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.
For the last 2 months, I deleted the Facebook app on my iPhone as a part of a casual experiment. Sounds crazy, right? Well, probably not to sane ones, but definitely to addicted ones.
Let me explain in detail.
Being mindful about my time
In general, I’m very observant and mindful about how I use my time. But there was one behavior of a mine I wanted to make sure I’m controlling it rather than it controlling me — the smartphone addiction.
Overall I believe I’m mindful of how I spend my time on my iPhone (my wife may disagree ;)), but still one fine day, I questioned the time I spend on some of the apps I use every day and the value I receive from each one of them.
I use Twitter, Nuzzel, and LinkedIn apps most actively to discover inspirational or actionable articles about startup and product management (the topics I’m passionate about). I also use Quora and Medium once in a while for interesting articles on varied topics. I use Pocket app to save all these articles and read it later when I’ve leisure time on weekends. Apart from these content-specific apps, I use WhatsApp and Facebook pretty actively for messaging and keeping a tap on friends’ activity respectively.
After ranking these apps based on its value I receive, WhatsApp and Facebook ranked last.
I felt WhatsApp is still valuable to communicate with close friends and family with the condition that I opt-out from all groups where sending forwards and jokes was a prominent activity than actual communication.
The value of Facebook
But for Facebook, I couldn’t convince myself that I was being “connected” with my friends the way it’s being advertised. I thought it was happening on WhatsApp on a more intimate level. My Facebook newsfeed is primarily a source for entertaining and political videos, photos of friends’ vacations and parties, and once in a while educational and informative articles/videos. Overall I felt, I’m not getting enough value from Facebook compared to the time I was spending on it.
Having that little Facebook app icon available to tap at your finger tip was a clear invitation to waste 10–15 minutes of your day every single time you open that app.
So I thought — what if I could just get rid of the Facebook app from my iPhone and see how it affects my life?
It sounded like a good idea — and boom, just like that, the app was gone!
And nothing happened in last 2 months. I didn’t miss the Facebook app at all.
Having said that, I’m not saying I didn’t access the Facebook website at all in those 2 months. Once or twice in a week, I would take an effort to open the Facebook.com in the browser on my iPhone. Since the experience is not very great on the mobile web browser, I wasn’t spending a lot of time on it. And I felt that was good enough Facebook consumption for me.
Every time I would access Facebook through the browser, I would encounter few updates from Mark Zuckerberg as I’m following him. And most often, I would be inspired by his thoughts, actions, and resolutions. And apparently I’m not the only one. There’re many men who find him as a lifestyle guru.
While I admire his posts about how a farmer in India benefited using Internet.org, I don’t agree that’s how most of the India or even the World is using Facebook. It’s a great story to tell for marketing purposes, but I’m concerned that most of the World use Facebook for passing their time.
Again, I do believe in Facebook’s network effect but realized that it’s better to put that network effect into a positive change than just for entertainment purposes. That’s when I realized, I have a choice to decide how do I want to use Facebook. And there are 2 aspects to it — i) what I should share on Facebook that will be valuable to my friends and ii) what my friends will share that will be valuable to me. While I can’t change my friends’ behavior, but, at least, I can start with me, and hope that it will inspire a few of them to do something similar.
What I plan to do
I plan to share more inspirational and informational videos of all kinds that I personally discover. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a serious person ;). Once in a while, I’ll share entertaining videos too :), but my focus will be on educating and motiving others.
In addition to that, I will share various problems that I observe, and possible ideas and solutions that could solve them. They may be half-baked, but I’ll share it anyways so that conversations will happen and those ideas might get baked by collaborative inputs and wisdom.
I also want to share some of the things that I’m working on and the lessons I’m learning — my day job, my part-time projects, my hobbies, resolutions, etc. I will not just share my success stories or accomplishments only, but will also share my struggles and failures.
What I hope others will do
While I make this my habit, which will take a while, I also hope other people also share similar things so that I and others can also learn from them.
While I’m very proud of people’s achievements when they share them, I’m more interested in hearing about their journey how they got there — including their ups and downs.
While I’m very happy to see photos of their vacation, I would love to read more about how did they plan it, what was their experience like or unique perspective they developed about that location, etc.
Anyways, you got the point. Let’s make Facebook informative, inspirational and personal.
We need to leverage Facebook’s massive reach to make a positive impact in the World rather than wasting people’s most precious resource — time, which many of them don’t realize it.
So I’ll be using Facebook actively again — just with a positive twist. And yes, I’ve downloaded back the Facebook app on my iPhone :).
As a startup founder, I observed that there are really 4 core resources that I work with every single day –
Each one has different level of importance and value at different stage of the company. All these resources are associated with each other in some way. Sometimes one is dependent on the other, and sometimes they’re exclusive to each other. Here are few examples how they’re associated with each other –
You may spend more money to save time, or you spend more time to save money.
You spend more money to get more people, or you have less people since you can’t spend money.
You get more people to do things in less time, or you take more time to do things due to shortage of people.
You can do more things in less time if you’re knowledgeable about it, or you need more time to do things as you don’t have prior knowledge about it.
