Nerd Tools

Prioritisation

I’ve begun notice a common struggle shared by a great many of my friends and colleagues. A shortage of time. There never seems to be quite enough of it. We’re caught in a constant whirlwind of things we need to do, want to do, and have to do. With never enough time to spend on the things we love to do.

So how do we escape this trap?

We prioritise.

First Things First

There is a myriad of information on prioritising, time management and effectiveness. Heaps of books, Gigabytes of data, and gales of words. Some are excellent, while others are less so. Unfortunately none of them will be of any help to you if you don’t know what your end goal is.

Being effective and efficient with your time isn’t an advantage if you are spending it on things that have no value to you. You wouldn’t scrimp and save up all your earnings your whole life just to blow it on a careless whim or a pointless purchase. So don’t do it with your time.

Understand your objective or goal, then plan your path. Check out these posts on Goals and other related Tools for more info on goal setting.

Prioritising Practicalities

Prioritising Prioritising

Let’s say that you’ve got a detailed understanding of your goals. You know what they are, how they will benefit you and how important they are in comparison to other aspects of your life. Now what?

Now is a good time to find out about how your brain functions. Firstly, did you know that to function your brain requires resources in the same way that your muscles do. That’s why you can feel mentally fatigued after a hard days thinking. Your brain is literally exhausted.

Not only that, since it was originally shown by J. C. Welsh in 1898, the human body is less capable of doing physical activity when your brain is working on a problem. The resources that are required by both your muscles and your brain are shared between them, resulting in you being less able to do physical tasks.

Where am I going with this? Well, it turns out that prioritising is a task that requires significant resources. It requires you to hold and compare multiple pieces of information within your brain. It is a fatiguing task. In order to be effective at prioritising it is best to do it when you have the most resources available, the time when your mind is as it’s freshest.

In other words, it is best to prioritise prioritising!

Methods

So you know where you’re heading and you know when to do your prioritising. But how will you actually prioritise?

Well there are a number of ways but one consistently sticks out as a clear winner above the rest. Its effectiveness is based on its simplicity. You consider everything in terms of its Urgency and its Importance.

Let us consider these two criteria:

  • Importance: this is a measure of the activities innate significance or value – how good it is at taking you closer to your goal?
  • Urgency: this is a measure of when the activity needs to be done by – when must the activity be done now or can it be done later?

With these two criteria you can create a matrix in which you place any and all of your life’s activities. See the figure below.

Importance Not Important
Urgent 1 2
Not Urgent 3 4

The Matrix in Practice

The use of the matrix is simple: you assess every one your tasks in terms of their importance and their urgency. Based on that they’re assigned to one of the four areas.

Area 1 is for tasks that are really important and have to be dealt with now. A medical emergency for example. Area 1 is for NOW tasks. The problem is that life in Area 1 is stressful. Everything is important and must be done at once. It is an area of burn out so it isn’t a great idea to live your life there.

The much healthier place is Area 2. This is where you focus on the important things in your life but you have the time to do them properly. It is true that an Area 1 activity might come up occasionally, in which case you can focus on it. But the majority of time is spent doing the right things right.

It isn’t easy to focus on Area 2 activities. You first need to be able to clear out the backlog of Area 1 things. The only way to do that is to cut out the Area 3 and 4 activities. Those are the things that just aren’t important. While the Area 3 activities may be urgent, alongside the Area 4 activities they don’t actually take you any closer to your goals or keep you on the path of your priorities.

Putting it All Together

You’ve got the knowledge and you’ve got the method, the final thing to appreciate is a reiteration of an earlier point. The importance of knowing what is important. There will be activities in your life that at first sight don’t seem like a priority compared to your big life goals. You may initially class them as Area 4 activities. That is until you don’t allocate your time to them.

These activities are things like your health, your social life and your family. At first they may not seem important, but after not paying them attention for a while, it doesn’t take long for your life to fall out of equilibrium.

When prioritising, the key is to find the right balance between all aspects of your life.

A Quick Summary

  • Before trying to prioritise your life, first figure out what is important to you
  • Prioritising requires your brain to do a great deal of thinking, so do it when your brain is freshest
  • Assess tasks and activities based on their importance and urgency
  • Once you’ve cleared your backlog of Important and Urgent tasks, try to spend your time doing Important and Not Urgent tasks

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