Some tasks are easy to prioritise – they must be done first because other tasks lead off, or are dependent on their completion. But others aren’t as easily prioritised and ordered into our days.
Today’s posts look at some productivity systems which can help in decision making and prioritisation of work tasks. At the bottom, some tips also. And being a #52Tech post as well, naturally there are a couple of good apps for that.
The Eisenhower / Stephen Covey Matrix – Urgency or Importance
The idea of measuring and combining two competing elements of Urgency vs Importance into a matrix has been attributed to both former US President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Dr Stephen R. Covey.
“What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important,” – Eisenhower Principle
Covey brought the idea into the mainstream and gave it the name “The Urgent/Important Matrix” or “Time Management Matrix” in his 1989 business classic The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. (Habit 3).
The book has several derivatives (for kids and business people) and also, an 8th Habit book. This book is a mindfield (I meant to say that) of productivity hacks and has already been mentioned in this productivity fortnight series.
The Eisenhower / Urgent-Important Matrix is a valuable tool for decision making, and task prioritization.
Via Mindtools, here is how you use the matrix –
- The first step is to list all the activities and projects that you feel you have to do. Try to include everything that takes up your time at work, however unimportant. (If you manage your time using a To-Do List or Action Program , you should have done this already.)
- Next, on a scale of 1 to 5, assign importance to each of the activities. Remember, this is a measure of how important the activity is in helping you meet your goals and objectives. Try not to worry about urgency at this stage.
- Once you’ve assigned an importance value to each activity, evaluate its urgency. As you do this, plot each item on the matrix according to the values that you’ve given it.
- Now study the matrix …to schedule your priorities.
Covey says to stay out of the bottom III and IV quadrants (labelled by Mindtools as Distractions and Interruptions) regardless of urgency. He also tells us to concentrate on the most important, rather than most critical.
Quadrant II (Important but not Urgent) is the heart of personal management – it can be used effectively to shrink down the burden of crises found in quadrant I also. Making sure we have plenty of time to do tasks which fall into this quadrant (labelled ‘Focus’ is one of the sample matrices below) will ensure us progress towards our goals.
Note that a lot of these matrices are drawn with the axis around opposite ways, meaning the quadrants identified in the first graphic above are placed in a different order on the grid. If you are using ready-made grids or software, check out what each quadrant actually means. Two more examples are below.
Urgent or Important? The Definitions
Urgent tasks require immediate attention. These are the to-do’s that shout “Now!” Also known as the crises. Urgent tasks put us in a reactive mode, one marked by a defensive, negative, hurried, and narrowly-focused mindset. Many of these can not be avoided (always) –things like a screaming baby, for instance.
Important tasks contribute to our long-term mission, values and goals. Sometimes important tasks are also urgent, but typically they’re not. When we focus on important activities we operate in a responsive mode, which helps us remain calm, rational, and open to new opportunities. Getting important but non-urgent tasks completed will often, as Stephen Covey suggests, also work to limit the amount of things that move into crisis mode.
But…The Argument for Urgency for Prioritisation
The problem is this: there is almost always some way to measure a task as being important. Here is a quick brain-storm of some different ways a task can be labeled as having high importance:It might be important in a timely way, i.e., urgent.
It might be important for your career…
It might be good for your health.
It might be fun…
It might be something you feel responsible for…
It might be important to your boss…[Linenberger lists many more importance criteria].
The problem is, nearly any task can be labeled impor-
tant based on one of these measures. Asking yourself “Is
this important?” will yield a “yes” answer to way too many
tasks. So, we tend to put a lot of things in the important
category—the high priority.
- a critical now list,
- an opportunity now list and
- an over-the-horizon list.
Other Prioritisation / Decision Making Tools
Often it’s difficult to decide priorities between multiple tasks or options. There are several tools which can be useful in this.
The Paired Comparison
This tool is often used in a long list of options, where each is rated against another. The most highly rated option makes it’s way to the top of the list. Often done on a spreadsheet, this involves going down each row and moving it up or down the line as it is compared with the next item – which can be painstaking work. Another perhaps easier method is to write each option up onto a strip of paper or index card, and then to manually rate each up or down in order.
A third method is discussed at Mindtools, and involves a table format where each option is listed across vertically and horizontally, and each rated against all other options for importance and a numerical factor of differences in importance. For more details, see the mindtools page.
Mindtools also provides steps in using a decision matrix, a method often used by businesses in comparing various product or service options they are looking at purchasing. Decision matrices appear publically as feature comparisons of products or services like insurances, cars or software packages on comparison or supermarket type websites.
