The “In-tray Exercise”.
One of the fun challenges I was asked to do on my Assessment Centre to become a Civil Service Faststreamer.
(These days it’s probably called the “Inbox Exercise”, but this was twenty years ago…)
The scenario: we had one hour in the office before disappearing on a work trip for a few days. How were we going to handle the contents of our In-tray?
The secret to excelling was, of course, prioritisation: the ability to decide what needed to be dealt, and how, in what order, to get the best results.
Prioritisation is crucial to being successful.
As we all bemoan, there are only so many hours in the day.
The difference between being effective at work to going round in circles is spending that time wisely.
The Eisenhower Matrix
The most famous method of prioritisation is the Eisenhower matrix: the classic square with four quadrants: Urgent and Important; Not Urgent and Important; Urgent and Unimportant; Not urgent and Unimportant.
The idea is that you should spend as much time as possible on the “Important” side, and watch out that you don’t get dragged by events only into the “Urgent and Important” corner.
So the actions become:
Urgent but important: do these tasks as soon as possible
Important but not urgent: decide when you’ll do these, schedule it, and stick to it
Urgent and unimportant: delegate these tasks
Not urgent and unimportant: don’t do these
In the fast-paced always-on world we live in, this matrix is more important than ever: we too often spend our day reacting to events or incoming information.
This means the Not Urgent and Important quandrant is the one that often gets neglected as we react to the busyness of the day.
But this is the one that can make the biggest long-term difference to our success, because that’s the corner that involves the long-term strategic thinking.
But even if you are successful at scheduling in time to tackle these Important but not urgent tasks, there might be more than one. In which case you can still be faced with a prioritisation problem.
So here are three simple techniques to help you prioritise these “Important but Not Urgent” tasks.
1. “Eat that frog”
My favourite technique by name alone…
This concept was developed by Brian Tracy, and is based on Mark Twain’s quote:
In other words, do the most difficult thing first.
This has an amazing impact: a powerful sense of achievement that motivates you to continue through the day.
And it kills procrastination: often the hardest part of any task is getting started. If you not only get started, but get started with the worst bit, the rest of the task is accomplished easily.
So consider your Important but Not Urgent tasks, and identify your frog: which is the one that you procrastinate over the most?
Which is the one that just looking at it written down fills you with dread?
Next time you schedule work on your Important but Not Urgent tasks: do that one first.
2. The ONE thing
This principle comes from another excellent book, by Gary Keller with Jay Papasan.
It is based on the famous Pareto principle: 80% of your results will derive from 20% of your efforts.
The authors urge you not to get caught up in trying to achieve too many different tasks.
Instead, focus on the question: “What’s the ONE Thing I can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?”
And when you’ve identified that one thing, make sure you devote proper time to it.
Don’t let yourself get distracted by all the other possible things you could be doing - it is only by really focussing on that one thing that you will succeed.
3. Hierarchy of criteria
Both of these two approaches help us prioritise within the tasks in our “Not urgent but important” box: either to start with the one that is most difficult; or to start with the one that gives you the most results.
But what if you really still can’t decide?
What if the application of logic to these questions is getting you no-where?
This can be where our gut instinct can be helpful, using a process called the “hierarchy of criteria”.
Sitting down, hold your hands out in front of you, palm up. Have your list of possible tasks next to you.
Emotionally, imaginatively place one of these tasks in your left-hand (A), and a different one in your right-hand (B).
Which hand feels heavier, like the task it holds is weightier and more important? Or which hand wants to rise above the other hand, as it raises the priority of the task it contains? Don’t over-think it - go with your feeling. Using this feeling, identify which task feels more important of the two.
Then write them down in that order on another piece of paper (one above the other) - leaving lots of white space between them.
Swap task B with a new task from your list, so you are now weighing up A against C. Again, work out which one feels most important.
And finally, weigh up B against C. You will now have a clearly prioritised order for the importance of those three tasks.
Keep repeating, adding in any other tasks on the list, weighing them up against each other so their relative importance is clear. You might have some tasks that are equally important, and that’s fine, but where you can, identify their relative importance. Don’t overthink it, go with what feels right!
That prioritised list then becomes your “to do” list! Go through the tasks in that order, top to bottom.
So there you have three methods for prioritising among the tasks in “Not urgent but Important” quadrant.
But of course, the most important first step before doing any of this prioritisation - and the one I come back to again and again: goal-setting.
If you don’t know what you are trying to achieve, how are you going to be able to judge what actions will move you furthest towards that goal?
So before even beginning with your Eisenhower matrix, really focus on that question: what I am trying to achieve? What does my “end result” look like?
Good luck, and let me know which option works best for you!
Things to do and consider
What is your “frog”? What is the most difficult task you have to do, that you procrastinate about most? Try starting the day with working on that task for one week: what are the results?
What is your “ONE thing”? Which of the things that you do is the one thing that makes everything else easier or unnecessary? Block at least two hours per day for to work on this one thing for one week: what are the results?
Brainstorm what you think are your top five tasks, then use the hierarchy of criteria exercise to rank them in order of importance. During the course of a week, work on them in that order: what are the results?
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