Or: how to get some f#*%ing work done.

So it turns out that, despite my best efforts, I am not immune to the biggest malaise of our times: a complete inability to maintain focus on any one thing on my to-do list for more than about 8 seconds. Well, to be clear: I haven’t really been making my best or in fact any effort to resist the malaise. I have been assuming that I was just naturally immune. That was all working out quite well for me until I realized that for the last month or so, every time I sit down in front of my computer to GET IT DONE, I find myself inexplicably standing in the kitchen eating crispy minis.

This has got to stop! Having a tangible impact on the world requires focus, so I find myself going back to basics, to that first lightbulb moment I had when I realized that being busy had nothing to do with being productive. The trigger for that lightbulb was this handy little to-do list visualization:

A quick way to visualise your to-do list on an importance/urgency matrix

Importance and Urgency

I love a matrix, and this one is a great framework in which to plot your to-do’s according to importance and urgency.

So let’s look at the bottom left quadrant first: those things that would be considered not important and not urgent…so WHY ARE WE DOING THEM??  Well, these are the things that keep us busy, busy bees.  These are the “low hanging fruit” tasks that we fill time with because they’re mindless and easy.  If you need to feel or look busy, do these things right after lunch when you’re slipping into a crispy mini coma or, maybe, and this is crazy talk I know but…maybe just don’t do them at all.

The bottom right quadrant, though, this is the danger zone: these are the things that SEEM urgent but they are not important.  Think: most emails, checking ok Cupid, following that cute tattoo artist on instagram….and really, anything that puts that helpful (not) red notification dot on the corner of your app icon on your mobile phone (that thing at the end of your right arm…yes, it’s a mobile device and NOT a part of your body.  I know, right?).  That helpful (not) red notification dot is one of the most clever, effective ways our devices make us think there is something urgent waiting for us just a click away.  Don’t be fooled!  Turn notifications off.  Don’t let someone else’s urgency define your cortisol levels and lead to an untimely heart attack because you are in constant fight or flight mode.

But the upper quandrants……NOW we’re getting to the good stuff, the important stuff!  Upper right: it’s urgent and important, and because it’s important, let’s assume we mean it’s important to you, or, it’s important to the person paying you.  These are tasks with deadlines, tasks where others are depending on you to complete your bit, project work.  Set aside time, in one hour increments, to do this work.  Try to make sure there are only three of these to-do’s a day!  Backcast your important work so that when it comes up on your calendar, it HAS to be done on that day, and in the time allotted.  Don’t allot endless time to these tasks: if you give yourself an hour, it will take an hour, cuz that’s how much time you have. Go!

And finally the upper left.  This is the really good stuff: it’s important but not urgent.  This is where our goals and dreams live. This is our fly-above the tress stuff, our 10 000 foot view…so why did I leave it for last?  Because this is the stuff we’re usually too busy to get to.  Sometimes, it doesn’t even make the to-do list because the other stuff is making it look like we’re soooo busy.

I think that if we can sweep both bottom quadrants off the table, we can make more time for the real deal tasks.  How do we do that?  Here’s another visualization, a simple quantogram of the 80-20 rule.

The 80-20 Rule

a quantogram visualizing how 80 of what we have on our list could simply be trashed

Pretty much only 20% of what is on our to-do list actually delivers any value to us and therefore HAS to get done.  I am willing to bet that I can go through my list right now, plot it on the importance – urgency matrix, and sweep literally 80% into the trash.  In fact, I’ll go do that now 🙂