How To Prioritize: Separating The Urgent From The Important
The U.S. presidential election may be today, but I’m more focused on a past president: Dwight D. Eisenhower. Eisenhower was reportedly a master at prioritization, which allowed him to accomplish many monumental things during his lifetime. He had a system for separating the urgent from the important that enabled him to stay focused on his largest, most important priorities without getting distracted by everything else.
Do you have trouble separating the urgent from the important? I know I do. It feels like I spend all my time putting out fires some days, just reacting to whatever’s thrown at me. And then I go to bed realizing I didn’t devote any of my attention to my biggest priorities. But how do you even begin to prioritize? We all seem to have more to do than time will allow, so it is important to practice smart prioritization of your responsibilities.
This post is part of the series “From Overwhelmed to Organized: Making Time For All The Stuff.” We’re talking smart time management strategies all month long! All of the blog posts in the series will be added to the bottom of this post as they are published.
How To Prioritize All Of Those To-Dos
Pull out your to-do list for tomorrow or jot one down quickly. It’s so easy to be a taskmaster and simply work like crazy to check all of those things off the list, but do you ever stop to question what’s actually most important before you dive in?
Smart time managers know how to prioritize. Before they jump into work mode, they evaluate each obligation on their list and decide if it is even worth doing in the first place. They also know how to prioritize what should be done first.
Sometimes actions become so ingrained into our routines that we assume they are important and non-negotiable. But stop and think about them for a minute. Are they really worth your time? Why are you doing that task in the first place? Are you procrastinating something more important?
What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.Dwight D. Eisenhower, 34th President of the United States
Eisenhower’s most famous productivity method is a grid often referred to as the Eisenhower Box or Matrix. To complete the exercise, you divide your to-dos into the grid’s four quadrants. The results will help you determine what is the largest priority and what can be delegated or abandoned altogether.
I’ve created a simple template you can print out and use for this exercise if you wish. You may download it here.
Take every single item from your to-do list and put it into one of the four quadrants. Your four options are:
Quadrant 1 | Urgent & Important
Tasks you need to do first because they are time sensitive and important. There are two types of activities that fall into this quadrant: ones that are unexpected, and others that you’ve procrastinated to the last minute. Your goal should be to work ahead on the predictable so fewer tasks fall into this category.
Quadrant 2 | Important, But Not Urgent
Tasks you can schedule for later in the day or week because they are important to you, but are not time sensitive. This quadrant is where successful people focus the bulk of their time. They are experts at managing deadlines and projects so few things become urgent, which allows them to remain focused on their most important goals and priorities.
Quadrant 3 | Urgent, But Not Important
Tasks to avoid, automate or delegate whenever possible. These are often routine activities and things you feel obligated to do. Spend as little time as possible in this area and aim to set up systems or a plan so these things don’t keep showing up on your to-do list.
Quadrant 4 | Neither Urgent Nor Important
Tasks that can be let go of altogether. It won’t matter if they get done or not, so give yourself permission to drop them from your schedule altogether. Now, hobbies that I enjoy often fall in this category. I don’t have to give them up, they are just the last things I should make time for. More like things that I can do if I have extra time at the end of the day. Prioritize this quadrant last.
Here is an example of where some things on my list fall in the Eisenhower Matrix. Now I know I need to focus on the tasks in the top left quadrant first thing in my day. I want to spend as much time as possible on the tasks in the top right quadrant.
The urgent but not important tasks can possibly be simplified or automated. For example, I could try to the new online ordering my grocery store offers and I could pick up a store-bought dessert rather than making one from scratch. As for the activities in the bottom right quadrant, they probably won’t get any attention from me today.
Completing the Eisenhower Matrix will help you determine what is most important to make room for in your schedule and what would be okay to let go of. The nice thing about this decision-making tool is it can be applied to both short term and long term planning.
If I have way more on my list than I can humanly achieve in the given amount of time (which is almost always!), I take a few minutes to plan my day based on this priority matrix. I also use this exercise for both short-term and long-term planning because it really helps me decide how to prioritize everything I have going on.
If you often stare at your to-dos and wonder how to prioritize them all, this will be a huge help to you in making decisions about what to focus on first. It helps me separate the super urgent to-dos from my most important goals and priorities. But most of all, it helps me see what I can leave undone.
What techniques have worked for you? How do you prioritize tasks? I’d love to hear your tips in the comments! Let me know if this matrix helps you figure out how to prioritize your to-dos.
If you are feeling overwhelmed by the number of things you have on your plate, I highly recommend creating a weekly schedule so you can be more intentional with your time. I’ll walk you through the entire process in Crush Your Week, a short five-day email course designed to help you get control of your time.
More From The “Overwhelmed To Organized: Making Time For All The Stuff” Series
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