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How to prioritize when everything is a priority

Like most managers, you probably know the feeling of getting to work and having so much to do that you don't know where to start. Everything you need to do seems like a priority, which makes it tough to figure out where to begin. However, you need to start somewhere to make any progress.

In his best-selling book, "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People," Stephen Covey provided an ingenious method to help you prioritize your tasks – the two-by-two matrix:

covey-matrix

At the start of every week, write a two-by-two matrix on a blank sheet of paper where one side of the matrix says "urgent" and "not urgent" and the other side of the matrix says "important" and "not important." Then, write all the things that you want to do that week in each quadrant:

  • Quadrant 1: Urgent-Important. These are the most pressing tasks this week as well as the crises that erupt. Important meetings and deadlines belong in this quadrant. You never have to wonder about the importance of these tasks – you will always have to take care of them.

  • Quadrant 2: Not Urgent – Important. These things matter, but will yield no tangible benefits this week – or possibly this year. They include things you know you need to do, but probably put off, such as having lunch with an important contact, completing long-term planning, or attending a conference. The most important thing you can for your career is to work on some Quadrant 2 tasks each week.

  • Quadrant 3: Urgent – Not Important. These are interruptions, such as phone calls, unnecessary meetings, and other activities that you tell yourself you must do right away – but really aren't that important. With better awareness and planning, you can reduce the time you spend on these tasks.

  • Quadrant 4: Not Urgent – Not Important. These are things everyone does because they feel tired and need a break, such as checking social media and email. While these tasks are enjoyable, they are not urgent or important. You need to eliminate these things as much as possible.

If you spend 30 minutes at the beginning of each week thinking about these quadrants and what you want to spend your time on in the coming week, you'll be much more productive than you usually are. This will also help give you the bandwidth you need to deal with changing priorities – and the ability to determine if they are urgent or not.

Adapted from The Only Thing You Need To Remember About The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, July 24, 2012.

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