Some time ago, my days were full of appointments, work meetings, school meetings, kid drop-offs and pick-ups. I also had a long list of to-dos that I tried to check off daily, and I often ended up postponing some to the next day.
With a schedule as packed as that, I believed that I was being efficient and productive. Like most moms, I wanted to be an excellent mom to my kids, a supportive wife to my husband, a good manager of my household and a successful business person, and so I assumed that doing more in each of those areas would mean that I was accomplishing more.
More times than I could count, things would come up during the day that were urgent and had to be taken care of, forcing me to put off more to-dos, and depleting my energy before the day was over.
I was busy, and I equated that to being productive. Unfortunately, at the end of most weeks, I’d realize that I hadn’t accomplished the things that I had set out to – the important things.
How to figure out what to focus on
You might recognize the Eisenhower Urgent-Important Decision Matrix:
Dwight Eisenhower followed a guiding principle throughout his very successful military and political careers, which can be boiled down to:
Each of the four quadrants of the Urgent-Important Matrix corresponds to tasks that you identify as Urgent and Important, Not Urgent but Important, Urgent but Not Important and Not Urgent and Not Important.
You can figure out what you should be focusing on and spending time on – the things that have the greatest positive impact on your goals and desires – by identifying which quadrant your tasks fall into. Then, spend the most time on the ones that are Not Urgent but Important. Read on to see why.
The Four Quadrants Defined
Q1: Do It.
Urgent and Important tasks are the things that have to get done quickly, and quite often are the “fires” that we have to put out every day, such as:
- sudden medical issues
- customer Service issues
- the car battery dies or low gas
- a missed bill payment
- the school calls and asks you to come in
a request from your boss for immediate response
Q2: Plan It.
Not Urgent but Important
These are the tasks and projects that don’t have immediate deadlines, but will move you towards fulfilling your ultimate and most deeply desired professional and personal goals.
These tasks help you to plan for the long term, strengthen your relationships, and improve yourself.
Here are some examples of things that Not Urgent but Important:
- doing service for others
- cultivating genuine relationships with people in your network
- spending undistracted time with your family
- focusing on your relationship with your partner
- getting enough good sleep every night
- continued professional training
- self improvement through hobbies, therapy, meditation, journaling
Based on these descriptions, productivity experts tell us that we should spend most of our time in Quadrant 2, on Not Urgent but Important items, because in the end, these are the items that will make the biggest difference in our lives. We should spend the least amount of time on the Not Important and Not Urgent items.
Q3: Delegate It.
Urgent, but Not Important
- Most phone calls
- most texts
- most emails (especially the “Flash Sales!”)
- your sister calls and asks for help right now to put together a bookshelf
- the babysitter calls to say you’re out of orange juice, and could you pick some up on your way home
Q4: Delete It.
Not Urgent and Not Important
- scrolling through social media
- watching TV
- mindless shopping
As the decision matrix illustrates, our time is better spent on the things that are important, and not urgent. That’s because the things that are really important to us are usually the things that move the needle forward in all parts of our lives, whether at our jobs, in our relationships or our self-improvement.
Doing only what’s urgent puts us in a reactive mode, in which we’re hurried, defensive, and very narrowly-focused.
On the flip side, when we work on our important things, we’re in a responsive mode, in which we’re calm, rational, focused yet open to new ideas and opportunities.
While you do need to take care of the Urgent and Important things that come up immediately, it can be tricky to understand if some of these tasks are truly important. For example, I used to read my emails as soon as I woke up, fearing that something urgent had come up overnight and may need my immediate attention.
Two things about that:
- If something was truly urgent, the person needing my help would likely call or text me rather than send an email – which is today’s equivalent of snail mail.
- I would end up reading, processing, and responding to all the emails I’d received before having my morning coffee, which put me in reactive mode right at the start of my day.
Behavioral Science expert and author James Clear, best known for his book Atomic Habits, says:
I won’t say that not checking your email all morning works for everyone (to see how I manage my email, read A Simple Guide to Reducing Inbox Overwhelm – Here’s Exactly What I Do), but “pursuing [your] own agenda rather than reacting to everybody else’s” is something that I value and want to focus on.
Freeing up Time to Focus on The Important
Knowing that in this age, we are doing more than at any other time in history, largely due to rapid technological advances, we need to take the initiative to free up some time to spend on the Important things.
Here’s how I do this:
- Prune my and my family’s commitments
- Lay out my long-term, Important goals & desires
- Come up with a general plan that I think will get me to those goals
- Identify a maximum of 3 weekly goals that actually move me towards my long-term goals
- Identify a maximum of 3 daily tasks/items that I must complete to be able to achieve my weekly goals
Why a maximum of only 3 daily and weekly goals? Because I know that:
- there will always be unanticipated “fires” to put out,
- I want to enjoy my days and weeks without burnout, and have free evenings and weekends to spend with family and friends,
- and 3 is an achievable number for meaningful work or tasks to be completed. Any more than that, and my efforts become diluted.
In summary, to Accomplish More by Focusing on Less:
- Identify your Important things, your most desired life goals (in other words, spend most of your time and energy in Q2)
- Design your week by focusing on your 3 weekly goals
- Work your days by identifying the max. 3 tasks to complete daily that will help you achieve those weekly goals
- Know that fires will have to be put out – try not to let them derail you from your daily tasks and weekly goals
- Review your progress and plan for the following week(s)