use your judgment to decide which ones should be completed first.
As a rule of thumb, prioritize the most important tasks first, although you may want to change the order in which you tackle things if some of the tasks can be completed quickly. Finishing things and crossing them off your list is good for morale. So if you can deal with two or three important/urgent tasks quickly, then prioritize those above other things that will take longer to complete.
Important tasks that have become urgent are either a result of issues that could not have been anticipated, or they’ve been left until the last minute. So, be honest with yourself about the reason why.
For problems that could not have been anticipated, simply take note and be mindful of whether they’re likely to crop up again in the future.
If an important task has become urgent because you’ve left it until the last minute – even if it’s because you were overwhelmed doing other things – learn from the experience.
Try to avoid a similar thing happening in the future by scheduling similar tasks in your diary well in advance.
2 Then Focus on Tasks That Are Important, But Not Urgent
The important/not urgent tasks include activities that are moving you towards the accomplishment of all the things you want in life. And the key is to schedule them well in advance, so they can be completed before becoming urgent.
In order to avoid a last minute panic, however, it’s essential to build in contingency time to deal with unexpected issues that have a habit of cropping up.
3 Defer or Delegate Tasks That Are Urgent, But Not Important
The urgent/not important tasks can be an enormous drain on your time and energy, and frequently stop you from focusing on important activities that will lead to the accomplishment of all your goals. They include things like answering emails, record keeping and drop by visits from family members or colleagues wanting your help.
It’s unlikely that these tasks can be ignored altogether. So the aim is to sort out if they can be deferred or delegated, so you can continue to focus on your important activities.
4 Drop Activities That Are Neither Urgent Or Important
Finally, the amount of time spent on activities that are neither urgent or important should be minimized. This is because they rob you of productive time that could more usefully be spent on important tasks.
If you’re spending a lot of time on unimportant/non-urgent tasks, then you need to ask yourself why?
Are you procrastinating? If so, check out the article on this blog about how to overcome procrastination
Or are other people making unreasonable demands on you?
If it’s the latter, then you must learn to say ‘no’. By all means help other people, whether at home, at work or amongst your circle of friends, but set limits. Your willingness to help should not be at the expense of your own wellbeing. The more you allow what other people want to encroach on your time, the more stressed you’re likely to feel.
Prioritization: Focus on the Important Things in Life
The great benefit of Stephen Covey’s approach to time management is that it gives you clarity about what’s important and what isn’t, as well as what’s urgent and what isn’t.
Once you’ve split your to do list into the four different categories, it allows you to spend as much time as possible on the things that are both important and urgent, while minimizing the amount of time you spend on tasks that are neither important or urgent.