Posted on Sun 10 January 2016


This is a lesson taken from Productive Habits, a four-week email course.

Today we're going to look at prioritisation. Or, I should say, ruthless prioritisation. This is my favourite kind. It's like clearing out your wardrobe after a few years—it feels simultaneously heart-breaking and liberating to throw things out mercilessly.

This little aspect of productivity doesn't get enough credit. It can do wonders for your efficiency and your mental health.

If you're anything like me, you've probably felt overwhelmed by everything you have to do at times. I've felt this lots of times, actually, and it's almost always a result of lacking prioritisation. Or, more accurately, lacking the guts to prioritise ruthlessly.

Prioritisation is hard. But it's incredibly effective. It'll give you space and time and help you get out from under the mountain of stress that's developing from your huge workload.

Today we'll cover one of my favourite ways to prioritise my to do list.

Priority matrix

A great way to prioritise your existing workload is to use this priority matrix designed by Stephen Covey. I like to get a big scrap of paper or a whiteboard for this, so there's plenty of room to scribble.

Priority matrix

For each section of the matrix, think through your workload and write down anything on your to do list (even if it's just on a mental list) that fits that section. Here's how to think about the labels "urgent" and "important":

Urgent vs not urgent: Urgent means something that needs doing right away. Anything due today or overdue is urgent. Anything that interrupts you and demands your immediate attention, like a phone call, is urgent. Long-term projects, tasks due next week, or things you'd like to do that have no due date are not urgent.

Important vs not important: You probably know which tasks on your list are important and which aren't, but sometimes you need to be really honest without yourself about this. Just because someone asks you to do something doesn't automatically make it important. If it's going to make a difference to your business, or a colleague is relying on you to get it done, or it's related to your health and wellbeing, count it as important. But don't fall into the trap of calling tasks important when you could stand to delegate or delete them.

I often move tasks around after I first fill in a matrix. Once I step back and look over the tasks I've written down, it's easier to reevaluate what's truly important and what's urgent.

When you're happy that you've prioritised according to the matrix, you can start cutting down your to do list. Anything urgent needs to be dealt with quickly, but you don't want to constantly be dealing with urgent matters—the most critical box in this matrix is the "important but not urgent" box. These are things that will have huge consequences for your business, your job, your family, or your life, but aren't urgent enough to demand your attention. If you're constantly fighting fires, you'll never get around to these tasks, and you won't benefit from their results.

One way to cut down on urgent tasks is to delegate them. If you can get an assistant, friend, or colleague to take on things like returning phone calls, handling email enquiries, or finding information like a restaurant's opening hours, you can free up valuable time. You can also reevaluate the importance of urgent tasks, as you might be able to simply cross some of them off your list.

Anything in the "not urgent and not important" box doesn't need to get done at all. If you have tasks here that were requested by someone else, try asking nicely if they can do it themselves or delegate to another person. Remember: only you know how busy you are, so only you are to blame if you agree to take on too much. When someone asks you to do something, they assume that you have time for it if you say yes.

Further reading

P.S. I make some stuff you might like: Exist, a personal analytics app to help you understand your life, and Larder, a bookmarking app for developers.

© Belle B. Cooper. Built using Pelican. Theme by Giulio Fidente on github, edited by Belle B. Cooper. Theme inspiration from Jordan Smith and DuoTone snow theme.