How to achieve your goals with a popular prioritization framework
The other day I heard this quote while listening to a podcast episode:
The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities. — Stephen Covey
My instant reaction was — whatever 🙄! It sounds great to hear, but in the end, aren’t these two things still the same? The author is just making it catchy to remember it. And I moved on.
But it stayed on my mind over the weekend. I remembered it and kept thinking about it. I guess making it catchy to remember it actually worked!
So I decided to give it more thought and understand what’s the difference between these two phrases and specifically, what shall I get out of it.
The Prioritization Paradox
The phrase ‘prioritize what’s on your schedule’ seems to imply that you already have a bunch of tasks on your plate, and now you have to do bottom-up planning to shuffle them around in their relative order of importance and urgency. This seems to be more of a day-to-day execution mode.
On the other hand, the phrase ‘schedule your priorities’ implies you have an empty schedule and you think about your priorities first, then schedule them in its order of importance, and then come up with appropriate tasks. This seems to be more of a monthly or weekly planning mode.
The difference might sound subtle but I think there is something to it. Here’s another way of understanding it. Ask yourself these questions:
Do you want to slog through the laundry list, checking each item off, even if it’s not very useful and probably not contributing to your goals?
Do you want to start with your goals, prioritize them and then focus on the most important tasks that will help achieve your goals?
Obviously, you will agree that it’s later.
This leads to a question — how do you decide what is a priority?
Making prioritization choices seems like one of the biggest challenges we face on a day-to-day basis both in our personal lives as well in our professional life.
Which task should I do first? Is this task relevant to my goals? Is it worth spending so much time on this task?
Unfortunately, not enough people ask these questions on a daily basis. Largely because prioritization is a complex task, but also because they aren’t aware of how to do it effectively.
The Eisenhower Matrix
There is one time management process I had heard a few years ago that I have been following it somewhat loosely, but I think it can help answer some of the questions above. It is called the Eisenhower Matrix. Using a 4-quadrants matrix below, you will categorize your priorities or tasks based on four possibilities of the urgency and importance of a task.
Urgent and important (tasks you will do immediately)
Important, but not urgent (tasks you will schedule to do later)
Urgent, but not important (tasks you will delegate to someone else)
Neither urgent nor important (tasks that you will eliminate)
The great thing about this matrix is that while it’s best to be used for your monthly or weekly planning process, it can also be used for your day-to-day execution.
While it’s self-explanatory what each of these quadrants means, I will share how I use this process typically on a monthly and weekly basis.
Quadrant #1: Urgent and Important
These are the tasks that are urgent (maybe because I did not foresee earlier, or because some external event triggered it) and important (because something is dependent on it or something in which I have got the most context or knowledge about), I try to prioritize these as many as possible.
Examples of this type of my tasks are: following up with a prospect on the proposal, preparing requirements for the sprint planning based on customer feedback, following up with a candidate with offer details while she’s also interviewing at other companies, etc.
Quadrant #2: Important, but Not Urgent
These tasks are important (because I need to be involved in it) but not urgent (there is still some time to do it). I tend to schedule these on later part of the calendar so that the urgent tasks are taken care first, and then I can start working on these as time permits before they become urgent.
Examples of this type of my tasks are: working on product strategy and roadmap, refining our vision and differentiation, working on new marketing copy and website pages, etc.
Quadrant #3: Urgent, but Not Important
These are the most crucial tasks that you need to manage properly as they distract you from working on your most important tasks. A natural tendency is to work on the urgent tasks without really thinking too much if they’re really important or not (i.e. are they going to move the key needle of your goal or can somebody else do this instead of you).
These tasks I try to delegate as it’s less important for me to be involved in it, and maybe somebody else is better suited to do it and probably can do it sooner than I can do.
Examples of this type of my tasks are: doing timely accounting, bookkeeping, and taxes, etc. I definitely suck at these, so I learned to outsource these to who do it better.
Quadrant #4: Not Urgent and Not Important
These items are mostly distractions. So I try to delay them as much as possible or ignore them completely. This definitely helps simplify and declutter my to-do list and not feel overwhelmed.
Examples of this type of my tasks are: surfing the internet during the work-time, attending many meet-ups and conferences, meeting people over coffee/lunch without specific agenda, etc.
While I use this framework fairly regularly, I don’t use any specific tool to categorize each task diligently in different quadrants. That seems like overkill to me and make it too time-consuming.