You need to spend time to acquire knowledge, or you don’t acquire knowledge since you don’t have time.
You got the idea.
The point is — you’re constantly making decisions between these 4 resources and trying to figure out which one is more important than the other at that given instance. Sometimes you take rational decisions, and sometimes you take it based on your gut. But as a founder, you need to master the art of prioritizing these resources and understanding the importance of each resource at the different stage of your company — and that’s what they call — “execution”.
Last week I wrote about how I improved my productivity and happiness by being inactive on Social media. But that’s just one part of the story. Definitely few things really worked well, but there are few other things which could have also worked well but didn’t. Here are those –
What worked well
Improved my focus and productivity: As I said before, this was the biggest benefit I achieved by staying focused and less distracted. I could finish 2 major milestones on my plate –
I launched my social commerce solution company Shopalize in Private beta. It’s still not open to everyone to access yet as we’re currently working on acquiring early customers and trying to hash out product flow with them. Once we have more confidence on our product and it’s value, we’ll open it to more people.
I also launched major upgrades and subscription plans for my appointment & personal reminder service company JustRemindIt. It was a lot of work to add these enhancements on both Web and iPhone application at the same time. So I’m really glad I could complete this milestone as planned.
Spent really quality time with family & friends: This is something I can’t measure quantitatively, but I would definitely say I felt lot happier and relaxed spending more and quality time with people I care about. In general, I was majorly focused on my work, but whenever I used to get tired, or stuck on something, instead of spending time on the Internet, I spent it with family or friends — either helping my wife day-to-day house activities or just hanging out and relaxing with friends. Simple tricks I mentioned in previous blog post helped me to give full attention to people or events around me, and not get distracted by other distractions.
Improved my self control and discipline: This is kind of a side benefit. Typically you gain more self confidence when you see yourself following certain discipline consistently for good time. It’s just re-affirming that you’re disciplined and you can control your actions.
What didn’t work so well
Missed Social media: I’m learning lot of things on both technical and non-technical fronts while building my online businesses. Every time I learned about some hack, insight or advice, I wanted to share it with the world, but I restrained doing it. My natural instinct was to be more social and vocal, but I forced myself to stay silent. I guess Social media has really become an integral part of our lives. Every time we get excited about any small thing, we want to share it with the world. Of course, if you don’t share anything, your life is not going to end, in fact you’ll live very happily. But I guess by being more social, you’re expressing your happiness, excitement and learning with the world, which might make more people happy, excited and knowledgeable.
Might have not learned as much as I could have: Working alone means you will learn from your own readings and experiments. You don’t have a colleague or friend with whom you can brainstorm different ideas or thoughts. So by limiting how much time I spend on content consumption, I definitely must have missed many interesting articles on various different topics. But I knew that this would happen, and that’s why I had decided to consume the information reactively rather than proactively.
Couldn’t grow blog subscribers, Twitter followers, and personal brand: No one wants to engage with your blog if it’s dormant and you don’t write valuable content. Similarly no one wants to follow you on Twitter if you don’t share interesting articles, insights and inspiring quotes unless they’re your friends. You might ask, but why one cares about these numbers? Sure, many people do not have to worry about these metrics. But if you’re building an online business, then it’s super important to build your brand and make your identity known in the industry. It opens many opportunities for you and your business to meet with new people, get word about what you’re doing, get feedback and valuable introductions, etc.
So overall, being inactive on Social media didn’t affect my personal life in any significant way, in fact it actually helped me a lot. Similarly, it also didn’t hurt my professional life in any major way, but at the same time, it didn’t help me either. In fact, it would have been helpful if I would have been more active on Social media.
Plans going forward
Since there are both advantages and disadvantages of being active on Social media, I need to find the right balance between on what activities I spend more time vs what activities I spend less.
More Blogging & Tweeting: This is definitely valuable to build my personal brand and identity. Blogging helps me to clear my thoughts and put it in concise and crisp manner. It is improving my writing and my communication abilities in general. Tweeting enables me to share and discover thoughtful articles and insights and connect with similar minded people. Both blogging and Tweeting are related to my interests — entrepreneurship, startups, marketing, etc. So I’m going to invest more time in connecting with people who share my interests.
Less Facebook, Foursquare, etc.: All other social activities, I’ll be spending very less or no time. I think Facebook is good enough to check 1–2 times in a day. Facebook is a true social graph. So I’m connected with people from my real life social connection — from my nephews to uncles, from elementary school friends to grad school friends. I feel comfortable sharing my personal life things — like interesting life events, inspiring quotes, funny videos, songs I’m listening or things I’m buying — something that can be relevant or interesting to all types/ages of people. But I’m not sure it will be relevant if I share my professional interests related things like articles or quotes about Startup, Internet Marketing, etc. My nephew or uncle won’t be interested in that.
This way I would be less active on certain types of Social media sites, but will be active on few of them. As a result of it, I still can be focused on my work and spend quality time with my family and friends, and also don’t need to compromise on growing my professional presence and connections with interesting people from my industry.
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.