Do you know how to hack your To-Do-Lists? In a previous post, we gave 7 tips to master time management and help you achieve goals. The first tip on the list was To-Do-Lists. Undoubtedly, to-do-lists are the number one and the go-to tool for time management. Who doesn’t have a to-do-list at hand all the time? Can you remember or name a co-worker working without a to-do-list?
When responsibly managed, to-do-lists can be one of the most effective time management tools. However, one of the biggest downfalls of this tool, is that it can rapidly transform into just an organized pile of unprioritized and unfinished tasks. This results in stress and ineffective working patterns.
A key to effective time management tools is prioritization. Knowing exactly what to do, when to do it, and why to do it, allows you to set a firm ground to perform your work. Moreover, being aware of which one of those prioritized tasks will yield the greatest progress when completed, will no doubt set the perfect tone to perfect time management.
In this article, we’ll give you two techniques that you can use to hack your to-do-lists. These two techniques will allow you to properly prioritize your tasks and to estimate which tasks are best to put effort in. These two techniques to hack your to-do-lists are:
- A priority Matrix (The Eisenhower Matrix)
- The 80/20 Rule (The Pareto’s Principle)
Eat the frog first?
“If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first” (Mark Twain).
The explanation of the phrase and its relationship with time management is quite simple and widely explained out there. In a list of tasks, a frog is that task that you don’t really want to do but need to. Mark Twain suggested, “eat a live frog first thing in the morning, and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day”.
The Time Management Jar
We can’t deny that Twain’s statement is widely used as advice for time management. Doing the important things first will leave room for other tasks to be performed during the day, creating a more effective and less stressful environment.
This theory is demonstrated in the Time Management Jar theory as in the video below.
Basically, the number one mistake people make is attacking simple tasks first. Generally, these tasks provide no productive results when completed. In fact, filling your daily schedule with these unproductive tasks can lead to having no space in your time management jar for more important tasks.
Know which frog to eat first. Prioritize your Tasks.
Now you know that effective time management starts with eating the live frog and attacking that unwanted but important task first. The question though is which one is the frog to eat? If you have a list of tasks (or frogs), how do you know which one is worth doing first?
The answer to this question is prioritization. This is the activity of arranging tasks in order of importance relative to each other. Unfortunately, the importance of something is relative to the person or the situation. Something that is important to you, might not be important at all to someone else. However, there are frameworks to help with the tasks ‘prioritization process’. One of these frameworks is known as The Eisenhower Matrix.
A priority Matrix (The Eisenhower Matrix). Step # 1 to Hack your To-Do-Lists.
Also known as the Urgent-Important Matrix. It was developed by former US president Dwain Eisenhower. The matrix allows you to prioritize tasks based on urgency and importance in a 4-quadrant matrix. Tasks are then sorted in each quadrant depending on their level of importance and urgency and the best action to take is set for each quadrant. The 4 quadrants in the Eisenhower Matrix are:
- Quadrant #1: For those tasks that are Important and Urgent.
- Quadrant #2: For those tasks that are Important but Not Urgent.
- Quadrant #3: For those tasks that are Not Important but Urgent.
- Quadrant #4: For those tasks that Not Important and Not Urgent.
Quadrant #1 – Important & Urgent
How many times have you arrived at your workplace to find out that there are X amount of activities that require your immediate attention? That important e-mail to respond, that last-minute urgent meeting.
In the Eisenhower Matrix, these tasks fall into quadrant # 1. The main characteristic of all these tasks is that they are all important and urgent. The consequences of not handling them can be negative. They need an urgent reaction. These are the tasks that you need to Do Now…..yes…..these are the frog that you eat first thing in the morning.
Soon to finish/overdue projects, last-minute crisis or emergencies; important or crucial releases, etc. are some examples of urgent and important quadrant # 1 tasks.
Having a massive quadrant # 1 though ends up being extremely unproductive and causes stress and burnout in the long run. It requires a lot of effort in short periods of time to have these tasks completed. People that are constantly stressed at work, are constantly running around putting fires out, etc. are generally people that have lots of tasks on quadrant # 1.
The general conception is that the action for tasks in quadrant #1 is to Do It Now! However, a better and most effective action is proposed by others when they call to Reduce the tasks in this quadrant.
Many times, important tasks become urgent after delaying their completion enough or not paying much attention to them. Reducing tasks in quadrant # 1 requires proactive action as well as mindfulness to not let not urgent but important tasks become urgent.
Quadrant #2 – Important but Not-Urgent
“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four hours sharpening the axe”. Abraham Lincoln was talking about the importance of planning and working on those important but not urgent tasks when stating that phrase. He knew that although sharpening the axe is not exactly urgent, not having a sharp one will in the long run lead to problems and delays.