But just being aware of this framework back of my mind while I am planning a week or a month, I have found it to be useful to identify and plan my top priorities to do first vs schedule some later, and also delegate and ignore other things.
I hope you’ll find it useful too.
Efficiency is doing things right; Effectiveness is doing the right things.
Or why instead of following it blindly, it’s time to modify it a bit.
I’m sure most of you have heard of “The jar of life — Rocks, Pebbles, and Sand” story. If you have not, here is a quick refresher.
The original story
A philosophy professor once stood before his class with a large empty jar. He filled the jar with large rocks and asked his students if the jar was full.
The students said that yes, the jar was full.
He then added small pebbles to the jar and asked again, “Is the jar full now?”
The students agreed that the jar was indeed full.
The professor then poured sand into the jar and asked again.
The students then agreed that the jar was finally full.
The professor went on to explain that the jar signifies one’s life.
The rocks are equivalent to the most important things in your life, such as family, health, and relationships. And if the pebbles and the sand were lost, the jar would still be full and your life would still have a meaning.
The pebbles represent the other things that matter in your life, such as your work, school, and house. These things often come and go, and are not permanent or essential to your overall well-being.
And finally, the sand represents the remaining small stuff and material possessions in your life. These things don’t mean much to your life as a whole and are likely only done to waste time or get small tasks accomplished.
The metaphor here is that if you start with putting sand into the jar, you will not have room for rocks or pebbles. This holds true for the things you let into your life too.
If you spend all of your time on the small and insignificant things, you will run out of room for the things that are actually important. So in order to have a more effective life, you should prioritize important things in your life and then worry about pebbles and sand at a later time.
I believed in this story. And I had actually put it into practice in my both personal and professional life too.
Another side of the story
But there is another side of the story too that no one has told you yet.
While practicing this theory for a while now I’ve realized that — if I always try to focus on the most important things or goals in my life, then I would procrastinate the other tasks that seemed a lower priority.
But over a period, these lower priority tasks would start piling up. And the more I delayed taking care of these tasks, the more inertia it built up to complete those tasks.
The most harmful side effect of delaying lower priority tasks was, the longer the list of such lower priority tasks grew, the more stress it started adding to my daily routine.
The problem with focusing primarily on the most important things is — since they’re the most important things in your life, they also take longer to complete and more bandwidth to accomplish. And because you’re constantly swamped up with the most important things, you would never get to the lower priority things in your life.
And at some point, I have decided to stop following this mantra of prioritizing the most important things first. On some days, I would start taking care of the lower priority tasks first. This way, as the day starts, I would check off a few things off my plate, and then in the second half of the day, I would work on the important tasks.
The benefit of taking care of a few lower priority tasks first was — it would start building the momentum. There was a sense of achievement and progress. And that momentum would actually help me to work on the important and difficult tasks with much positive mindset.
So instead of following the rocks, pebbles, and sand story blindly as it was told, I would recommend to modify it a bit where instead of filling the jar with only rocks first, and then pebble, etc., you could fill it with few rocks, then few pebbles, then some sand, and then again few more rocks, pebbles and more sand. This way you’re making balanced progress in all areas.
Another approach you can consider is — at the macro level (monthly or annual), prioritize the most important things, but at the micro level (daily or weekly), keep it flexible as per the situation and needs at that time.
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The rollercoaster of thoughts and introspection I had when we had almost lost our daughter.
Last week, we almost lost our daughter.
We had gone to Maui, Hawaii for a week long vacation. One afternoon, we were looking for a particular restaurant in a multi-storied business complex. When we enquired to a shop-keeper on the ground floor, she navigated us to the top floor. When we reached the top floor, a shop-keeper there directed us to the ground floor. As you can imagine, we were going back and forth with a 7-months old in one hand and her stroller in another hand, a 5-years old and my parents running behind us — in general, it was a little chaos.
And in that chaos, we didn’t realize our 5-years old didn’t take a turn from the staircase that we took and she went further down to the other end of the business complex.
A few minutes later when we found the restaurant we were looking for, we realized that we didn’t have our daughter with us.
I was pissed. I was panicked. I wanted to blame everyone — including me. But that was not the time. I ran back to the top floor, came back again to the ground floor, shouted her name, asked few shop-keepers sitting outside if they saw a little Indian girl, but nothing helped. We couldn’t find her.
