Do you ever find yourself running around like a beheaded chicken at work, constantly changing direction with every email or customer request? Perhaps you’ve implemented new procedures, only to have them revised or eliminated within a few months. The pace of change and the demands of the world can easily make you feel like you’re caught in a workplace tornado, wondering if you’re truly making progress or simply spinning in circles. In the midst of this whirlwind, how can you stay grounded?
During my career, I had the privilege of learning a valuable lesson from a remarkable manager and mentor: Focus on What Matters. I vividly remember attending a conference where my employer introduced a multitude of new programs. Everyone’s eyes glazed over as our heads filled with floods of information and I couldn’t help but wonder how it would be possible to tackle even half of the proposed changes. It was at that moment my manager shared some invaluable wisdom:
The statement seemed deceptively simple. I believed I knew what to prioritize, didn’t I? Yet, despite this knowledge, I often felt like my attention span was as short-lived as that of a goldfish. How does one effectively decide what is truly essential and accomplish the necessary tasks amidst the chaos?
The Pitfalls of Random Lists
Imagine it’s Monday morning, and you’re sipping your coffee while glancing at your to-do list. Here’s a snapshot of what you see:
Arrange a lunch meeting with a coworker
Complete an audit due today
Return customer emails
Put in a vacation request for next year
Discuss the performance improvement plan with Jane
Order new business cards
Organize a customer appreciation day for the end of the week
Prep for the weekly conference call
Contact an upset client regarding his complaint that you are uncertain how to resolve
Review candidate job applications and schedule interviews to fill a vacant position
Organize your filing cabinet
Review the training plan with your new employee
Now, let’s be realistic—there’s no way you can tackle all of these tasks today or possibly even this week. And as soon as you check off a few items, more will likely flood in. So, the question is, which three tasks are your absolute priorities? Which ones can wait until tomorrow, or maybe even indefinitely?
Random lists are problematic. They are a bit like a menu – you tend to choose which items you would like to digest depending on your mood. You might opt for something quick and easy just to feel a sense of progress. But to regain control, you must determine what matters most. Here is where utilizing a matrix can be very powerful.
The Time Management Matrix
Years ago, I stumbled upon Stephen Covey’s masterpiece, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. It’s a must-read for anyone in a leadership role. One concept that stuck with me is the Time Management Matrix—a powerful tool for sorting out your work and personal life.
-Learning & renewal
-Other people’s minor issues
-Unimportant emails, tasks, phone calls, etc.
-Excessive relaxation, television, gaming, internet
The matrix helps you distinguish between what is truly urgent and important and what can be prioritized. By scheduling highly important activities from Quadrant 2 into your week, you ensure you’re making meaningful contributions. Some smaller tasks may need to be delegated, postponed, or even discarded. Unfortunately, you can’t spend all your time planning without addressing urgent matters and unexpected interruptions. But knowing you’ve accomplished your top three priorities for the week is both satisfying and impactful.
Using the Matrix
Prior to attempting to prioritize what matters, it’s necessary to step back, take a breath, and gain a clear view of the bigger picture. Here’s how you can start.
Evaluate your Purpose and Goals
Start by understanding why you are in the manager role. What is it you hope to achieve? Clearly define your purpose, goals and objectives. Understand what you want to achieve in the short term and long term. This clarity will guide your prioritization process.
Next, determine what critical activities align with your goals. Prioritize these activities into Quadrant 2 (Important/Not Urgent). When evaluating items on your to-do list, consider how they align with your goals and the potential impact of completing or neglecting them. Let’s take a closer look at a couple of examples:
Customer emails/Customer Problem
Are customer issues important and urgent? Absolutely. Customers are the lifeblood of your business, and addressing their concerns is vital for retention and growth. Ignoring their emails or problems can have severe negative consequences—losing customers, creating urgent situations, and damaging your reputation.
Customer Appreciation Day
On the surface, organizing a customer appreciation day seems like a priority, right? But let’s consider two points of view.
Customer Appreciation Day 🙂
Positive impact – Customers who attend your business on Customer Appreciation Day feel appreciated and valued. Your employees also experience a more relaxed and enjoyable workday.
Customer Appreciation Day 😞
Impact – How did your appreciation day contribute to the Big Picture? Did you gain new clients as a result? Did it genuinely improve customer relations? Additionally, consider what tasks or issues you may have neglected or postponed because of the focus on the event.
I may appear to be a bit of a customer scrooge here; however,as a leader, it’s crucial to prioritize high-impact activities. If the Customer Appreciation Day is necessary, consider delegating the responsibility or scheduling it lower on the priority list.
Sorting the To-Do List
Now that you have an understanding of the workings of the matrix, let’s return to the random to-do list and see how it might be sorted using the matrix.
Sorting the Activities
Quadrant 1 – Urgent and Important
Complete an audit due today – The audit is due today, so you have no choice but to schedule it into quadrant 1. Is this urgent because you procrastinated until the due date? Can it be delegated in the future to stay out of your Urgent?
Return customer emails – It is Urgent and Important that someone must do this. Determine if it’s necessary for you to be the primary contact for customer emails or if it can be delegated.