In decision matrices, different options are rated against each other using factors. Each factor should be easily recognisable – like cost, feature comparisons, location proximity, payment options. If it’s not a readily available comparison (like cost) then the factors could be rated by weighting via perhaps a sliding scale of 1-5 or 1-10.
Effective vs Complex Tasks: Want a very quick set of factors for prioritizing tasks? – this article talks about listing all your tasks, then rating them by two factors – effectiveness (towards the actual end-goal)and complexity. These are scored from 1-10, the sum of both scores is then averaged. The end result is a prioritised list, showing you the least complicated but effective tasks to work on – the quick wins.
Hitting Emotions: We know that we will be more successful if working on tasks which mean a lot to us – keeping an eye on the end result (in a passionate goal) helps with this. This article highlights using emotional factors – of how we will feel when completing a task – for prioritization. More on using our emotions – and energy levels in the further reading section below.
ABCs, MoSCoW and Starred Prioritization Systems
In the ABC Method, we simply take a list of to-do’s or tasks, and go down them to give them an A, B or C: A for most important, must be done today; B for should be done today; and C for not important, but nice to do’s. If you have more than one A, then you stick secondary ordering onto it with numbers 1-3 typically.
A – Most Important – Must Do
B – Important – Should Do
C – Not Important – Nice to Do
When you drill down on this, you realize that unless you’re doing this prioritization with other people in a brain-storming session, you’re basically basing this ordering on your own expertise and gut-feel of which is most important. With such a method, however, you can draw on previous experience, and workflows.
MoSCow – Must Should Could & Won’t
M – Must (have)
S – Should (have)
C – Could (have)
W – Won’t (have).
This method is typically used in software development, to prioritize – or reject – software requirements, but the approach may also be useful for general option prioritization. Again, it’s based on an expertise and gut-feel of what each option should be.
Say, you follow the MIT or even big rocks system (see below) but then you have a list of 1-6 tasks you have decided need to be done first – but which one first?
In these cases, some people use symbols to denote their next prioritized task – they may draw an asterix against a task, or stick up a check box ready to be marked off. These starred privatizations can work well if we are confident in our own knowledge and expertise.
This approach fits a handwritten to-do list or journal list quite nicely. (See the Week of Journaling series for several journal examples). When taken into digital apps, to-do lists with stars on items are typically used to indicate those of most importance or priority.
Productivity Tip: Paring Down All Those Decisions
We live in a busy world. All those decisions, day by day, hour by hour. But not all decisions are made equal. And decision-making is a wearying business. In fact, scientific studies have shown that we only have a certain amount of decision-making energy available to us. To get through life, we need to work on paring down all those decision making requirements, to allow focus on what actually counts.
Take a tip from some of the greats, people most of us would consider very productive:
Steve Jobs and Barak Obama both decided to not bother “deciding” what they would wear day on day. Jobs is famous for wearing the same black turtleneck and blue jeans “uniform” for years. Obama said:
“You’ll see I wear only grey or blue suits…I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.”
Reading Assignment No 6 – Further Reading
- Book: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey – get a copy if you don’t have one already.
- Book: The 1 Minute To-Do List by Michael Linenberger.
- Wikipedia entry: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
- Stephen Covey’s website with additional material.
- Mindtools: The Urgent/Important Matrix – Using Time Effectively, Not Just Efficiently
- 99U: Urgent vs. Important
- Ridiculously Efficient: Prioritize Tasks By Emotion to Boost Productivity
- Kathryn Minshew, The Muse (on LinkedIn): Productivity Hacks: Making My Tasks Emotional
- Robyn Scott at Medium: Why making my tasks emotional increased my productivity – discusses using emotional contexts for GTD task creation.
- Scientific American: Tough Choices: How Making Decisions Tires Your Brain
- NYTimes: Do You Suffer from Decision Fatigue?
An App for That
Of course there are apps for that. And this is a Friday #52Tech post, so here are a couple of my favs for this.
Eisenhower App – an iPhone app which offers a matrix, task count function, and focus mode where you can set a timer on your most urgent or important tasks. The app is $3, but also cloud syncs to a web database, which is freely accessible.
Priority Matrix App
This is one of my own current favourites. Not only does it offer an Eisenhower matrix, which allows for priorities, icons, due dates,and progress reports, but there are several other quadrant matrices available, and you can create your own with your own labels. (I use one for high-level planning of a fiction series, and email the matrices content out to myself or my Evernote account direct).
The iPAD app is FREE, but if you want to use across platforms, you’ll need a subscription.