It felt like my heart was beating very fast and at the same time, it was going to stop beating in a moment.
I was furious with myself. How could I let this happen? How could I be so careless? How could I not hold her hand all the time? Would I be able to ever forgive myself for this mistake? What must be she doing right now? Is she crying? Did some stranger find her? How can I reach out to the police? Can they find her on this remote island? How long will it take for the police to find her?
All these questions splashed in mind in the matter of a few minutes.
And right at that time, my wife signaled from the other end that she found our daughter.
And it felt like I got my life back.
When asked my daughter what had happened to her in those few minutes, she said she started crying as she was not able to find us and told one of the shop-keepers there that she cannot find her parents. Fortunately, that shop-keeper calmed her down and started looking for us as well. And when he saw my wife worried and looking everywhere for something, he figured she must be looking for that missing girl and approached her and handed over our daughter to her.
I was shaken by this incident for the rest of my stay at Hawaii. Especially, while flying back to home, I kept thinking about it and kept feeling how fortunate we were to find her very soon.
This got me thinking that irrespective of how much ever trouble our kids give us at certain times, or how much ever demanding or unmanageable they become in certain situations, we love them limitlessly and unconditionally.
And then I started thinking about how my life has changed — mostly for the better after our kids. I realized how I have become better at many things after I became a father. I’m jotting down those thoughts below so that I’ll have better clarity in my thoughts, but more importantly — I can go back to this essay and be grateful to my daughters for coming in our life.
1. I’m a lot more patient person now.
This is the biggest change I’ve seen happened to me after I became a father. In general, I’m a very patient and well-composed person. You’ll not see me losing my cool in public or in friends circle at all. But I’ll lose it at home — when I’m with family. Well, because you tend to take people at home for granted (and you also love them the most :)).
But as a father, you get stress tested at a totally different level than you’ve ever experienced before.
My daughter’s constant saying “no” to every meal and required daily routine, her unending questions, her constant ask to have candies, her non-stop talking about the princesses and ponies, her constant demand to watch TV, etc. is constantly testing my annoyance limit.
But because I love her so much, I just can’t raise my voice and scold her. I can’t see her crying. But that doesn’t mean, I’m not teaching her good discipline and manners. It’s just that — I prefer to be more patient, take time in explaining things, and wait for her to behave well. It definitely takes more time than usual scolding or forcing way, but by being more patient, I achieve what I want, and she also doesn’t feel forced to do something.
2. I’ve become a better teacher.
As mentioned above, I’ve become a better teacher in general. I started talking a lot more than I used to. I’ve learned to explain “why” more than just telling “how” and “what”. I’ve learned to craft stories on the fly with a hero, a villain and the lessons learned out of any situation. I’ve learned to communicate what I want to convey in the language and at a level that my daughter can understand.
I’ve also learned to teach the same lesson, again and again, knowing that what I teach will not be understood, or grasped or practiced in just one session.
3. I’ve become a better listener.
But just teaching to behave well is not enough. I’ve also learned to be a lot better listener now. It doesn’t happen instantly, but after my daughter repeats the same thing a couple of times, I know I need to stop what I’m doing and listen to her carefully.
Sometimes it’s her some non-sense talk, sometimes it’s her creative thoughts, and sometimes it’s something important that she had heard or observed. I’ve learned to listen and understand what she really means when she says something.
4. I’ve learned to put myself into others’ shoes.
But sometimes just listening and understanding is also not enough. I’ve learned to put myself into her shoes. I’ve learned to focus on “why” she’s saying something than just “what” she’s saying. If she doesn’t want to eat some specific meal, or if she doesn’t want to change her clothes, or doesn’t want to wear specific clothes, then I’ve learned to respect her view points rather than forcing what we had planned.
As a grown-up, even I’m moody sometimes. Somedays I don’t like to follow a daily routine. Sometimes I like to take things slow. Sometimes I like to eat junk food. Then why can’t my daughter have similar thoughts?
Thus, I’ve learned to put myself into her shoes and see things from her angle rather than forcing my plan or decision just because I had planned it that way.
5. I’ve started being in the moment.
I wouldn’t say I’ve become really good at this, but I would definitely say I’ve improved a lot, and I’m constantly trying to improve even more.
