We are all very busy people, challenged by the volume of information directed our way, and doing our darnedest to get everything done by Friday afternoon. For the most part this is an impossible goal, as we always have more tasks to complete than time to get them done.

Therefore, we must become masters of setting priorities—identifying the most essential tasks and saying “no” or “later” to the rest.

Sounds easy, however in the swirling vortex of our days these decisions can be very difficult. The wrong decision, and we spend time on the wrong tasks and can almost feel our productivity and effectiveness evaporating.

I had the privilege of being mentored in this area by a leader with true insight and steely discipline. He introduced me to the Franklin-Covey Value versus Urgency matrix (see image below). This matrix is an excellent visual for helping you make these critical YES-No decisions about allocating your time.

The matrix has 3 key messages anyone can leverage for maximum effectiveness;

  1. Urgency does not equal Value. Just because an employee has exploded into your office with his latest crisis, does not mean you should abandon your current priority to sort it out for him. Not only are you likely to find there is no real crisis after all, or something he should be able to handle himself, you’ve just lowered your own productivity dramatically.
  2. Reduce/Eliminate Low Value High Urgency activity. The tricky aspect in this quadrant is that activity here is perceived as urgent, and then mistaken for high-value. These deceptive items can be “notifiers” interrupting you to announce a new e-mail has arrived, someone interrupting you with their version of an emergency, and investing time in tasks you should have delegated long ago.
  3. Non-Urgent can be High Value. Activity in the top-right quadrant is the true work of leaders. However, you have to be proactive and disciplined to operate in this quadrant otherwise the urgent stuff will consume your day.

If you reflect on your average week, and list your activity in each of the 4 quadrants, you may be forced to acknowledge some unpleasant facts;

  • Are you losing precious time operating in the bottom-left quadrant? Deceiving yourself into thinking you are using your time wisely?
  • Are you constantly reacting to other people’s emergencies?
  • Are your long-term priorities regularly postponed due to urgent tasks?

If one or more of these observations are correct, don’t be too hard on yourself. Human beings are very good at being busy, but it takes real effort & discipline to be effective. The following are 4 approaches you can take to being more productive.

  • Master Personal Workflow. Create a structure whereby you touch in-coming information only once (e-mail, documents, voice-mail, etc), and apply the 4D (Do-Delete-Delegate-Date) methodology. This will result in a clean in-box, organized task list (paper or electronic), and organized projects.
  • Delegate low value tasks. You may be the best at completing a low-value task, and yes you may have been doing it for the last 50 years, but that is no reason to keep doing it. Delegate any activity that can be competently handled by someone else, especially if it is a learning/development opportunity for them.
  • Create a Stop-Doing list. Have you ever considered activity that no one would really miss if you simply stopped doing it? Human beings are creatures of habit and it can be quite startling to question each activity and consider putting it on your Stop-Doing list (or delegate it).
  • Develop your people. As a leader, a significant amount of the reactive time is generated by poorly trained employees. They abuse your open-door policy, fail to effectively problem solve on their own, and often cause the very crisis due to poor behavior or lack of process. Invest the time and money to develop their skills and it will support your efforts to become more proactive.

Remember, exemplary leaders master the ability to proactively focus on the non-urgent, high-value priorities.

By John Leduc