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To deter us from spending all our lives caught up in trivial things, time-management practitioners urge us to categorize every item on our to-do list by whether it is urgent and, above all, important.

The practice dates back to the famed matrix in Stephen Covey’s 1989 book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, in which activities are slotted according to importance and urgency.

There are tasks that are both important and urgent, those that are important but not urgent, tasks that are urgent but not important and those that are neither.

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The idea is to focus on the important stuff but not give in to time pressures to deal with important tasks that are not urgent. We all have some urgent and important tasks in our lives, he noted – we label them “problems” or “crises.” At the same time, he says, allowing such activities to consume all our time and divert us from other important tasks makes us less effective.

The international leadership management group NOBL recently took that advice further by examining a to-do list where nearly everything fell into that important and urgent slot. But just as an instructor might adjust marks on a test based on a curve, you can adjust the items so everything is centred on the matrix with items assigned to the less-occupied quadrants – NOBL illustrates this with an interactive graphic. Another suggestion is to consider the time each task will take in addition to its urgency and importance. They recommend using an estimation technique based on relative T-shirt sizes – small, medium, large and extra-large.

But while those tricks offer temporary help, they argue the causes of a crammed important-urgent quadrant are systemic and strategic. Step back and ask:

  • Do you know who you’re serving? If you’re organizing your own personal to-do list, do you know what really matters to you – what your core beliefs and values require you to give priority to? “If you’re organizing your work list, or your team’s, do you know who that work is serving and what those constituents value most? Or are you simply guessing by throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what sticks?” the consultants write.
  • Have you considered trade-offs? After you are clear on who you are serving, address the issue of making choices through what they call “even over” statements. Examples: Profit margin even over revenue growth. Sustainability even over profitability. Best-in-class customer service even over best-in-class product features.
  • Is there somebody above you or on your team that is driving an unrealistic sense of urgency? Investigate where their urgency is coming from in order to find solutions. Discuss the need for trade-offs with them.
  • Have you fallen into a pattern of firefighting? It can feel heroic to always be staving off crises. “Ultimately, though, you starve your resources and ability to plan for the long-term and accomplish bigger, more impactful initiatives,” they argue.

It can also be helpful to move from the Covey matrix to thinking of your life in terms of three concentric circles. Consultant Greg McKeown, in his book Essentialism, says the outermost circle is “other” – e-mail, social media and busywork. The next circle, closer to the centre, is family, more important than the “other” circle but often getting less time. The inner circle is about you – the activities that allow you to thrive and make your biggest contribution.

Too many people don’t give that inner circle much attention, caught up in activities from those other circles. Mr. McKeown suggests instead starting your to-do list with that inner circle. As well, when you hear yourself saying “I have to do” something, fight back and “choose to do” what is important. Moreover, replace the thinking that everything before you is important with “only a few things really matter.”

Quick hits

  • Your most persistent distractions will seem justified to you, says author James Clear.
  • Six questions to ask each day, from executive coach Marshall Goldsmith: Did I do my best to set clear goals today? Did I do my best to achieve the goals I set? Did I do my best to find meaning? Did I do my best to be happy? Did I do my best to build positive relationships? Did I do my best to be fully engaged?
  • People hire you, buy from you,or recommend you because you’re exceptional at something, says entrepreneur Seth Godin. What if you invested the energy to be even more exceptional at it?
  • What’s the best icon to use with a menu on your website that offers a series of options when you click on the headline? Research by the Nielsen Norman Group found a caret icon (downward facing arrow) most clearly indicated to users that it would open an accordion in place, rather than linking directly to a new page.
  • How many of your peers, doing the same job you are doing right now, actually know how to do the job? HR consultant Tim Sackett notes performance studies suggest 20 per cent of people are top performers, 70 per cent average, and 10 per cent are not performing well. But when he surveyed 394 people, only 1 per cent felt that 90 per cent of people in their field knew what they were doing. Indeed, 18 per cent felt less than 10 per cent of the people in their field knew what they were doing.

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