As smartphones and wearables are taking control of our lives, and the messaging apps and app notifications are taking control of our attention, we’re not able to give the due attention required to our kids. I know and feel embarrassed when my daughter tells me to put my Macbook or phone down. So I try to spend more time playing with her, listening to her silly stories, doing projects or paintings with her, watching cartoons with her (which I don’t get credit to spend time with her ;)), etc.
But I’ll admit, I’m still not satisfied with my behavior. I’ve definitely become better over the period (I’m less active on messaging apps, have turned off the notifications on most of the apps, got rid of most of the wearables, etc.). But I know there is still room to improve to be more mindful and be present in the moment with my daughters and the family than being with the devices.
6. I’ve started appreciating and caring my parents more.
Raising a child and being a parent is definitely not easy. And I learned it only when I became one. And that made me realize that how much trouble, tantrums, and demands I must have made to my parents, how many times I must have hurt them and tested their patience and annoyance limit as well.
As my parents are getting older and as I’m also getting “smarter” about how to live my life, naturally there are different view points due to a generation gap, exposure, expectations, etc. Before I became a father, I would expect my parents to adopt as per the new generation. I would not bend but would expect them to do so. I would not understand their view point, but would try to force my view point on them.
But as I became a father, and I started bending myself for my daughter, started changing my view points, started becoming more patient, and then one sudden day, it hit me, why I cannot treat my parents the same way I treat my daughter? The level of understanding and compassion I show to my daughter, why I can’t show similar for my parents? And that changed everything. It improved my relationship and behavior with my parents drastically.
I’m more thankful to my parents for what they have done for me.
I’m sure by no means this is an exhaustive list. There are many more benefits of being a parent that I’ve not listed explicitly here. So feel free to share your experience or lessons you’ve learned in the comments section below.
In the end, as a parent, life definitely becomes much more challenging than it used to be, but it’s a choice you make. You definitely need to shift the mindset and accept the new reality. Like many things in life, it’s a baggage of mixed moments — but definitely a lot more beautiful moments than the messy ones :).
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First of all, I haven’t blogged anything in the last few months. In fact, I haven’t also socialized much on Twitter, Facebook and other social media services. Well, there wasn’t any major reason for my inactivity apart from my simple attempt to focus on few important milestones on my plate. I wanted to spend most of my time on my work and with my family and friends, so wanted to restrain myself from all other distractions a.k.a. Social media as much as possible.
To me, spending time on Social media means spending time on Email, Blogs, News Aggregators, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, etc. In general, I wanted to consume minimum required content — like checking important emails, reading interesting blogs or seeing friends’ updates only couple times a day instead of being hyper active. And I also decided not to produce any content at all — no blog posts, no Tweeting, not even Facebook liking.
I had not set any time limit for this experimentation. I decided to continue doing it as much as I can or until I complete important milestones on my plate. Writing this blog post may be considered as the end of this experiment, which lasted closed to 2 months. I guess part of the reason I’m ending this experiment now is because I just completed 2 major milestones on my plate and other part is because I missed being active on Social media.
So I thought what’s a better way to end my dormancy on Social media than writing about tactics I used to shut off myself from Social media and be more productive. In this article I’ll just cover simple tactics I used, but in the next blog post I’ll also write about what worked and what didn’t work so well as a result of this experiment.
So here is a list of tricks I used to improve my productivity & happiness –
1. Unsubscribe from newsletter & notification emails
I wrote about this before — now a days email has became more of a notification medium rather than a communication medium. Every single day you’ll receive tens of newsletter emails that you’ve subscribed to (e.g. Daily Deals, Events, etc.) or notification emails from web services that you’re using (e.g. Twitter, Quora, Foursquare, etc.). Most of these newsletters are not relevant and are complete distraction. All those notifications emails take your attention and waste your time. Unsubscribe from such newsletters that are not really important. Also change your email notification preferences on most of these social services to receive no email notification about any activity that happens on that site. It’s not going to matter much if you don’t learn who started following you on Twitter or Quora.
2. Consistently keep your inbox clean
I don’t read every single email I receive. In fact I delete more emails than I read ones. To be specific, I only read emails that are sent only to me. I rarely read or participate in emails that are sent to groups. Most of the times I delete them based on the subject and my judgment of it’s relevancy to me. If I have time, and if it’s relevant, then only I’ll read it. Keeping this minimum engagement with emails definitely helped me to focus on important emails, and not feel burdened with email overload. Deleting non-personal emails also helped me to keep my inbox clean and find relevant emails quickly when needed.
