How to Prioritize Your Tasks—One Little Question, Big Results

The Eisenhower Matrix is a tried-and-true way to prioritize your tasks. You can double its effectiveness by asking just one simple question!

Stever Robbins
5-minute read
Episode #572

Today, we prioritize!

Listener Liz writes in:

"I have too much on my to-do list to get everything done. The standard advice is to prioritize my tasks. But how do I do that?"

Great question, Liz! And you’re not alone in that challenge. Xris, the intern at Bernice’s Green Growing Things plant store, has gradually acquired more and more responsibility. And today, there are four things on the task list:

  1. Collect receipts and prepare financial statements for Bernice
  2. Feed the carnivorous Audrey II plants
  3. Test out a new browser plugin that changes every occurrence of the word “politician” to “banana” (hilarious!)
  4. Repot and water an ailing Venus flytrap plant

We’re going to explore the standard, tried-and-true, trite, overused method first: the Eisenhower Matrix. Then we’re going to add a twist that can often make it easier and more effective. 

Use an Eisenhower Matrix

The Eisenhower Matrix is what most people use to help them prioritize. Here's how it works.

Draw a square. Divide it into two rows and two columns. Label the left column URGENT, and the right column, NOT URGENT. Label top row IMPORTANT and the bottom row NOT IMPORTANT.

Now you put your tasks into the appropriate box. Here's how Xris did it.

Prepare financial statements. Xris is very proud that their idea to expand into non-carnivorous plants opened up the whole suburban market. Recently, Bernice started accepting corporate orders, which has been going like gangbusters. With such strong cash flow, Bernice hopes to acquire another plant store chain. Mergers and Acquisitions require good, clean financial statements. Xris wants to prepare the financials so when Bernice asks, they’re ready to go. The financials are definitely important.

Xris only knows about the plans, however, because Xris just happened to acquire mind-reading ability after polishing a battered brass lamp they found in Baghdad. During a recent conversation with Bernice, who had silently been thinking about the M&A activity. Right now it’s just in the exploratory stages, so there’s nothing urgent about the financials. 

“Prepare financials” goes in the upper right quadrant: important and non-urgent.

Feeding Audrey II plants. This is definitely important. When the Audrey IIs get hungry, they get a bit … testy. When Intern MG vanished a couple of years ago, the only clue was a lone sneaker next to the Audrey II feeding area. No one knows for sure what happened, but Xris suspects that feeding the plants on time might be a matter of life and death. So it’s urgent to feed the plants. 

“Feed Audrey IIs” goes in the upper left quadrant: important and urgent.

Testing the new browser plugin. This plugin is supposed to reduce stress and anxiety by substituting the word “banana” for every reference to a politician when browsing a social media site. Hilarious. Astonishing. Brilliant. Genius. (That's sarcasm, friends.)

Xris isn’t feeling very anxious at the moment, so this item is not urgent.And honestly, the real solution to this problem is to stop visiting social media altogether. Just changing a word isn’t going to make that much difference. It’s also not important.

“Testing the new browser plugin” goes in the lower right quadrant: not important and not urgent.

Repot and water an ailing Venus flytrap. One of the Venus flytraps is looking a little parched. Without water soon, it might expire. Watering is urgent.But unlike the Audrey IIs, Venus Fly Traps aren’t a danger to life and limb if they get too thirsty. They aren’t expensive plants and, as much as we like to love and value every living thing, they’re pretty easy to replace. Watering the flytraps isn’t important.

“Repot and water Venus flytrap" goes in the lower left quadrant: not important but urgent.

Quadrants determine actions

Now that everything’s sorted out, take action quadrant by quadrant. 

Quadrant I: Important and Urgent. These are top priority. Do them in order of how urgent they are. Feeding the Audrey IIs will be the first order of business for Xris.

Quadrant II: Important and Not Urgent. These are the things it’s easiest to let slide, but they’re important. So schedule a time in the future and use an accountabilibuddy to make sure they get done, as described in episode 490, How to Make Great Progress Using Accountability. Xris schedules the financials for Tuesday, since Tuesdays are always a slow day.

Quadrant III: Not Important but Urgent. Delegate these. Given your quadrants I and II, these tasks aren’t a good use of your time. Seventeen-year-old Thomas is helping out with the store today, and he can easily handle repotting a flytrap. Xris tells Thomas to take on the project.

Quadrant IV: Not Important and Not Urgent. Don’t do these. The hilarious, side-splitting, laugh-inducing browser plugin? Gone. Xris is doomed to live in a world where politicians are called by name. A veteran of the Iraq war, Xris has survived tougher circumstances. It won’t be a problem.

Bottlenecks are top priority

Eisenhower was a great President, and his Matrix is a great start to prioritization. There’s another factor at play, though: bottlenecks.

As we learned in episode 354, Boost Your Performance by Finding a Bottleneck, bottlenecks are the parts of your business that have the potential to bring everything to a halt. That makes tackling them both urgent and important.

Instead of starting with your to-do list and writing it into the matrix to find out what should go in quadrant I, start by identifying any bottlenecks and writing them in quadrant I. Then add in your pre-existing to-do items.

Because it's a retail store, the bottlenecks at Green Growing Things shift often. Xris looks around and notices that no one has unlocked the front door. Even if every single other thing gets done today, with a locked front door, there won’t be any business. So right now, that’s the bottleneck. It’s urgent and, because it’s a bottleneck, it’s important. That makes it the absolutely top priority.

Priorities change

A note about electronic to-do systems. Many systems let you assign priorities to items. I recommend not using this feature. Yes, review your to-do list daily to get a high-level overview of everything on your plate. But don’t enshrine your priorities in your master list. 

Priorities change over time. Bottlenecks shift. Interruptions create urgencies. Goals change, changing what’s important. 

Priorities change over time. Bottlenecks shift. Interruptions create urgencies. Goals change, changing what’s important. I’ve found it best to assign priorities daily or even in-the-moment.

Xris knows their priorities for the day and is off and running. Running, that is, with a trash bag full of Impossible Burgers (tastes like meat, but made from plants!) before the Audrey IIs decide to take action on their own. 

Liz, now it’s your turn. Start with an Eisenhower Matrix. Identify the bottlenecks in your major projects, and write those in Quadrant I. Then sort the rest of your to-dos into the other quadrants. When you’re done, your top priority is the bottlenecks in Quadrant I. Then Quadrant II. Delegate Quadrant III, and drop Quadrant IV.

If you want to get things done like a pro, check out Get-it-Done Groups, which will give you accountability, Do-it Days, productivity tools, and community support. Learn more at GetItDoneGroups.com

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

About the Author

Stever Robbins

Stever Robbins was the host of the podcast Get-it-Done Guy from 2007 to 2019. He is a graduate of W. Edward Deming’s Total Quality Management training program and a Certified Master Trainer Elite of NLP. He holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BS in Computer Sciences from MIT.