Managing Your To-Do List

People often use a to-do list to make sure they do the things that will make them achieve their day-to-day goals.

But what if that to-do list grows faster than the speed at which you can complete tasks on the list?

How can you make sure you are spending energy where it will make the biggest difference?

In his book The 7 habits of highly effective people, Stephan Covey uses the two definitions URGENT and IMPORTANT to classify these activities.

What do URGENT and IMPORTANT mean?

URGENT activities are those things that are visible and require your immediate attention and reaction. Examples of these are when someone walks into your office to discuss something, when the telephone rings or when you receive an SMS or e-mail.

IMPORTANT activities are those things that allow you to achieve longer term results, usually aligned with a bigger goal or your values. These activities are ones that require you to be pro-active. Examples of these are to renew your driver’s license, conduct a performance discussion with your employee or manager, or draft a budget.

When you combine urgent and important in various combinations, you get these categories of activities:

Urgent and Important

These are the things that require your immediate reaction. If not attended to, they will have longer term consequences. Crises, pressing problems and activities with immediate deadlines fall under this category. Examples are:

  • Your broken down car has to be repaired

  • You have to submit your department’s budget tomorrow for inclusion in the company’s overall budget

  • You have to finish a task (by a certain date) in order for someone else to start their task

  • Two of your staff members have a stand-up fight in the offices and this needs to be addressed in order to manage staff morale.

Not urgent and Important

These are the things that do not require your immediate attention but if not attended to will have longer term consequences. Longer term preventative measures and capacity-building activities fall in this category. Examples are:

  • Networking with colleagues or partners in order to create healthy professional relationships

  • Taking time to do goal setting for the year

  • Preparing well in advance for a talk you have to do

  • Studying in order to develop yourself.

Urgent and Not Important

These are the things that require your immediate reaction but are not critical to address immediately, i.e. they can wait. These are usually popular activities to do. Saying no to them is difficult. Examples are:

  • Responding to each e-mail the minute you get a notification, luring your attention away from what you are busy with

  • Drinking coffee with a colleague although there is a looming deadline.

Not Urgent and Not Important

These are the things that are not urgent and also not important. They have the ability to consume your time and at the end of the day you have little to show for it. These are usually pleasant activities with instant gratification. Examples are:

  • Spending your time at work reading jokes or following your old school mates on Facebook

  • Doing admin work that could be done more efficiently by your admin assistant.

These four criteria can help you assess where you spend most of your precious time and to manage your time more meaningfully.