3. Close your email browser window
Another trick that helped me immensely was to close the email browser window when I’m done with reading/writing emails. If I keep that tab open and if I receive a new email, then Gmail shows a notification count of how many new emails I’ve received. When I see such notification, my natural instinct is to click on that tab and see who sent me emails. Seriously, do we need to be so hyper-responsive to check these emails? I don’t think so. So I simply close that email window when I’m done with checking/replying emails. As they say — ignorance is bliss. Then in few hours (1–2 hrs typically) I’ll open my Gmail, read/reply/delete emails as necessary, and close the window again. Practice it, and you’ll definitely see the results.
4. Logout from Twitter & Facebook every time you’re done browsing
This is another simple trick that works really well if you want to spend less time on Twitter or Facebook. Whenever you login to Twitter or Facebook, these services store your cookie on your computer, and next time you visit their URL, you’re already logged in to that service and you’ll be spending next 20–30 mins in browsing without even realizing it. You don’t visit these sites with the goal of spending 30 mins on it. You think that you’ll just spend 5 mins, quickly see what’s going on, and get back to work immediately. But it rarely happens that way and you end up spending 30 mins of your precious time. But next time you visit these sites, make sure to logout from them when you’re done with browsing. This way, if you try to visit their site for 5 mins, then it will redirect you to their login page and ask you to enter your login credentials. Don’t check the “Remember me” option while signing in. When typing a service URL doesn’t log you in automatically to that service, and when you’re faced with additional hurdles like entering login credentials, most likely you’ll realize that you don’t want to login now, and you’ll give up signing in saving your next 30 mins of precious time.
5. Schedule your content consumption routine and be reactive than proactive
This is a simple discipline — just schedule your day. Decide when you’ll be reading news or blogs, when you’ll be Tweeting or Facebooking, and follow that routine. News in the morning, or Facebooking after lunch, whatever it is, just plan roughly, and try to follow it. One more thing to add is — you don’t have to read every single interesting article that you found on that same day. If you don’t need that information right now, then don’t read it. Read it when you need it or when you have ample time. Be reactive to read information, not proactive. Sure, real-time information is valuable, but you’ve to judge what’s more important to you at that moment — finishing your tasks or reading some more information.
6. Use a bookmarking service
This ties to above suggestion — do not read every single article that you find interesting at that moment. When I browse news sites or blogs after I wake up, my goal is to discover as many interesting articles as possible in given short time, and bookmark them with appropriate tags (Delicious) for later reading or searching when it’s needed. Most of the times I read it during lunch break or when I’m having leisure time on the weekend.
7. Don’t keep your mobile handy when you’re at home
This is another simple self discipline to spend quality time with your family & friends. Now a days we’re consuming and producing more and more content on mobile devices. I think it’s useful to use mobile devices when you’re not at home and killing your time in some waiting queue or waiting for someone at a coffee shop. But when you’re at home with your family or at friends’ place for party, then don’t keep that device handy all the time. Develop a discipline to keep it somewhere else — far from your easy reach. If you have your mobile handy, then you’ll have that constant urge to open those Email, Twitter or Facebook apps and spend your time browsing/updating things which are not important. Instead just be with your family and friends, and enjoy being in that moment.
8. Measure how many times and how much time you’re spending on certain sites
This is just to know what you are doing now so that you know what do next. I used to visit Hacker News, Twitter, Google Reader atleast 8–10 times a day. It was a major time killer and distraction. Just by measuring how many times I visit these sites a day boggled my mind and I reduced it down to 2–3 times a day. Also measure how much time you spend on these sites. Just by knowing how much total time you’re spending on these sites will help you understand how much time you can save and use it to spend somewhere else.
So these are the tricks I used to focus on my work and finish few milestones on my plate. I typically worked 10hrs-14hrs/day and still found lot of quality time to spend with my family & friends. Whenever I used to get tired or stuck on something, instead of spending time on Social media, I spent it with my family and friends — either helping them on any day to day activities or just hanging out and relaxing with them. Shutting myself off from Social media definitely made me happier as I spent amazing time with my family and friends and I also did not need to compromise on my work and sleep hours at all.
Hope these tricks will be useful to you as well to become more productive. What tricks do you use to be less distracted from Social media noise? Please share your ideas in the comments.