How to Prioritize Your Life

A prioritization matrix courtesy of the late Stephen Covey can help you figure out your life’s priorities so you don’t waste time on things that don’t matter.?

Stever Robbins,
Episode #229

We all like to be over-achievers! Someone says, “achieve,” and we jump right to it. We even achieve multiple things at once (I’ll bet you’re listening to this while driving or working out—am I awesomely psychic, or what?). We make lists of projects we have to do. Then each project becomes a collection of to-do items. We add those to our to-do list. Pretty soon, we have more to-do items than Imelda Marcos has shoes—and Imelda has a lot of shoes.

It’s not easy being her. Imagine being invited to a function. She has a choice of 3,487 pairs of shoes she might wear. How does she decide? Does she organize by color? By how much toe is visible? By number of sequins? My pal Bernice would approve. Or by topological shape? Her boyfriend Melvin would love that. Or how many countries she visited in a given pair? Jet-setting Europa would go wild. It’s too hard a problem. Some theoretical mathematicians speculate solving it will take longer than the lifetime of the universe (just ask Math Dude).

Fortunately, your to-do list is a lot more manageable than Imelda’s closet. Today’s episode is a tribute to the late Steven Covey. He was the author of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and he recently passed away at the age of much-older-than-me. I don’t know if he invented it, but he certainly popularized one way to think about choosing tasks to do. Here are some tips based upon his wisdom:

Urgency and Importance Are Different

Stephen Covey noticed that we decide a to-do is high priority in two different ways. The first is urgency. Something is urgent if it has to be done now for some reason. The dog is running in circles, crossing its legs, making whimpering noises that mean “Take me for a walk or grandma’s antique carpet is goin’ down.” Delay is not an option.

Other to-dos become high priority because they’re important. Sending in your mortgage payment, for example, needs to be done or the bank will repossess your house. Sending in that payment is high priority. (Of course, some banks repossess your house even if you don’t have a mortgage! Banking is FUN!)

Prioritize Using an Urgent/Important Grid

Make your life easier with a 2x2 grid. Label the rows Important and Not Important. Label the vertical columns Urgent and Not Urgent. Finally, label the upper left quadrant 1, the upper right quadrant 2, the lower left quadrant 3, and the lower right quadrant 4. Each quadrant is a different combination of urgent and important.



Not Urgent




Not Important



When setting priorities, decide which quadrant your activity belongs in. Then use the quadrant to prioritize the activity.

Quadrant I: Omigosh!

Quadrant I contains the urgent and important. It’s the quadrant of Omigosh-hand-me-the-fire-extinguisher. This stuff needs doing, and it needs doing now. Your top priority will be quadrant I activities. When your wife/girlfriend/surrogate baby mama/polyamorous family partner says “The contractions are two minutes apart,” it’s time to shut down World of Warcraft and head to the hospital. And no, you don’t have time to finish your current campaign first.

Quadrant II: Awesomeness

Quadrant II contains the important-but-not-urgent. It’s the quadrant of Becoming Awesome. Most of the things we need to do to become awesome are important, but not urgent. Typical activities that belong in quadrant II would include doing long-term planning, taking classes, spending time with your boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, wife, spousal equivalent, or polyamorous family unit.

Quadrant II is where most personal development activities happen: understanding your deepest values so you can orient your life around them, giving yourself true rest and relaxation so you are in top form, and recaulking the bathtub so the grout doesn’t grow legs and attack you in your sleep.

These are your next priority items, right after quadrant I. Sometimes, these can be even higher priority. If you live your life in quadrant I, always embroiled in urgent emergencies, you must visit quadrant II to create the infrastructure that will handle emergencies before they become urgent. Quadrant II is where you get the highest leverage and biggest boost to your life. It’s where you do prevention, redesign systems, and listen to the Get-it-Done Guy podcast (obviously).

Quadrant II also includes non-work stuff like building friendships, deepening ties with your family, and pursuing spirituality, meaning, and legacy. Those are rarely urgent, but they’re the most important parts of life. Do them now! Don’t wait until they become urgent.

Quadrant III: Social Media

Quadrant III is the quadrant of temptation. These are things that aren’t important, but they sure are urgent. When Bernice gets a bucket of chocolate-covered ice cream bars, I suddenly find myself in a state of near panic. “What if they melt while they’re sitting in the lunch room? I’m pretty sure the freezer isn’t working right. We have to eat these before they melt. It’s absolutely vital!”

Not-quite-emergencies often fall into quadrant III. Like social media. “Someone on Twitter just said our product sucks!!! We have to respond to this before it blows up!” Well isn’t that just a kick in the rubber parts?

It’s urgent! After all, in the 21st century, it’s all about being in conversation with our customers. But is it really important? Say you have 10 million customers and only 20,000 Twitter followers. Of the 20,000, 3 are watching their Twitter feed at the moment, because all the rest are too busy playing World of Warcraft. Doing things that are urgent-but-not-important gives us an adrenaline shot, makes us feel productive, but is actually a waste of time. Make sure your social media is genuinely important to your business by measuring it. Otherwise, social media belongs in quadrant III unless proven otherwise.

Quadrant IV: Time Wasters

The final quadrant is the your-mom-would-know-better quadrant. This is stuff that’s neither urgent nor important. Remember World of Warcraft? Yeah, it’s quadrant IV. Along with Real Housewives, American Idol, and the Twilight movies. Actually, the Twilight movies might even be quadrant V, which is even worse.

Quadrant IV activities should be viewed with extreme suspicion. Some meetings can be quadrant IV. A lot of email is quadrant IV. Posting pictures of kittens on Facebook is neither urgent nor important. And neither is getting stoned and inadvertently eating a wall-hanging after mistaking it for licorice. Next time you feel tempted to do something in quadrant IV, do something useful instead, like recommending the short and useful Quick and Dirty Tips podcasts to all your friends. You’ll strengthen your friendships and do good for the world, all at once.

Look over your to-do list today. Note the quadrant each item falls into. Make your top priorities your quadrant I activities, and do your best to toss in a quadrant II activity or two. Say goodbye to anything in quadrants III or IV. You owe it to yourself to spend your time doing the things that matter!

I’m Stever Robbins. I help people orient their jobs and lives around what’s most important, not simply what’s urgent. If you want to know more, visit

Work Less, Do More, and have a Great Life!

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