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Prioritizing Tasks and Setting Goals

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Urgent versus important

Managing time effectively involves prioritizing tasks and setting goals. In order to do this, you first need to be able to distinguish between what is important and what is urgent.

Dwight D. Eisenhower, the former general and president of the United States, devised the ‘Eisenhower Decision Matrix’. It was later refined and popularized by Stephen Covey in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

Eisenhower said, “What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.”

We react to ‘urgent’ tasks and ‘important’ tasks in different ways. We face urgent tasks in a reactive mode. This mode tends to make us negative, hurried, and most of all defensive. If something is urgent, we feel we need to do it now.

We face important tasks, on the other hand, in a responsive mode. This mode makes us rational, composed, and open to new opportunities. Our important tasks are what contribute to our long-term values, goals, and mission.

There is a difference between what is urgent and what is important. However, most people fall into the trap of believing that all urgent activities are also important.

In our modern ‘always-on’ world, we can get overwhelmed by the sense that everything is urgent and must be done immediately. As the media theorist Douglas Rushkoff claims, we are currently experiencing 'present shock'. In other words, “we live in a continuous, always-on ‘now’” and lose our sense of long-term narrative and direction.

This causes us to fall into silos of stress, fatigue, and breakdown. Over time, we are unable to accurately see and assess our priorities.

The Decision Matrix

Covey refined Eisenhower’s Decision Matrix into four quadrants.

  • Quadrant 1 consists of tasks that are urgent and important. These include crises, deadlines, and urgent problems.
  • Quadrant 2 consists of tasks that are important, but not urgent. These include relationships, planning, and recreation.
  • In Quadrant 3, we find tasks that are urgent, but not important. These might include interruptions and meetings, and simple but urgent activities.
  • Quadrant 4 consists of tasks that are neither urgent nor important. These include time wasters, pleasant activities, and trivia.

As you can imagine, you should be focusing on Quadrant 1, the realm of urgent and important tasks. These tasks require our immediate attention and go towards our long-term goals.

Quadrant 1

Let’s dive into each quadrant a bit more. Examples of items in Quadrant 1 include feeling obliged to respond within 24 hours to an email received or tasks not completed due to issues outside your control. Paying your rent or mortgage if you have missed the payment date would be a Quadrant 1 task.

With careful planning, you can reduce the sense of urgency. For example, you could work on your Annual Report for a short maximum time period every day, instead of leaving it until the week before publication to begin. This helps you move some Quadrant 1 tasks into Quadrant 2.

Quadrant 2

According to Covey, the ideal is to be able to spend most of your time on important tasks without that stressful sense of urgency. This is Quadrant 2. These are tasks without a deadline that help you achieve your goals. These tasks center around relationship building (in work and at home), planning for the future (medium to long term), and personal recreation (such as hobbies or studying). To operate effectively in Quadrant 2, you need to accept that there is never a ‘right time’ to do something. You can’t wait around for the ‘right time’, you must live and plan your life to succeed.

Quadrant 3

Here we find tasks that are urgent, but not important. These are the tasks that do require action now, but that are not actually critical to the achievement of our goals. Often, tasks end up in your Quadrant 3 because of the actions of others. They are prioritizing their work over yours.

Examples of Quadrant 3 tasks include making and taking phone calls, responding to social media, and dealing with colleagues approaching your desk. Emails can also fall into this quadrant, if you find it hard to distinguish between the urgent and the important.

According to Covey, people spend most of their time focused on Quadrant 3 tasks, while thinking they are actually working in Quadrant 1. In other words, they are working on tasks that are not really as important as they think they are.

In Quadrant 3, while you may be responding the needs of others, you feel good about your involvement in these tasks. But this does not mean that you are getting stuff done. You may be feeling good marking items off your list, but you also realize that you are not making any progress in your own long-term goals. Quadrant 3 can be personally frustrating.

Quadrant 4

Here we find tasks that are neither urgent nor important. These tasks do not help you achieve your short- or long-term goals. Example include surfing the web or browsing TV and social media. Obviously, your professional career and work-life-balance would suffer if you spent all of your time, energy, and focus in Quadrant 4. However, this quadrant is of some value, as it allows you work on tasks that help you relax and decompress.

