Life is overwhelming. Especially today when there is less and less of a division (if any is left at all) between work and home life.
I don’t know about you, but I’m staring at one screen or another within a few minutes of waking up all the way until a minute or two before passing out at night. It’s not healthy, but it’s the way we live.
In the midst of all that screen time, we’re barraged with requests – nay, demands – for our time and attention, both urgent and not, overt and insidious. From facebook to email, to texts and calls, face-to-face meetings and random LinkedIn requests, it’s our modern pandemic to have our attentions and our available time pulled in too many directions.
The truth is there is no fix.
We, as a society, have become so overloaded and on-demand that no hack or trick or method can reduce the clutter that we’ve imposed on ourselves. The only thing that I’ve found from experience to work reliably and consistently is to try and at least impose some order on an otherwise unordered influx of distractions. Some of you may of heard of this technique before, as it’s been around for at least 65+ years having been attributed to our 34th president, Dwight D. Eisenhower. And it’s aptly called the Eisenhower Matrix (or box, or method, if you prefer).
It’s quite simple, but I’ve found it to be tremendously powerful when you need take a step back and figure out exactly where you should next be expending that most valuable of resources – your mental energy. Remember, it is a finite resource despite the ever multitasking, always on, always engaging, always buzzing internet trying to tell you otherwise.
It works like this:
Quadrant 1 is reserved for tasks that are both urgent and important. In other words, stop everything else and do them now.
Quadrant 2 is set aside for tasks that are important, but not urgent. We all have these. This includes things like taking the time to plan, or work on an ongoing project. They need to happen, they just don’t need to have been done yesterday.
Quadrant 3 denotes tasks that are not important, but are “urgent”. These include things like random phone calls, texts, instant messages, scheduling meetings and other pressing but ultimately low-priority tasks. Things like a colleague coming over to chat on last night’s latest episode of your favorite reality tv show can even find their way into this quadrant.
And please, do let it state for the record that I don’t watch reality tv. Sorry.
Ideally, if you have the means, you should do your best to delegate the tasks that fall into this category to others. Obviously that’s hard to do when it involves watercooler gossip. But there are some handy SaaS tools that you can use to offload some of these tasks to machines. (Keep watching this space for another post just on that.)
And last, but not least there is Quadrant 4. This is where all things that are not important, and not urgent go to die. Things like watching cat videos while you’re on a deadline or reading another article on Huffington Post or Business Insider because you couldn’t resist the clickbait headline in your facebook feed.
We’re all guilty of this, but at least if you overtly recognize it as a time suck you’ll be a step ahead.
Now, I don’t go through and format all of my daily to-do’s into a quadrant like you see above nor do I use an app to keep track of everything. That would be an activity relegated to Quadrant 4, afterall.
What I will do each day, however, is to go through my to-do list (which I keep using good old paper and pen, as I find the tactile experience adds something for me in terms of satisfaction and focus) and simply mark down the number next to each item depending on which quadrant the tasks would fall into.
I now have a way of easily scanning through my tasks for the day and am able to enjoy instant clarity as to what I should be doing next with my limited time and energy.
But ever an optimizer, I’ve gone ahead and taken the method a step further. I truly believe that you can accomplish a lot very quickly if you prioritize correctly, which should be obvious, given this post.
So my personal addition to the Eisenhower Matrix is the addition of an invisible “Quadrant 0”.
When looking at my to-do list, I’ll quickly identify any tasks which I believe I can accomplish in 5 minutes or less. That usually includes follow-up emails, checking campaign metrics, scanning my news feed, etc. I’ll mark each of those on my list with a 0 and will tackle them first.
The benefit of this is that I’m able to knock off a sizeable chunk of my list within 20 or 30 minutes, at the very start of my day, which ultimately removes the pressure that can come from looking at an ever growing list that, if left unchecked, can quickly become overwhelming. It also has the benefit of removing any opportunities to be thrown off course during the day that could come from seemingly “important” distractions.
So while reading this post will probably fall into Quadrant 4 for you, I hope that the time you just spent reading it now will at least give you a return on your investment, starting tomorrow.