Have you recently had the feeling that there is more to do than you could achieve in a day, a week or even a month? Read the next paragraph carefully - does this sound familiar?
You find yourself putting out fires (figuratively speaking) every day, running from one task to the next. You are constantly busy - some days hardly stopping to eat - yet you seem to be making little impact on your overall workload. You do have work goals, but you aren't achieving many of them right now, and to be honest, you aren't quite sure how to go about changing this. Saying no to requests is difficult, because everything seems urgent and important. Delegation is a struggle because you aren't sure what is appropriate or safe to delegate to others. Week after week, you feel overwhelmed by the amount of things you need to get done. You wish there were more hours in the day. And all the while, you can't shake a nagging feeling that you're forgetting something. You feel as though any day now, everything will come crashing down.
If you identify with anything you just read, you're not alone. Good task and time management strategies are rarely taught, and small business owners and their employees often hit the ground running, without taking the time to analyse their workload or priorities. A good time management strategy, such as the 'Eisenhower Matrix', can solve this problem. It can dramatically reduce stress, and increase your own productivity at the same time. Simply put, the Eisenhower Matrix (named after President Eisenhower himself), supports you in prioritizing tasks by urgency and importance. This results in your to-do list being divided into four quadrants, with different work strategies for each. Here's what it looks like:
1. DO IT (Urgent and Important)
These tasks are important for your life and/or career and they need to be done today or tomorrow at the latest. Initially, everything will feel as though it belongs in this category, but with some soul-searching and analytical thinking, you'll realise that not all tasks are truly urgent or top priority. It's worth noting that a task can still be urgent and/or important, but it doesn't necessarily belong in your 'Do It' box.
It may be hard to understand the difference between urgent and important tasks, since busy people often feel that everything has a deadline or consequences for not being completed. Steven Covey explains the difference this way, in his book, "The 7 Habits Of Highly Effective People":
Urgent matters are those that require immediate action. These are the visible issues that pop up and demand your attention NOW. Often, urgent matters come with clear consequences for not completing these tasks. Urgent tasks are unavoidable, but spending too much time putting out fires can produce a great deal of stress and could result in burnout.
Important matters, on the other hand, are those that contribute to long-term goals and life values. These items require planning and thoughtful action. When you focus on important matters you manage your time, energy, and attention rather than mindlessly expending these resources. What is important is subjective and depends on your own values and personal goals. No one else can define what is important for you.
Filling up the 'Do It' quadrant will be easy. Urgent tasks are inevitable and often beyond your control. However, spending too much of your work week in this quadrant can result in stress and burn-out. It's important to keep this space balanced, so that you reserve time and energy for other less urgent but highly important tasks.
2. SCHEDULE IT (Important, but Less Urgent)
These tasks are important, but less urgent for you. They are often tasks that contribute to your long-term goals. They might not have a specific deadline, so it's easy to put them off, but not allocating time and space for these tasks means you will never allow yourself and your business to grow in a healthy way.
Some of this quadrant is designed for you to focus not on problems, but on opportunities and growth. The benefit of spending time in this quadrant is that it can decrease or avoid many of the urgent/problem tasks to begin with. If you allow yourself time to critique your business practices, you could eliminate some of those spot fires that waste a large amount of time.
Tasks in this quadrant can be scheduled for later in the week or month, or given a regular slot in your work week. They might not always be 'big thinking' tasks; they could simply be things that need to be done, but not 'right now'. This is where you'll need to utilize your calendar and reminders. Once you know you've allowed time for the task at a later date, you can put it out of your mind.
3. DELEGATE IT (Urgent, but Less Important)
These tasks are urgent, but are less important than other tasks you need to complete. These are often the 'busy work' tasks that become a trap for you. They need to be done today or tomorrow, but not necessarily by you. They could be delegated to someone else. This is when you'll need to get tough on yourself.
Many business owners struggle to delegate tasks, especially if they're worried they won't be completed the way they like. By holding onto these tasks, however, and not allowing employees to take some of the load, you're limiting your capacity to grow. Get used to letting things go.
Ask yourself - can someone else respond to these emails? Do I really need to type and send these notes myself? Can any tasks be automated or out-sourced? If you are an employee, these might be the tasks you need to negotiate with your boss or supervisor, as they might not be aware of your workload.
When you take the time to hone what tasks should be completed by you and what can easily be passed to someone else, you'll be surprised how much time you gain back! Not to mention mental space and energy.
4. ELIMINATE (Not Urgent, Not Important)
These are the time-wasters and distractions that, when it comes down to it, are neither important nor urgent and prevent you from having a truly productive day. They don't contribute to your progress or your long-term goals. These can be eliminated right away.
Think about the black holes in your work day. Maybe it's those long conversations in the staff kitchen, or the constant non-urgent interruptions from colleagues, phone calls or emails. It's impossible to eliminate all distractions, but if you are aware of the things that suck up a large amount of your time, you're better able to avoid them.
Where to from here?
So, with a basic understanding of the four quadrants and what belongs in each, how can you get started and make a real impact on your work-flow?
It may be helpful for you, depending on your type of work, to use a task tracking app or keep notes on what tasks you complete during the day and roughly how long you spent on each. After a few days, you might see a pattern and could ask yourself - "Was this task urgent for me? Did I need to focus on that? Was it important for me to complete that task on that day?" Only you can answer these questions. It's quite likely that yes, those tasks were urgent and important and you're glad you completed them. But you might also begin to see that some of what you spent your time on could've been done at a later time, or by someone else.
If you find you spend most of your time on quadrant 1 tasks, try to organise a weekly or monthly plan around them. At the end of each week, take time to reflect on this plan and whether you made any progress. If the majority of your urgent tasks come from an outside source, ask yourself if there's a better way to predict or plan for these type of tasks. Or better still, does there need to be a conversation with a colleague, client or boss to better organise work flow so you aren't constantly reacting to urgent tasks and tight deadlines?
If a large amount of your time is spent in quadrant 3, focusing on tasks that could easily be completed by someone else, it's time to get ruthless. You are the guardian of your own time, and if someone around you is more able, more qualified or better suited to some of the tasks you're doing, it's time to let those things go.
Maybe it's helpful for you to create separate folders or labels in your inbox, where you can divide incoming emails into the four quadrants. Use colour-coding or folders and desk trays to help you sort incoming tasks by priority.
Work-flow and productivity apps like Asana or Monday can help you organise your tasks and to-do lists digitally, so you don't lose track of what needs to be done. These apps also give you a visual representation of tasks, and can help with deadline reminders or staff communication.
The best time to start is now. It may take some effort to sort through your workload using the Eisenhower Matrix, but it will be worth it. You'll find yourself less stressed and better able to complete tasks with the confidence that everything is getting the proper time and attention it deserves.