My productivity toolbox – part two

In part one we discussed how important is to put down all the things you have on your mind and create a routine for their execution. But what happens when your list of tasks for each day grows bigger and bigger and you start observing that you are not completing everything you wanted for the day? It is easy to press the “postpone for later” button, but that does not solve the issue, it is only delaying it, making it even harder for you to read through your never-ending list.

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

The Eisenhower Matrix

This second part of the post focuses on how to prioritize your tasks, when to delegate or when to delete them. The method that I am using is called the “Eisenhower Matrix” and it is one of the most popular and effective prioritizing methods in the world, being part of the “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” book by Stephen Covey.

The technique involves prioritizing your tasks based on importance and urgency. Create a diagram by dividing the space into four quadrants based on this criteria. Before explaining each section, one question that initially came to my mind was how to judge what is important or not. Urgency is quite easy to understand since time is pretty straightforward. However, importance can be viewed from multiple perspectives. To be honest, even now I am not sure that I have the best definition of it, but the way how I see importance is by looking at the leverage of the task. Inside his book “The Effective Engineer” Edmund describes leverage as:

“the value produced per unit of time invested”

You can check, for more details, his talk on this topic here. Activities with high leverage bring me closer to achieve my high goal in the least amount of time. Having this perspective in mind, let’s take a look at the four quadrants, starting with the last one:

Quadrant 4. “Not important and not urgent”

The first question that comes to my mind when looking on the items from this category is “Why do they exist or can they be deleted?” Since they do not bring me closer to my goals, and they require my time, I ask myself what is the reason I added them. Sometimes I discover that the task is not actionable, but more a reference that I might need in the future. In that case, I move it to Evernote and then delete it, but whatever reason it might have you should challenge its existence and remove it if it is not necessary.

Here are some examples from this category:

  • watching television
  • checking social media
  • trivia

Quadrant 3. “Urgent but not important”

This category of tasks is interesting since it forces us to understand if something urgent is important for us or not. The list usually grows and grows when we cannot politely refuse a request or delegate it to the appropriate person. At the beginning of my career, I found myself many times saying yes to all requests from everyone without realizing that by doing that I delay completing the tasks that I need to focus on the most. I felt good when I helped others, and of course, earned their appreciation, but as a side-effect, I did not realize that others could have benefited more from learning how to handle these tasks. I am not saying that you should stop helping others, but I suggest to challenge the idea if you are the right person to do these tasks.

Some think that delegation can be done only by managers or supervisors. I understand this perspective since this hierarchy view is quite common in many cultures or countries. However, I think it is as essential to be also done between peers and to build a team that is open to support and improve each other. Delegation gives the other person the possibility to grow, to develop. Sometimes the results will not be as good, but through coaching and repetition, the results can reach a level above the initial assumptions. Secondly, it reduces the bus factor and distributes knowledge across the team.

Here are some examples from this category:

  • booking flights
  • weekly reports
  • answering certain emails

Quadrant 2. “Not urgent but important”

This quadrant is the one that you should put all your focus in. These are things that will bring you closer to completing your big goals, make a significant impact on your life and at the end make you happy. Do not neglect to tackle them since, if you are postponing and postponing them, they will move to quadrant one, and you will feel pressured, stressed and uncomfortable. Plan this tasks accordingly, make sure you allocate the time for them, execute them with calm and without any rush and you will reach a state of complete harmony with your routine.

Here are some examples from this category:

  • long-term business strategy
  • exercising
  • high leverage projects

Quadrant 1. “Urgent and important”

This quadrant is also called the “firefighting quadrant”. Tasks in here have to be completed as soon as possible since every hour passed can cause severe consequences. The tension and stress level in this quadrant is quite high; therefore we must ensure that we avoid having this kind of tasks. Thinking ahead, analyzing past behaviors and patterns can help you to become better to prevent these issues. There will still be situations where our boss will ask something from us very urgent, but even then we should try to see if the request can be handled differently.

Here are some examples from this category:

  • unplanned downtime or malfunctions on the server side
  • crying baby
  • kitchen fire

You can find here an excellent animated review of the “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective” where “habit three” explains the essence and importance of this technique:

How to put this into practice?

Step 1. Centralize all tasks and prioritize them

Todoist has the notion of priorities (p1, p2, p3, p4), but other tools that lack this feature can achieve similar results using labels or tags. During the weekly planning process, I go through all the items and decide in what quadrant they belong. For example, when finding an important and not urgent task, I use P2 and todoist reflects its importance through an orange checkmark. By default, all new entries in todoist are considered priority four, part of the “not urgent and not important” quadrant. Therefore it is critical to detect those P2 tasks since they are the key to great results.

Step 2. Use a calendar to see the impact of your tasks on your time

In the previous post, I mentioned that I am using the “Pomodoro” technique to break tasks in 25 minutes intervals. Most of us have eight working hours per day, and this would mean in an ideal case 16 “pomodoris”. First, check your calendar, day by day, to see how many meetings you have and then subtract that time. (e.g. two meetings in one day, 1 hour each would mean that you will lose four intervals, having left 12 pomodoris). Next step is to manage risk, how possible it is that someone will interrupt you or incidents to appear that will require your attention. I usually allocate between 10 to 20% for unplanned events.

Once you realize how much time you have in that week, start adding the activities with the highest leverage first (the quadrant two tasks). Once you are finished with them, add the ones from quadrant three and only then quadrant four. If you are wondering why I don’t mention anything about the urgent and important ones, is because you should already have completed these. As I mentioned earlier, this is firefighting mode, and you should not postpone them for any reason.

One other trick that I recommend is bulk completing small tasks. For example, when having tasks that can be accomplished in 5 to 10 minutes, use one Pomodoro slot to complete them in bulk. e.g. calls, emails, set new appointments, etc. (I also use labels like 5MINS, 10MINS to mark this kind of tasks.)

Key Takeaways

  • Allocate the time and effort to find out the essential things in your life
  • Delegate tasks to others and allow others to grow and develop
  • Visualize your tasks in a calendar

Also published on Medium.