One of my favorite productivity quotes of all time comes from famed marketer and entrepreneur Seth Godin who said:
"You don't need more time in your day. You need to decide."
Even if we all have the same 24 hours in a day, it's the highly productive people who are able to maximize their time by 1.) deciding which of their tasks is the most important one and 2.) focusing on it 100%.
But just in case you're not as productive as you want to be, or you feel like you can't decide which task deserves your limited resources of time, energy, and attention, don't worry just yet.
You can always develop the skill of prioritization, which is the act of arranging thoughts and activities in order of relative importance.
Before we continue, however, there are three important concepts that are worth highlighting:
01 | You have a choice.
To expand on what Godin said, it doesn't matter how many options, opportunities, to-dos, or problems you have. The thoughts and activities you focus on and act on at any given moment are inescapably up to you.
02 | Prioritization is a skill.
Don't fret if you feel like nothing is working so far because no one ever started out as highly productive in the beginning. It takes time and practice but the more you develop prioritization, the better you become at doing it. The easier it’ll be and the more benefits you’ll get from it.
03 | You’ve already chosen to prioritize prioritization.
By simply clicking to read this article, you've made a conscious choice to learn about and prioritize prioritization. This means you’re ready to take control of your days and work on high-value activities that best lead you towards your goals.
That said, here are 3 ways to prioritize confidently and effectively:
01. The Eisenhower Matrix
This first exercise comes from Dwight D. Eisenhower, the 34th president of the United States who served from 1953 to 1961. Throughout his life, he became US president, US army general, a statesman, and even a NATO commander.
This is all to say that we could learn a thing or two from this very productive man.
One of his most popular teachings include the Eisenhower Matrix, also known as the Urgent and Important Matrix. It has four sections or quadrants, as we’ll refer to them.
On the top left, you have the Urgent and Important quadrant, the top right you have the Not Urgent and Important quadrant, on the bottom left you have the Urgent and Not Important quadrant, and on the bottom right you have the Not Urgent and Not Important quadrant.
This matrix is a helpful visual tool you can use to categorize each and every task you have as to which you should prioritize and which you should not.
If tasks are Important and Urgent (Q1), these need to be prioritized. These need your utmost time, energy, attention, and maybe even money and you’ll have to complete them as soon as possible.
On the opposite end, if tasks are Not Urgent and Unimportant (Q4), these will have to be eliminated. Stop notifications, delete apps, cancel subscriptions, etc. all at once, if possible.
If tasks are Urgent and Unimportant (Q3), perhaps you could delegate or automate them instead. You could hire a virtual assistant and assign all of those tasks to him/her in one go.
If tasks are Not Urgent and Important (Q2), it’s best to plan or schedule them. These are usually keystone habits that you need to develop such as exercising, reading, journaling, planning, reviewing, etc. so it’s best to include them in your daily routine.
Remember, you could even batch some tasks because you know that they’re similar and needs to be completed around the same time.
Given your list of tasks right now, see which quadrant they each fall under in the Matrix. Categorize them according to what you should do, schedule, delegate and eliminate.
02. Identify your SMITN
What happens when you suddenly notice that you’re working on small, low-value tasks?
This was once a regular pattern for me, especially in the beginning stages of my business. It got to a point in which I’d start the day being productive only to find myself a few hours later distracted, scrolling through social media, tracking website stats by the hour, and researching too many online articles.
Which is why I came up with a simple “thought trigger” called SMITN which stands for Single Most Important Task Now.
Since it’s a short, catchy acronym, it’s a helpful reminder to prioritize and avoid multi-tasking. Even if I complete my highest value task in the morning, I can still stay productive throughout the day since I can just move on to my next single most important task over and over again.
Still not convinced? SMITN can help you prioritize and focus on your highest value tasks at any given moment, similar to the MIT (Most Important Task) concept or lessons from the following books:
- The One Thing by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan,
- Eat That Frog by Brian Tracy,
- The Effective Executive by Peter F. Drucker,
- The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey,
- Rework by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, and
- Essentialism by Greg McKeown.
Here is the breakdown:
- Single - One activity, not top 3 “priorities,” and absolutely no multi-tasking
- Most Important - Your #1 task or the highest value task in your to-do list
- Task - An actual activity or action you must do (no more planning at this point)
- Now - Not tomorrow, next week, or next quarter, but at this very moment
03. Pareto Principle or 80/20 Rule
The Pareto Principle or 80/20 Rule comes from the Italian economist and sociologist, Vilfredo Pareto, who observed that 80% of effects usually stem from only 20% of causes.
First, he noticed that in his garden, only a small portion of his pea pods, roughly 20%, generated majority of the peas, about 80%. Next, he observed that only 20% of the Italian population owned 80% of the country’s wealth.
Soon after, this 80/20 Rule was acknowledged by other industry experts from business to personal development as a remarkable way to evaluate decisions, processes, and patterns.
In sales or business, they noticed that 80% of profits are usually generated from 20% of products. In customer service, they noticed 80% of complaints are usually only from 20% of customers. Even the clothes that you wear 80% of the time are usually taken from only 20% of your wardrobe.
Now, it’s important not to focus on the specific numbers or statistics. Whether it’s 80/20, 90/10, or 70/30, the key takeaway here is that majority of the effects come from the minority of the causes.
In terms of prioritization, this is very good news. It means we only need to identify our top 20% activities or highest value tasks and focus on it because these tasks generate the most impact or income anyway.
For example, if you have 10 tasks on your to-do list for today, chances are that only two of those would yield majority of your results and make the most impact. Consider prioritizing those top two tasks before tackling the rest.
Next, why not take the 80/20 Rule even further? From the top 20%, narrow it down to the top 4% and from 4%, focus on only the highest 1%.
Remember, the whole purpose of prioritization is to identify your most important or highest value activities so you could maximize your time, energy, attention, and money. This is where the 80/20 Rule comes in handy because you’re forced to focus on the vital few instead of the trivial many.
Whenever you have a group of tasks or list of options, ask yourself the following questions to put the Pareto Principle into action:
- Which 20% of my tasks would generate the most impact or income?
- Which 20% of my tasks is the best use of my time, energy, attention, and money right now?
- Which 20% of my activities make me the happiest or most fulfilled?
If you're struggling with prioritization, know that you always have a choice, it's a skill that you can develop, and by reading all the way to the end of this article, you've already chosen to prioritize prioritization so you're definitely in the right track. But for practical purposes, try implementing the Einsenhower Matrix, SMITN, and Pareto Principle.