The quadrants in action

So how does all this talk of quadrants help you more effectively manage your time? You need to understand the distinction between urgency and importance. Start to objectively filter and prioritize what is important over what is merely urgent. Deciding which tasks are actioned in which quadrant requires constant vigilance, discipline, and honesty.

Consider this example. Every month you have a system in place to pay a major bill, such as your rent or mortgage. Then this becomes a Quadrant 2 task, because it is important, but not urgent. You’ve put in place a plan whereby your salary is paid into your bank account, and from there the lender draws down an agreed amount at the same time each month.

What happens if this system fails because you did not have enough funds in your account to cover the payment? Then this important task suddenly becomes urgent too! If urgent and immediate action is not taken, there may be extreme consequences. It is much better to plan to have a systemized payment in place within Quadrant 2.

Once you have filtered and prioritized your tasks, you can set goals to help you achieve them. Regardless of where you work, goals give you direction and purpose to steer your daily activities to success.

Here’s another example. Suppose you decide you are going to drive to Martina’s house. But you don’t know where Martina lives. Your plan is to drive around until you recognize her house. This sounds like a workable strategy. However, it could take decades to find Martina’s house, and even then you would have to be very, very lucky to find it.

Believe it or not, this style of thinking is commonly found in many companies. Although they might not leave success at the mercy of pure chance, many companies have a similar lack of clarity about their destination and how long it will take to get there.

Consider this statement: “We're going to be the biggest provider of widgets in Europe.” That’s a worthy goal, of course. But what do you actually have to do to become the biggest? Like driving to Martina’s house, such statements of intent are going to be impossible to achieve unless an appropriate roadmap is created.

Best practices

To help you achieve your goals, follow these best practices.

  • Write down your goals. Talking them out won’t work. By using pen and paper, rather than an electronic device, it takes longer – and this is a good thing, as the slower pace allows you to clearly visualize your goals and lodge them in your subconscious mind as the first step.
  • Dig into each goal, and list and specify the details. This includes the when, who, how many, cost, colors, and so on. The more specific you can be, the more information your mind has to work with to achieve your goals.
  • Tick off the individual specifics as you achieve them. This will give you a more accurate picture of your journey to date, and of what comes next.
  • Make sure your goals are realistic. Can you really do this? Do you need assistance? What will it cost? How long will it take? Imagine that your goal is to become a millionaire within a year. That’s great! But if you currently earn $50,000 per year, your goal isn’t realistic, is it?
  • Begin with the end in mind. Start with your destination, and work backwards from there to define the steps of your roadmap.
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Kevin J Reid

CEO of Personal Skills Training, Senior Coach at Kevin J Reid Coaching, Co-founder and Communications Director of The Counsel.ie, and Lead Collaborator of LeitrimMade.com

  • A consummate and skillful international communications trainer, facilitator, and coach
  • Has over 15 years of learning development experience with individuals, teams, and entire organizations
  • Has facilitated communications workshops and training across numerous sectors in Ireland, the UK, Europe, America, and Africa

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    Personal Skills
    Kevin J Reid
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    When it comes to improving your personal skills in the workplace, four essential skills stand out: the ability to be more productive at work; the ability to adapt to a changing work environment; the ability to manage your time effectively; and the ability to deal with setbacks. This module focuses on enhancing your skills in these four critical areas.

    When it comes to productivity, you will learn about the difference between being busy and being productive, and techniques you can use to increase your output and to deal with unwelcome distractions and interruptions.

    The lesson on adaptability focuses on how to cultivate an adaptable mind-set at work, and how to find alternative – and innovative – solutions to problems by using tactics like brainstorming and mind-mapping.

    The time-management lesson explains how to prioritize tasks and set goals, how to save and create time, and how to eliminate personal time stealers such as excessively viewing email or attending too many meetings.

    The module concludes with a lesson on how to respond to setbacks in the workplace. You will discover the importance of demonstrating resilience in the face of adversity, and how to turn setbacks into valuable learning opportunities.