Not planning properly for a job and not working on important but not urgent tasks, will undoubtedly result in a big and stressful quadrant # 1 full of tasks that need urgent attention, tasks that need to be resolved right away.
The best way to reduce quadrant #1 and therefore have less consuming, more pleasant, and satisfying work-life is to spend time planning and working on important but not urgent tasks. A big quadrant # 2 means a small quadrant #1. Same way, a big quadrant #1 means a small quadrant #2. What you should work on is in the former scenario.
Strategic planning; project planning; professional development, exercises, networking, etc. are some examples of important but not urgent quadrant #2 tasks.
Fill out and prioritize your to-do-list with more important but not urgent tasks. Bigger and more important tasks, tasks worth to be working in; tasks that yield better outcomes. Effective Time managers fill their quadrant # 2 and leave fewer tasks unplanned.
Quadrant #3 – Not Important but Urgent Tasks
Setting the importance of an urgent task is key to quadrant # 3. As mentioned before, the importance of a task is relative to the person, the environment, or the organization. Since we are referring to individuals in this article, you can look at tasks in this quadrant as activities that are not in your radar of interest.
Activities and tasks in quadrant # 3 will take some of your time, will prevent you from focusing on more productive tasks, will derail you from your long-term goals. Tasks in quadrant # 3 can and must be delegated. Apart from being beneficial to projects, delegating tasks can also improve time management and empower someone else to take action to get completed.
Responding to unimportant e-mails or calls, scheduling meetings, attending unimportant meetings, are some examples of not important but urgent activities. A Virtual Assistant comes handy to take over these tasks.
People with no long-term goals are often working on quadrant #3 tasks are those with no long-term goals. As with quadrant #1, completing quadrant # 3 tasks can give a sense of completion and a boost in productivity and motivation. However – depending on the type of tasks – completing them doesn’t yield to long-term impact.
Quadrant #4 – Not Important & Not Urgent Tasks
Out of all quadrants, tasks in quadrant # 4 are the easiest to identify. Any “time eaters” or “time wasters” activities are part of quadrant # 4. The only action you can take for quadrant # 4 tasks is to avoid them or do them with special moderation.
Watching TV, Social Media scrolling, etc. are some examples of quadrant # 4 tasks. They add no value to your personal or professional life. Therefore, dedicating too much effort to them doesn’t result in any special achievement.
The size of a task
At this point, you should know that effective time management is based on how you prioritize your tasks and weather if you choose to fill your jar with big tasks first. But, how can you determine which task is a big one? Which task (or frog) should you tackle first? Which big task should you put in the jar first? What factor determine a task is big or small.
Imagine you have 2 tasks from the same quadrant in the Priority Matrix. One task (e.g. finishing a presentation for an internal team) will take 1 hr to complete. A second task (e.g. replying e-mail from a customer) will take 15 to 30 mins.
Following the big frog first or the big tasks in the jar first, you can decide to work on that presentation first and then replying to the customer. However, not responding to the e-mail in the next hour could lead to serious consequences while not finishing the presentation will cause no problems.
The example above complements Mark Twain’s and Time Management Jar’s theory. To hack your to-do-lists, you should not only focus on the biggest tasks but the one that makes more sense to complete first.
Fortunately, almost everything in life follows patterns that can be statistically modelled. This facilitates the decision-making process of which task to focus on or not.
The 80/20 Rule (The Pareto’s Principle). Step #2 to Hack Your To-Do-Lists.
Economist Vilfredo Pareto showed back in 1896 that approximately 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the population. Many natural phenomena have been shown to follow this distribution. This distribution is known as The 80/20 Rule or Pareto Principle.
Some examples for the 80/20 rule are:
- Economics: 80% of the world’s income is owned by 20% of the population (as sad and unfair as it can be).
- Sports: 80% of results come from 20% of the exercises and habits.
- Computing: 80% of system crashes can be fixed by fixing 20% of bugs.
- Time Management: 80% of results come from 20% of tasks / 80% of your time is taken by 20% of the tasks.
Knowing this is important. Now you can decide which tasks to focus on first. You just need to find that 20% of tasks that lead to the greatest (80%) results. And the way to do this is by using the 80/20 rule.
How to pick that 20%
Microsoft Excel offers a free Pareto’s Principle template. All you need to do is to type Pareto in the search bar when opening a new file. You will have two choices Problem Analysis with Pareto and Cost Analysis with Pareto.
The files have a pre-set table and chart and a cumulative percentage based on the number of occurrences for the Problem Analysis, or on the Annual Cost for Cost Analysis, respectively.
