When it comes to setting priorities, the simple to-do list has a fatal flaw baked into it.
It makes all the tasks equal weight.
Now, I often have my clients make priority lists to get them started with the mini habit of writing things down. If you haven’t been planning at all, this is a quick win each day to just get that stuff out of your head and onto the paper.
But the downside to this is that our brain likes quick wins so much, it will opt for the easiest, most unimportant tasks over the most important priorities in order to feel that hit of dopamine (the reward chemical in your brain) more often.
Case in point: if you do keep to-do lists, have you ever had the urge to write down something you already did, just so you can get the satisfaction of checking it off the list?
What the heck is the point of that? It feels good, sure, but it doesn’t help you get stuff done more efficiently.
I experienced this myself this week after I had a slip in my productivity during our move from San Francisco to the neighboring city of Oakland, just across the bay. It wasn’t a huge move, but I am a naturally organized human, and having everything thrown into boxes messed with my systems and routines. By the time we got settled, I opened up my happy planner (I’ll dedicate a separate blog one of these days to why I’m a big fan of pen-and-paper planners) and saw that the entire first week of July was BLANK. Almost without thinking, I found myself picking up my pen and filling out the tasks I did each day. I was planning the past. It made no sense. But it felt good.
So how do we avoid writing lists just because they feel good, and knocking off the least important items rather than tackling the priorities that actually matter?
This is where an Eisenhower Matrix comes in.
(If you are curious about the name, it’s attributed to Dwight Eisenhower, America’s 34th President, who was a pretty productive dude).
Here’s how you do it. Draw a square on a sheet of paper. Go ahead. Do it with me right now.
Turn it into four quadrants.
Write Urgent/Not Urgent across the boxes on top.
Write Not Important/Important along the boxes on the left side.
Now there are four boxes: Urgent/Important, Not Urgent/Important, Urgent/Not Important, Not Urgent/Not Important.
Urgent means that it needs to get done in order for life to proceed. Paying your electricity bill is urgent. Posting to your Instagram story is not. Showing up for a client on time is urgent. Running a FB ad is not. Get it?
Important means that it contributes to your vision and is high value to you. So this is particularly subjective. For me, important tasks include visibility with my audience, providing high value blog posts (oh hi!), and setting monthly and quarterly goals. Non-important tasks for me are things like deciding if my office needs a color coordinated stapler, and cleaning out my inbox. I could waste a LOT of time on these things. But they are really not that important.
Now, instead of writing your priorities down as a simple list, write them down by delegating them to the box they fall in. So by the time you are finished you’ll have four separate lists.
So here is how it comes together.
- Obviously, DO the important and urgent tasks right away. These must get done and they matter to you, so these are yours to do.
- You should schedule time for the not urgent but important tasks and prioritize these. This is actually the most crucial quadrant for creative minds, because this is visionary work. It’s not urgent but it feels highly valuable to you. If you don’t put this on the calendar, urgent tasks will eat up your week.
- For the urgent but not important tasks, is it possible to delegate or automate these? For example, I use automations to take care of things like pinterest pinning. It must get done on a regular basis if I want to have this be a reliable source of website traffic, but it is not of high value to me to spend all day on Pinterest. If you have a VA, this is also the quadrant you would hand over to a VA. If you don’t have anyone to delegate to and it cannot be automated, just make sure you do this AFTER you prioritize all your important tasks.
- For the not urgent and not important – we are now in the realm of busy work. This should really be limited or eliminated. If you really want to google the heck out of gold office staplers, go for it, but for 15 scheduled minutes as a break, and that’s it.
Here’s a quick reference on the matrix and how to use it to schedule your priorities for the day/week: