One of the most common complaints I hear from the people I work with is feeling overwhelmed. They are trying to manage their workload and find some sort of balance with the rest of their life. The often ask me to help them prioritise their to-do list.

Many of us have the tendency to do ‘busy work’ in place of the really important work.  Who hasn’t found themselves with an urge to clean out the junk drawer rather than do their tax return?

It’s more than procrastinating.

To be fair, it’s not all our fault. Our brain receives a hit of dopamine (the feel good chemical) each time we tick something off our list. So of course, our tendency is to tick off as many items as possible.  And we can tick off a lot more items (and be rewarded with more dopamine) by attacking the ‘easy’ items first.  So it’s easier and more rewarding to tidy the desk and file some papers than sit at the desk and complete outstanding paperwork.

Here’s a tool that I share with those struggling to prioritise. It comes from Steven Covey’s work  The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

I recommend spending about 20 minutes at the beginning of each week writing and sorting your to-do list into this matrix.  Everything you want to do, or have a responsibility to do, gets placed in a quadrant.

The Quadrants

Q1 Urgent and Important

These are the deadline-driven tasks, they have to be completed this week. Emergencies or crises that arise also go in here.

Q2 Not Urgent and Important

There is no real sense of urgency about the tasks that go into this quadrant. But they really are important. They are the ‘deeper’ tasks that contribute to your personal and professional development. Think of professional reading, reflective thinking and writing time, professional dialogue with colleagues, visioning, planning, preparing and genuine leisure activities. These tasks have often sat on your regular to-do list for a long time.

Q3 Urgent and Not Important

The urgency of these items is usually owned by someone else! Think of things like replying to emails, phone calls, frequent interruptions and attending some meetings, podcasts or webinars . We can often be distracted by these things, they seem urgent but upon reflection, didn’t really need to be given air time and especially not straight away.

Q4 Not Urgent and Not Important

Beware this quadrant! These are things that can suck a lot of time. But they are tempting – especially when we are feeling tired, distracted or like we just need some time for ourselves. These things do provide us with a sort of break but are not really adding value to us in any way. Think of things like constantly checking Facebook or other social media or mindlessly lying on the couch staring at the TV. Some emails and phone calls also fit in this quadrant.

Some tips as you start using the Quadrant Tool:

  • Be kind to yourself.  At the end of each day focus on what you did do, not what you didn’t.
  • Each morning spend 10 minutes prioritizing the things you want to get done that day. I highlight a maximum of two -three items in Q1 and the same amoutn in Q2. Often I get more done. But doing those I highlight gives me a great sense of achievement at the end of the day.
  • Think about your energy levels. Schedule Q2 times for when you are most focused and energetic (for many of us that’s in the morning). Block out a couple of hours every day for working in this quadrant.
  • Don’t be distracted by Q1 tasks – I guarantee they’ll still be there later
  • Working on Q1 tasks when you are little less energised can be good – you might feel a boost in motivation by ticking some items off the list.
  • There may be a time lag in the first couple of weeks where you might have to spend time clearing a back log of urgent Q1 tasks before you can focus on Q2. Make the Q2 list anyway.

Some things I’ve learned while using this tool:

  • At first, everything seems like it’s urgent and important!
  • Spending time planning at the beginning of each week and prioritizing at the beginning of each day is vital.
  • When the Q1 tasks keep jumping up at me and demanding attention I find using positive mental talk like “I have made time for that later” can help me stay focused and avoid the distraction.
  • Q2 is where we nourish the soul, the brain, the body and the work we do. It’s a total wellbeing top-up. But you won’t always get instant feedback, this is longer term work.
  • Q1 and Q3 tasks are very seductive! We might gain great satisfaction from ticking them off the to-do list and it’s tempting to ‘just do one more’ but the problem is the to-do list never empties, there is always more to do. So don’t fall for the seduction.
  • After using this tool consistently for a few weeks, you’ll notice that there are less and less items in Q3 and Q4. That’s because you become more discerning about what’s really important and what really matters.
  • Saying ‘no’  is ok
  • Taking time to meditate, exercise and spend time with others are worthy of being named on a to-do list
  • Items on my Q2 like reading,writing, exercise, professional learning and meditating are there every day, every week.
  • The more time I spend in Q2, the less these items end up on the Q1 list


That’s more than enough from me this week!  Have fun making this tool your own.  As always I’d love to know how you get on.

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