Prioritize your to-do in 2D
How to 'Important vs Urgent' your energy
Fans of Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People know that Habit #3 is “Put First Things First.”
While it seems like we could establish Habit #3 by making a to-do list rank ordering our chores, Covey’s big contribution is to discard this traditional, one dimensional approach to prioritization in favor of a two dimensional system that differentiates between IMPORTANT and URGENT.
What Covey doesn’t tell us is how to decide what’s important!
Covey’s system requires re-interpretation and additional explanation to be put into practice.
Implement the IMPORTANT vs URGENT system by completing these steps:
Reverse Covey’s URGENT axis so that the least urgent tasks are on the left. The way I learned algebra, the (0,0) origin is always in the lower left corner and the x-axis (horizontal, or abscissa) is always increasing to the right. Covey chooses the opposite, but for me it’s more intuitive to think of the right edge of the graph as more urgent than the left.
Give each axis units of measure. For the URGENT axis, use units of time, in minutes, hours, days, weeks, or months. The most urgent items are those that, if neglected, will result in consequences right away, and the least urgent are those that will not result in consequences for several months. The IMPORTANT axis is a lot harder, because it is difficult to measure. At the top, list those activities for which you will be rewarded—i.e., what makes your dreams come true? In the middle list those things that you do to avoid being punished. At the bottom, list those activities about which you are apathetic (meaning, you don’t care).
Put a name for each activity worth scheduling on its own little 2"x2" post-it note, or 3”x5” note card, so you can sort them on a separate sheet of paper or a chalkboard with the axes drawn on it.
That’s the basic system, and it takes practice to discipline yourself to make choices between the cards. Beginners will typically want to put everything in the upper-right hand corner, as if they were all important and urgent — which defeats the purpose. Also, getting the hang of keeping important (dreams come true) versus urgent (time to consequences) requires practice.
For example, filing your income tax return is not important. Many people will say it is, because the consequences of not filing on time could be postponing a tax refund, incurring penalties, or losing eligibility for loans. But the tax return will not make your dreams come true. You file it to avoid punishment (e.g., loss), so it belongs somewhere in the middle of the important axes, even if it’s the evening of 14 April and your returns are due tomorrow.
When I’m in a real prioritization pickle, I will add these more advanced steps:
After positioning the post-it notes in according to their relative importance and urgency, a draw a circle around each task, that corresponds in size to roughly the amount of time I estimate will be necessary to complete the task.
Wherever some tasks are pre-requisites for others, I draw an arrow from the task circles that must be completed first to those that follow.
That helps me think thru more complex chains of tasks.
No matter whether you’re using just the basic, or the more advanced technique, the discipline of prioritizing your tasks by giving up some unimportant, less urgent ambitions for those that will make your dreams come true is likely to quiet your anxieties.
The only thing left to do is complete those tasks in the upper right corner first, then work your way towards the origin (down and to the left), crossing off tasks as you complete them.
The most difficult quadrant in which to work is at the upper left, where the important, but not urgent activities are found. These are things like practicing new skills, exercising, and investing in relationships, that Nicolas Cole says he does in his “free time”.
Because these activities are not urgent, they’re difficult for people to prioritize. Without the fear of imminent rewards or negative consequences, few people have the willpower to allocate energy to these activities.
That’s why Covey’s book describes habits — because it is the habits we form that will accomplish the important tasks. To work in the upper left quadrant, we must make habits out of practicing, writing, flossing, exercising, or making deposits in the emotional bank accounts of the ones we love.
One of the things that the IMPORTANT vs URGENT approach will help you do is manage your anxieties and negative emotions. Most of what happens in the not important and not urgent quadrant is sucking up energy that could be available for more productive work, if only you were free of the anxieties, gossip, fear of criticism, and pessimism. Using the IMPORTANT vs URGENT method will remind you of those things at the top of your chart, where your dreams reside, and help prevent you from being distracted by those things at the bottom, for which their are no rewards.