“Effective executives do first things first and they do one thing at a time.”
– Peter Drucker
We all know we need to prioritize to be effective. Yet if you’re like me, you still end up wasting obscene amounts of time on unproductive activities. These frameworks have helped me stay focused on my most important tasks.
1. Do an 80/20 analysis. Based on the work of Wilfred Pareto, an Italian economist, who found that 80% of wealth is produced by 20% of the population, this 80% output / 20% input distribution has been proven to coincide with other social, scientific and geophysical phenomena. What 20% of sources are resulting in 80% of your desired outcomes and happiness? Variants of this question that might be more useful to you:
If this is the only thing I accomplish today, will I be satisfied with my day?
If you had a heart attack and had to work 2 hours per day what would you do?
2. Prioritize your important, non-urgent activities. Categorize your to-do list into 4 quadrants:
Quadrant 1. Urgent, Important
Quadrant 2. Non-urgent, Important
Quadrant 3. Urgent, Not important
Quadrant 4. Non-urgent, Non-important
Urgent tasks are visible, press on us, insist on us. Important tasks deal with results, high priority goals, our mission and values.
To be effective we need to take care of Quadrant 1 tasks but then determinedly spend time in Quadrant 2, or on non-urgent, important projects. By prioritizing Quadrant 2, we proactively pursue mission critical projects. As a result, we’ll spend less time in Quadrant I putting out fires and reacting to problems. Are you writing the script (Quadrant 2) or are you living someone else’s (Quadrant 1,3,4)? If you have trouble determining your Quadrant 2 tasks, ask yourself “If you were to do one thing that you know would have enormous positive effects on the results, what would it be?” If you feel stuck in Quadrant 1 or 3 (urgent activities), ask “What can I do to prevent this activity from recurring or from it having such urgency?”
3. Decide what you’re not going to do; your “not to do list” is just as important as your “to do list.” To use the above example, this would mean eliminating Quadrant 3 & 4 activities, or at the very least, making sure they take up very little of our time. This also means identifying the 2-3 crutch activities you use to feel productive, and not mistaking them for Quadrant 2 activities. For me, these activities are reading small business blogs / books and checking email. I try to use these activities as rewards for accomplishing my most important tasks of the day.
4. Finally, as a mindset, focus on opportunity, the future, and your biggest goals when prioritizing work. This puts us into a Quadrant 2 mindset, and keeps us focused on the 20% of work that will yield the most results. Focusing on problems, the past and busywork leaves us at the mercy of time and events. As Peter Drucker eloquently puts it: “Effective people feed opportunities and starve problems.”
I hope these frameworks keep you focused on your highest priorities. I use them every day to identify my 1-2 most important tasks (MITs) for the day. Nevertheless, it’s still a struggle for me, because I am not a planner by nature. But I’ve found that when I do first things first I feel proactive, big picture and driven to produce. And when I feel the opposite – drifting, reactive, small, insignificant – I know I’m not prioritizing my work correctly.