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.