Setting Priorities: Decide What’s Important and Get Things Done!

Maurice had a handwritten to-do list covering two full pages. Full of circles, arrows, and stars, his list was a reflection of his demanding, complex work day.

Diligently updating his list every evening, Maurice crossed out several completed items and add a few new ones. But he did not feel like he was making any real progress. He was extremely busy. At the same time, he was not accomplishing any truly significant work.

Maurice’s company thought highly of him and continued to add to his list of responsibilities and projects. His CEO saw both the potential in Maurice as a leader and the danger of burning out her best young star. She arranged to have Maurice work with an executive coach. Together, Maurice and his coach worked out a two-stage approach to help him effectively prioritize and accomplish his work.

Stage 1: Establishing Priorities

First, Maurice and his coach worked on evolving from a catch-all list of tasks, projects, and activities to a structured system to assess and prioritize work. The coach employed the concepts behind Stephen Covey’s classic 2×2 Time Management Matrix, viewing tasks, projects, and activities along the spectrum of Urgent-to-Not-Urgent and Important-to-Not-Important. The four resulting quadrants helped Maurice understand what was truly important (and why) and develop strategies for implementation.

1. Things that are URGENT and IMPORTANT. Items on Maurice’s to-do list such as unexpected events, crisis, emergencies, and pop-up projects with eleventh hour deadlines went here. Maurice learned that the key to dealing with items in Quadrant 1 was responsive, efficient execution and delegation to his staff wherever appropriate.

2. Things that are NOT URGENT and IMPORTANT. Maurice found that his bigger picture goals, strategic thinking, new initiatives, and work on emerging opportunities fell into Quadrant 2. Maurice began to understand the critical importance of Quadrant 2 — these goals, projects, and activities are the things that truly make a difference. Because they are not necessarily urgent, they require dedication and focus.

3. Things that are URGENT and UNIMPORTANT. To-do lists often include many items that may feel urgent but really are not very important, ranging from replying to all your emails to attending a meeting simply because you were invited. This is classic to-do list fodder — easily crossed off tasks that deliver a temporary sense of accomplishment. Maurice worked with his coach to eliminate as many of these tasks as possible, delegate more, and minimize his investment of time in Quadrant 3.

4. Things that are NOT URGENT and UNIMPORTANT. Often these items are not added to a to-do list — they are life’s mindless little distractions. Sometimes watching a funny five minute YouTube or cleaning up your email inbox is a good stress reliever. Mostly though, Maurice was spending time on trivial time-wasters. Maurice and his coach worked to eliminate these to-do items as completely as possible. 

For more about approaches to developing and managing priorities, read Arden Coaching’s “Time Management Strategies: Role Priorities and Attention Management.”

Stage 2: Getting Things Done — What’s on Your Calendar?

Maurice was pleased that his two page list of random tasks, activities, and projects was now organized in a way that made meaningful prioritization possible, but what’s next?

“How you spend your time on a day-to-day basis is how you spend your life,” said Maren Perry, president of Arden Coaching. “Your calendar is an objective reflection of how you are spending your time. It should express your priorities.” Maurice’s coach helped him replace his to-do list with a robust calendar, applying the elements of timeboxing.

Timeboxing calls for you to place all your activities, tasks, and projects on your calendar — committing you to do the work at a specific time. Timeboxing also encourages time limits for ending work on an item. For other helpful time management ideas, read Arden Coaching’s “Top Ten Time Management Tips.”

For example, a monthly sales report for senior leadership is one of Maurice’s important responsibilities. The time required to gather the information, develop an analysis, generate the report, and deliver it to senior leadership was incorporated into his calendar, with specific blocks of time dedicated to each step of the process. Timeboxing helped Maurice complete the sales report in a systematic way — and with less stress.

At the same time, Maurice believed that there was an important opportunity to enhance and improve certain elements of the sales report. It was a bigger project with no specific deadline (NOT URGENT and IMPORTANT). Using timeboxing, Maurice reserved several 2-hour blocks of time spread over the course of three months to work on sales report enhancements. Three months later, one of his “I-want-to-get-to-this-someday” projects had been accomplished!

The ability to decisively determine what is important and the discipline to act on those priorities results in higher performance levels and a tremendous sense of personal and professional accomplishment. It is an important skill that sets leaders apart.

To learn more about leadership, productivity, and executive coaching, contact us at [email protected] or 646.844.2233.