Contact an upset client regarding his complaint that you are uncertain how to resolve – Urgent and Important, as noted prior. Assess whether there is further training or improvements required to reduce customer complaints.
Quadrant 2 – Important/ Not Urgent
There are the high impact tasks that have the potential to make the most significant contribution to your purpose and goals. Delaying these activities will create urgent and often unpleasant future situations. Prioritize these tasks over less impactful ones to maximize your productivity and progress.
Discuss performance improvement plan with Jane– Performance issues impact your business and team and will compound without attention. You must be the person to deal with this, and sooner is better. Here is an article to help with difficult conservations.
Review candidate job applications and schedule interviews to fill a vacant position – Hiring suitable employees to fill vacancies is critical for maintaining a productive team.
Review training plan with your new employee – Employee development is critical to success. Consider if you are able to delegate this. Are you the best person to do the training, the one and only person?
Put in a vacation request for next year – It may seem odd to place this here, however, taking care of your well-being is as important as taking care of others, so allocate some time to request your vacation time.
Quadrants 3 & 4 – Urgent/Not Urgent or Important
Place all other tasks in these quadrants, as they either have minimal impact if not done or can be delegated.
Arrange a lunch meeting with a coworker – Low priority, low impact. Leave this for the end of the day, it will likely get done. There is no significant impact if it doesn’t.
Order new business cards – It’s important to have business cards but this task could be delegated or fit in at the end of a day versus planning it as a critical task.
Organize a customer appreciation day for the end of the week – See notes above. Delegate it.
Prep for weekly conference call – This could be Q1, 2, 3, or 4, depending on the nature of the meeting. Do you tend to over prepare? Are you a participant or hosting the meeting? Is the meeting even necessary?
Organize your filing cabinet – This could be Q2, 3, or 4. If your cabinet is a disaster and you waste time locating information, then it’s important; however, lower priority. If it means you color code everything because makes you happy, it drops to Q4. (Sorry about that, perfectionists).
Every workplace is unique, so the “musts” and priorities will vary. It’s important to periodically reassess your role and determine the tasks that absolutely require your attention. By doing so, you can filter out activities and prioritize them based on their importance and impact.
Tips to Tackle Quadrant 2
- Identify Your Most Productive Hours: Begin by identifying the times of day when you feel most alert, focused, and energized. These are your peak productivity hours. It’s crucial to schedule your most critical and mentally demanding tasks during these periods to leverage your optimal performance.
- Time Blocking: Allocate specific blocks of time on your calendar for focused work on high-priority tasks. Create dedicated time slots to minimize distractions and give your undivided attention to the tasks that matter most.
- Implement the Two-Minute Rule: If a task can be completed in two minutes or less, do it immediately. By tackling quick tasks right away, you prevent them from piling up and consuming your valuable time later.
- Learn to Say No: Understand that saying no to nonessential tasks or requests is not a sign of incompetence; it’s a strategic decision to protect your time and focus. Evaluate each request against your priorities and decline those that do not align.
- Break Tasks into Smaller Steps: For larger or complex tasks, break them down into smaller, more manageable steps. This makes them less daunting and allows you to make progress incrementally.
- Regularly Review and Adjust: Priorities can change over time, so it’s crucial to regularly review and adjust your task list accordingly. Set aside time each week or month to reassess your priorities and make necessary modifications.
- Use tools and trackers: Simple tools such as a priority notepad can help you stay focused and organized. Explore productivity tools and apps that can help you streamline your tasks, manage deadlines, and stay organized.
Now that you have a clear focus, you’re ready to move forward. However, before you forge ahead it’s important to communicate your priorities.
Share your goals and priorities with your manager and seek feedback on your focus. It’s also vital to communicate these priorities to your team. Employees want to understand how they contribute to the overall goals, feel valued, and have a sense of accomplishment.
If you frequently shift focus and priorities, leaving employees feeling scattered, it can negatively affect their morale. Therefore, make sure your team is also aligned and focused on what truly matters. Share the time-management matrix and provide feedback on their priorities.
Multiple priorities and rapid changes are part of every workplace. It’s natural to get sidetracked by emails, requests, interruptions, and urgent matters. However, when your goals are clear and you understand which activities are truly important, you can make better decisions about how to allocate your time. When employees grasp what, why, and how to prioritize, they become better equipped to achieve their goals. As a result, the entire team gains a stronger sense of purpose and engagement.
What is my purpose in this role? What is it I really need to accomplish?
Are my daily activities aligned with the most important goals and objectives of the team or organization?
Did I spend time on activities this week that are moving me closer to my goals? What were those activities, and what impact did they have?
Did I spend time on activities that got in the way of achieving what was necessary?
Am I able to identify and eliminate tasks that are not directly contributing to the overall success of the team or organization?
Do I regularly communicate and reinforce the importance of our key priorities to my team members, ensuring everyone is aligned and focused on what matters most?
Do you want to make a commitment to Focus on What Matters? Head over to the Grow page and get started!
I’d love your feedback. What did you find helpful in this article? Do you have a method to help you prioritize?