A couple of weeks ago we considered the secret to getting everything done. In short, if we want to complete everything on our to-do lists, then we have to change our schedules so we’re only trying to complete 24 hours’ worth of tasks in each day.
Some of us may be able to accomplish this by getting more organized and rearranging when we do things. For most of us, though, this means we must do fewer things.
The thought of doing less sounds great, but it isn’t easy. We have to cut out some tasks or activities. How can we prioritize so we’re focusing on the most important things? Here are a few strategies I’m finding to be helpful.
How to prioritize the tasks and activities in your life
Create an urgent/important prioritization matrix
We tend to assume that the tasks that demand our immediate attention (“urgent tasks”) are those that are most important (tasks that will help us achieve our goals). This often isn’t the case. An urgent/important prioritization matrix can help us determine which tasks are worthy of our focus. The following image details how to use the matrix and provides examples of how to characterize various activities.
It’s my understanding that the concept of using importance and urgency to prioritize tasks first became popular back in the 1950s when President Eisenhower shared how he used these two characteristics to prioritize his workload. Its popularity was bolstered by Stephen Covey when he discussed this “time management grid” in 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (affiliate link). You can see why its popularity has endured!
The key to using this matrix to help us do fewer things is to drop the activities in Quadrant 4 and minimize how often we complete those in Quadrant 3.
Use the Big Rocks Strategy
The following video illustrates the “Big Rocks” time management concept:
The point here is that if we fill our days with water, sand, and pebbles (unimportant tasks like aimlessly surfing the web, watching TV, and completing busywork), then we won’t have room for the big rocks (important tasks like investing in our families and doing quality work). On the other hand, if we see to the big rocks first, then the pebbles, sand, and water will all fit in around them.
This strategy is very helpful when scheduling our days. However, the reality is that if we’re doing too much, then it’s not all going to fit, regardless of how we place it all in the vessel. The key to using this approach to help us do fewer things is to use it to identify all we need to do and then actually get rid of some of the rocks, pebbles, sand, and water so we’re certain it will all fit.
Focus on the most important themes
Our lives contain numerous themes (e.g., marriage, parenthood, faith, education, recreation, work, physical fitness, friendship, community engagement). If we take time to identify which three or four themes are most important to us, then we can make the tasks that support these themes our priorities.
In order to identify all of the themes in our lives, it can be helpful to think through a typical weekday and weekend. What places do you go? What things do you do? What activities and tasks occupy most of your time? What do you do when you have a few free moments? Though there are exceptions, the themes we identify as most important to us are typically those on which we spend the most time.
The key to using this approach to help us do fewer things is to be willing to eliminate some of the tasks and activities that don’t support our most important themes.
Do the Top 3
The “Top 3” approach to prioritizing tasks has to be one of the simplest time management approaches. I learned of it several years ago when my pastor (a very busy man) mentioned it in a sermon. He said that each day he looks at all he needs to complete and chooses three items that will get done. A lot may happen throughout the course of the day, but he is sure to put other things on the back burner so those three tasks get completed. Of course, he often completes more than these three tasks, but he makes them the priority by not going to bed until he has completed them.
This strategy is great because it doesn’t take a lot of time to use. Moreover, it is adaptable, allowing us to use it regardless of what day of the week it is or what tasks we’re facing on a given day. The key to using this approach to help us do fewer things is to be willing to cut out the tasks or activities that aren’t important enough to be named among the Top 3.
Sometimes I’ll get so carried away deciding how to prioritize my tasks that I never actually get started on completing them! I hope you can avoid making this same mistake. Select an approach, use it, and then begin completing the tasks and activities that are your priorities.
I’m sure there are numerous other approaches to prioritizing all you need to do. Are you familiar with some of these? If so, please share them with us.
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