How you can pick that 20% is simple. Just pick those parameters in which Cumulative Percent is less or equal to 80%. Another way is to draw a horizontal line in the 80% value and intersect it with the cumulative percent curve. Anything to the left of that intersection is the 20% you should focus on to get the 80% results.
See the screenshots below for the Problem Analysis file.
From this example we can see that: Transmission; Fuel System; Miscellaneous; Noisy; Driver Control are the problems the occur 80% of the time. If you want some progress, you should focus on solving these problems first. Solving them will delete 80% of your problems.
Do the same for the Cost Analysis file, and you will see that Parts & Materials; Manufacturing equipment; Salaries, and Maintenance represents 80% of your annual cost.
How to link The Eisenhower Matrix with The 80/20 Rule. Finding the Factors
You have now 2 powerful tools to upgrade the results obtained from your to-do-lists. Both the priority matrix (Eisenhower Matrix) and The Pareto Principle (80/20 rule) will enhance your productivity and increase the effectiveness of your time management.
We need to define now, how to link both tools to enhance and hack your to-do-lists.
As we already know, that the 80/20 tool will let you define the tasks that you should concentrate on to enhance productiveness. On the other hand, the priority matrix sorts your tasks in for different quadrants depending on their importance and urgency. All you need to do now is set the perfect factor for each quadrant in your priority matrix, so you can use this factor to create your 80/20 cumulative graph.
Factor for Quadrant # 1 – Number of Occurrences:
We already stated that one of the actions recommended for tasks in quadrant # 1 is to reduce those tasks. This means that you need to work proactively in actions that in the long run will result in undesired tasks appear again and again. Delivering a weekly project status report to avoid having to respond ASAP to customers’ requests for it.
As with the Problem Analysis file above, if you count the number of the appearance of the same task or activity in quadrant # 1, eventually you will have enough information to decide on which tasks to focus deeply to take them out of this quadrant. NOTE: as we are talking of quadrant # 1, be aware that the rest of the task also needs to be done. So, you will only have information on which task to work on first to reduce them.
Factor for Quadrant # 2 – Possible Future Income:
As mentioned, tasks in quadrant # 2 represent a huge gain (personally and professionally) in the long-term. Working on them or at least have a concrete plan for them is crucial for your fulfillment and productivity.
Most likely you will have tasks that represent or result in a monetary gain when done. Therefore, it makes sense to set Possible Future Income as a factor for your 80/20 rule chart. Those tasks or activities that will give you 80% of your future income, are the ones to focus on.
The above is probably a simplistic approach and a further cost-benefit analysis could come handy some point in the process.
Factor for Quadrant # 3 – Time or Effort Spent:
Putting time and effort into tasks for this quadrant does not lead to long-term achievement. Their completion rather gives immediate satisfaction but doesn’t contribute to long-run personal or professional fulfillment. Instead of concentrating on these tasks, the best action is to delegate them and have someone else in charge of completing them.
The time it takes to complete tasks in this quadrant, or even more the effort (in man-hours) it takes to complete them, can be used as factors to determine which tasks to delegate. Tasks that take 80% of your productive time to be completed should be delegated. Also, tasks that take 80% of your effort to be completed, should be immediately delegated.
Have you thought of hiring a Virtual Assistant for your quadrant # 3 tasks?
Depending on the importance of the rest of the tasks, the decision will come to rather delete them, not completing them or leave them for another day.
Factor for Quadrant # 4 – Pick Yours!
There is no particular factor to work with for tasks in this quadrant. Remember that activities in this quadrant should be either avoided or performed with moderation. The best factor here is to set a certain amount of time to enjoy or do any of these activities.
Time management takes time and dedication. It is a habit that requires some effort. Correct time management leads to an increase in effectiveness and productivity. Out of the many tools for time management, To-Do-List is probably one of the most popular and widely used. Its simplicity and the positive impact it has over productivity makes it the tool to go for time management. If properly used, it results in nothing but in a boost of productivity and therefore motivation. However, To-Do-List can rapidly become a double-edged sword if it is not effectively used. Uncontrolled to-do-lists will become in a paper where tasks are dumped. These tasks will then result in incomplete tasks.
You can use tasks/activities prioritization and combine it with statistical rules to enhance o hack the use of a to-do-lists. Eisenhower Matrix combined with the 80/20 Pareto Principle, is proposed in this article to that end. The use of these techniques will allow you to have a clear knowledge of the importance and urgency of your tasks; what action to take to tackle each task and exactly which tasks to focus on either by reducing, planning, delegating or avoiding them.
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