Time management: prioritization tools cont’d

… starting from the point where the story stopped.

The Eisenhower Matrix

The Eisenhower Matrix is one of the best, albeit most basic task prioritization methods.Shubhangi Pandey

As the name suggests, the Eisenhower Matrix is the brainchild of the 34th President of the United States Dwight D. Eisenhower – I have two kinds of problems: the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent. From this quote to a four-quadrant visualization matrix with two prioritization dimensions – importance (vertical axis) and urgency (horizontal axis) – it was but one small step that Stephen Covey took in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

Always bear
in mind that
is a choice,
   while urgency   
is a matter
of time.

Important tasks are the ones that contribute to your long-term goals and the things you want to do in life. Urgent tasks are the ones that you feel you must react to (like emails, phone calls, meetings, etc.) and tasks that are time‑sensitive to finish, meaning you have strict deadlines. Here’s an overview of the four quadrants:

Important and urgent: tasks that cannot wait, potentially having strict deadlines and severe consequences for not taking immediate action. They have the highest priority and should be executed first; hence the name of this quadrant: “Do first”.

Important, but not urgent: tasks that bring you closer to your goals, but don’t have a critical deadline. As indicated by the name of this quadrant – “Schedule” – it is essential to schedule a specific time for these important tasks so that they are done on time.

Urgent, but not important: tasks that need to be done (quite quickly) despite their minor importance. For this reason, they can be completed by someone else; hence the name of this quadrant – “Delegate”.

Neither important nor urgent: tasks in the so-called “Eliminate” quadrant are usually a waste of time; they provide no value as they are not relevant (or are hardly relevant) for achieving the objectives and do not have to be completed particularly urgently.

Of course, you should always tackle urgent and important tasks first; still, it is important to schedule, and what is more, to clear enough time to do the valuable and important tasks that help you move closer to your goals. To be more productive, you should indeed spend more time on the tasks that are meaningful to you and your work but not urgent. In keeping with this idea, this simple prioritization method provides a nice framework to avoid the so-called “urgency trap”1 and focus on what matters.

Many people spend a significant amount of their time managing crisis situations and putting out fires all day. They react to others’ priorities and miss out on the real important tasks that should have been accomplished instead.Martin Andreev

While the Eisenhower matrix can be applied to both your personal and professional life, the model is particularly practical for people in management positions, as their time is usually particularly valuable and they can easily delegate less important tasks to their employees. As mentioned several times already, the Delegate and Delete quadrants are however not an option2 for me.


Action Priority Matrix

This is another quadrant-based prioritization method – this one, however, is based on how much something costs (i.e. Effort) versus how much you will be rewarded (i.e. Impact). In keeping with the Pareto analysis, the Action Priority Matrix (aka Effort vs. Impact method) considers how much work you put into a task and what you get out of it.

It does so by plotting the impact of a task against the effort it requires. Impact refers to the positive effect completing the task will have on your project. Effort refers to how much time, energy, hours, and other physical or mental resources will be required to complete a task. You end up with four quadrants:

High impact, low effort: tasks that give you a good return for relatively little effort. You should focus on these “Quick wins” first (and later move on to high-value, high-cost items).

High impact, high effort: tasks that give good returns, but are time-consuming. The best approach here is to be selective, pursuing only the “Major projects” that are likely to be worth the effort.

Low impact, low effort: tasks that are not important. These so-called “Fill-Ins” should be done only if you have spare time.

Low impact, high effort: tasks that bring very little value and are generally time-consuming. These “Thankless tasks” are not worth implementing as they are simply waste, so the best approach here is to try to eliminate them.

In short, this approach prioritizes low-hanging fruit, meaning that the most value and least complexity tasks go first. Then the matrix suggests building the highest value and the most complex features; it questions the significance of low-value items, recommending ditching complex, low-value tasks.

Whether they’re bright ideas to pursue, exciting opportunities, or interesting possibilities, most of us have many more activities on our “wish lists” than we have time available to work on them . . . This is where an “Action Priority Matrix” can be useful.The Mind Tools Content Team

While the action priority matrix is a powerful tool and maybe a no-brainer approach in some specific use cases, it is not what I am looking for.


Value vs. risk prioritization matrix

Choosing the projects to work on is key to help bring your closer and closer to meeting your goals. Unfortunately, much of the time we do not have time to accomplish every project we would like because you can’t do everything — however, you can definitely choose the best projects to ensure you attain your goal.Hai Nguyen

Comparing the value of what is to be done to some other measure of tradeoff is a classic way of prioritizing (beyond the aforementioned example). The value vs. risk prioritization matrix is one example among others (e.g. cost, complexity, etc.). Like the previous one, this matrix is structured as a 2×2 grid of quadrants with value instead of impact and risk instead of effort. Beware, there can be different kinds of risks:

  • schedule risk (e.g. “this might not be done by the time we need it”)
  • cost risk (e.g. “this might cost more to run than what the business case allows”)
  • functionality risk (e.g. “we might not be able to do this”)

However, as opposed to the previous matrix, you should go for High-risk/High-value first, Low-risk/High-value second and finally Low-risk/Low-value. Needless to say, High-risk/Low-value items are best avoided. It is worth mentioning that this, however, applies to product development. What about time management?


Time to conclude

As explained in Time management: the elephant in the room, I originally thought (wrongly) that prioritization was just about not wasting time on non-priorities by discarding them. Going through most of the existing prioritization methods3 confirmed this impression, though. At the end of the process, you end up with your high priorities and the other tasks should be either delegated or deleted. Again, not an option!

However, prioritization is also about what should be done first when you have a lot of tasks to complete. Doing things in the right order can make all the difference indeed. Now, I am well aware that doing one thing means delaying other things. Still, I was looking for a prioritization method that would be able to handle the “everything is important” paradox. Unfortunately, I could not find what I was looking for. However, I have realized that the simpler the method, the faster you prioritize and last, but not least, that …

You may find you want to combine a couple of them to create the ultimate productivity toolkit.Candice Landau

1 Often, seemingly urgent tasks are not that important, and really important activities (like working towards your life goals) just aren’t that urgent. The Eisenhower matrix is a great decision-making tool to help you cut through the tendency to focus on tasks that are urgent but not necessarily important. ^
2 It is worth mentioning that the things that go into the “Delete” quadrant are not only distractions – i.e. things that prevent you from dealing with the tasks in the other quadrant indeed – as suggested by some articles. In my quest for time, I have already removed distractions and my “me” time cannot be trimmed further either. What is left on my schedule, or to-do list, cannot be deleted indeed. Now, some suggest delegating the tasks from the last quadrant “if you have no other choice” (i.e. cannot eliminate them), but again my one-man staff situation precludes such a possibility. ^
3 I did not describe them all here (nor in the previous post) because they did not correspond to my needs. ^

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