How to prioritize

“You will never find time for anything. If you want time, you must make it.” – Charles Bixton

“The reason most goals are not achieved is that we spend our time doing second things first.” – Robert J. McKain

The modern world is full of distractions and entertainment, activities and content, all vying for our attention. It’s easy to keep getting distracted and paying attention to things that don’t help us reach our goals. Or we get so overwhelmed with a multitude of things worthy of our attention that we get stuck and can’t focus on any of them. We must consciously choose what to focus on and that means prioritizing – choosing which things are more important than others.

There are several ways to prioritize your tasks. The most well-known is probably Steven Covey’s time-management matrix, also known as the Eisenhower box, pictured here with example tasks:

Urgent-important matrix

It relies on two criteria: urgency and importance. Urgent tasks need immediate attention, while important tasks contribute to your goals. Quadrant I, urgent and important tasks, usually represent fires (literal or metaphorical) that need to be put out. You don’t want to stay in quadrant I constantly. Ideally, you’d want to focus most of your attention on Quadrant II, non-urgent important tasks. These are the activities that bring you long-term success and which get you closer to your goals. Anything in Quadrants III and IV should be avoided, as these are filled with unimportant tasks like interruptions and unnecessary meetings (Quadrant III) and time wasters (Quadrant IV).

Another approach is sorting your tasks into 3 categories – MUST do, SHOULD do, COULD do. Not everything is a must, although it might seem so at first. The challenge is to recognize what is truly important and focus on that. Try to keep a reasonable number of “must-do” items on your to-do list and avoid adding too many “should-do” items, otherwise you risk getting overwhelmed and discouraged if you fail to do everything on your list. If you’re having trouble, set only 3 MUSTs each day (or even just one, if you’re still getting overwhelmed). Getting your “must-do’s” done every day will build momentum and give you a sense of achievement. This, combined with getting used to working on them consistently, might make you able to take on more.

If you don’t want to get that organized, perhaps the Autofocus™ system might be more appropriate for you. In this system, you have a long list of to-do items which you look over and choose whatever stands out to you. The argument for using this system is that it balances the rational and intuitive parts of the brain. As with everything, your mileage may vary, but you can certainly try it out to see if it works for you.

When trying to prioritize, we might fall into the trap of using someone else’s priorities instead of our own. Of course, you’re probably going to prioritize your boss’s demands higher than tasks that might not be directly related to your paycheck. Situations where your friends want to hang out when you’re supposed to be working on your goals are not so clear-cut though. If you’re unsure what category a task belongs to, ask yourself how it ties into your goals and values. Be clear about the reasons why a task is on your to-do list. This will make prioritizing and pruning your to-do list much easier.

All of these approaches sound quite simple, but can be a challenge to use. The main problem is actually working on things you know you should be working on. Procrastination, interruptions, competing demands from others, all of these issues might make doing things hard – but as long as you’re clear what your priorities are and keep coming back to them, you’ll get there in the end!

We put our priorities into our schedules/calendars first, not as an afterthought!

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